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Top Contributor: Batmanon March 19, 2017
In "The End of Victory Culture", Tom Engelhardt argues that inability of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to fit into the dominant narrative of American culture, coupled with the inability to openly confront the Soviet Union due to the prospect of nuclear war, led to the feeling of malaise that pervaded the Cold War. Engelhardt structures his argument into four sections: War Story, that examines the creation of the victory narrative; Containments, that examines early upsets to the victory narrative; The Era of Reversals, which explores the role of the Vietnam War in shattering the dominant narrative; finally, in Afterlife, Engelhardt explores early attempts to reinstate the victory story in popular culture and through limited, highly choreographed military actions in Grenada and Iraq. Engelhardt draws upon the work of Paul Boyer, Elaine Tyler May, and John Dower in discussing the Cold War as well as other historians like James McPherson when he examines the cultural legacy of the Civil War in victory narrative.
In establishing the war narrative as a discursive device, Engelhardt argues, “Triumphalism was in the American grain” (pg. 3-4). The war narrative could not take on an aggressive tone, however. Engelhardt writes, “From its origins, this war story was essentially defensive in nature, and the justness of American acts was certified not only by how many of <i>them</i> died, but by how few of <i>us</i> there were to begin with” (pg. 5). Americans could justify most actions in war as long as they conceived of themselves as underdogs. After World War II, however, “shadowed by the bomb, victory became conceivable only under the most limited of conditions, and an enemy too diffuse to be comfortably located beyond national borders had to be confronted in an un-American spirit of doubt” (pg. 6). This narrative, and its upset, plays a key role in Engelhardt’s insight into the Cold War.
The upset, however, took time to develop. Engelhardt explores both the joint role that the military industrial complex and consumer culture played in upsetting that narrative, writing, “The arms race and the race for the good life were now to be put on the same ‘war’ footing” (pg. 77). The media repackaged the war narrative through film and television and toys for children that sold Americans the narrative in a time of increasing uncertainty. Engelhardt writes, “The United States was involved in a global ‘war,’ yet Americans were militarily unmenaced” (pg. 87). This conflict of ideas spread throughout American culture since, “in 1950s America, the worlds of consumer arcadia and global fear, of twenty-four-hour-a-day television and twenty-four-hour-a-day airborne nuclear-armed bombers coexisted” (pg. 87). Finally, McCarthyism, HUAC, and containment on a global scale obliterated the us-versus-them dichotomy because they “helped transform America’s enemies into beings who looked indistinguishable from ‘us’” (pg. 122).
Writing of the impact of Vietnam on American culture, Engelhardt argues, “Because it was impossible to ‘see’ who had defeated the United States and hence why Americans had lost, it was impossible to grasp what had been lost. So American victimhood, American loss – including the loss of childhood’s cultural forms – became a subject in itself, the only subject, you might say, while the invisibility of the foe who had taken the story away lent that loss a particular aura of unfairness” (pg. 180). Vietnam obliterated the narrative of American certainty without an identifiable enemy. Engelhardt writes, “Vietnam was like an ambush that refused to end and for which no retribution proved satisfying” (pg. 194). Even when Americans could fight back, it was not satisfying. According to Engelhardt, “Victory somehow meant defeat, for to win you had to destroy what you ‘won,’ and to destroy what you won – the villages, towns, and cities of Vietnam, not to speak of its livestock, land, and people – was to ensure the enmity of those in whose name you fought” (pg. 206). This led to atrocities that flipped the script with which American soldiers grew up in the early Cold War of the 1950s. Without a clear explanation for the change that occurred in their cultural narrative, Americans sought desperately for an answer in the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
Engelhardt argues that George Lucas’ "Star Wars" led the cultural charge against the upset to the victory narrative. He writes, “In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom <i>and</i> victory, captivity <i>and</i> rescue, underdog status <i>and</i> the spectacle of slaughter” (pg. 267). Further, the American military placed the blame for the troubles of Vietnam on the media and carefully orchestrated and choreographed Grenada and Desert Storm in order to prevent the public outcry that accompanied American actions in Indochina. Engelhardt argues, “In the new version of victory culture, the military spent no less time planning to control the screen than the battlefield, and the neutralization of a potentially oppositional media became a war goal” (pg. 290). Despite this choreography, however, the war story no longer offers the comfort it once did when facing the future.
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on September 7, 2015
Tom Engelhardt is a great journalist. I read his essays on Truthdig all the time. He hits the nail on the head with this book. This book was written in 1995 but just as well been written a month ago. Why do we get into so many wars? Is it due to the culture of GI Joe dolls and John Wayne movies? Is it because we think we can (an get away with it)? And the answer is: Yes.
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on October 14, 2015
Tom Engelhardt at his usual best
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on March 2, 2017
My cocmment is about the book not the vendor. Vendor is greeat. Book is drek, pure triumphalist (claiming to be anti triumpalist) doo doo. Don't use for toilet paper, it will irritate you.
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VINE VOICEon September 17, 2013
Author Tom Englehardt asks the core question of this study thusly: "Is there an imaginable `America' without enemies and without the story of their slaughter and our triumph?" (p. 15) His answer to this simple question is complex but certainly worthy of serious consideration. He locates American exceptionalism, especially in the context of the Cold War experience, in a centuries-long, racist mythology of American virtue defeats any evil foe who seeks American destruction. "Righteous" retaliation by the U.S. to "evil" incursions may be found in captive narratives of women by Native populations, in military struggles against all enemies, and even such disastrous military adventurism as Custer's final 1876 campaign.

This "victory culture" reached full measure in the American experience in World War II, as the United States responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and fought to unconditional surrender the Axis powers. Using the Atomic bomb, and its strategic power, after 1945 the U.S. sought to achieve a Pax Americana in the decades that followed. The Cold War fed into these ideas, as a closed, non-democratic, non-capitalistic Soviet Union offered an ideal replacement for the evil Axis powers of World War II. The strategies of containment used to oppose the Soviet Union, however, challenged the myth of the "victory culture" during the Vietnam debacle of the 1960s, many in the U.S. began to question the exceptionalism of America. The familiar patterns of national identity reified through the "victory culture" created a crisis of confidence in society with setbacks in a range of international and national settings.

One might have thought that the "victory culture" would collapse, but it came back strong, especially after 9/11. Tom Engelhardt explicitly draws parallels between popular culture--especially toys and movies--and the events in the broader world. He finds that children's toys, especially military-oriented ones, led to play that reinforced the "victory culture." The packs of cowboys and Indians, and a host of other martial toys, taught a generation how to triumph over opponents. This was especially true of G.I. Joe, which has been transformed over time to allow children the flexibility to defeat a wide range of foes.

Englehardt also uses movies in this same way. He draws on western and war movies, the science fiction of Star Wars, and a host of other films to show how the ideas inculcated into the culture through these movies informed real-life experiences.

Through all of this, Englehardt focuses a lot of attention on the American myth of the innocent nation. Completely without justification, the United States has come to believe that whatever it does is just and righteous, and that it is locked in a desperate struggle with evil. This may be seen in virtually all periods of American history but it is especially present in the great struggles of the twentieth century. World Wars I and II especially led Americans to believe they were fighting for the survival of all that was good against forces of evil. But it also may be seen in the cold war against the Soviet Union, and in the aftermath of 9/11 in the global war on terrorism. This is an unfortunate development, according to the author. I especially enjoyed his take on the post-9/11 era in which explicit relations between movies and reality were made by the nation's leaders. A sense of victimization is present in this rhetoric, but a belief in triumph through virtue and perseverance also rings out whether or not it should. The "victory culture," as Englehardt concludes, is still very much with us.
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on March 6, 2006
Tom Engelhardt's dense but throughly readable cultural history presents the past fifty-six years of American history as an investigation of narrative. A common theme in analysis of nationalism and nationality is the concept of an historical narrative that members of a nationality look to for explaining their present position within their world. Engelhardt investigates a time period that saw, as he argues, a violent uprooting and reconfiguration of the American cultural narrative.

This narrative makes use of a wide ranging set of metpahors and images, such as the frontier and its mythology of American innocence, that have helped Americans understand their position within a complex and ever changing world. World War II provided the last war in which the innocence of America was posited with little debate (although the dropping of the atom bomb indeed challenged this innocence).

The beginning of the cold war and military endeavors in Korea and Viet Nam saw a gradual erroding of this narrative of innocence. As the enemy became harder to identify, at times even looking like ourselves in the case of anti-communism, the moral clarity and absolute innocence of American military actions disolved. Engelhardt takes a sweeping view of the last half-century of American history and tracks the profound shift in narrative and cultural understanding that we are still dealing with. It would be interesting to see what Engelhardt would say about September 11th. I would argue it has restored much of America's innocence, allowing us to attack Iraq with little domestic objection.

Engelhardt writes with an engaging voice helping to make what could be a tedious read quite enjoyable. At times his ideas can be difficult to connect, making this a book to be tackled as quickly as possible so that the plethora of information and full scope of the analysis can be engaged without loosing what was written in earlier pages. Do not expect any sort of 'traditional' work of history. This is for the students of American culture and anyone interested in the intricacies and complexities of the American identity. When you read this book, to a large extent you are learning about yourself.
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on July 7, 2014
Once in a coffee shop a portly man in a suit asked me what I was reading. After giving him the title, he wanted to know what it was about. When he heard my explanation he said: "We should round up people like you and get rid of you." With that poisoned response and after inviting the gentleman to enjoy the depths of hades, I read on to find the author is a magnificent, creative thinker and writer, whose book every American should read.
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on March 22, 2006
With the outcome in Iraq still uncertain more than 3 years after the U.S. led invasion, many people have blamed the media for not being critical enough at the outset of the war. Additionally, as the war rages on, comparisons to Vietnam are becoming especially noticeable as a growing number of people continue to question our involvement in Iraq.

These two relatively recent phenomena of questioning the media's role in wartime and the tendency for U.S citizens to be skeptical of their government during war took root during the Vietnam war.

According to Tom Englehardt in "The End of Victory Culture," prior to Vietnam the media played a key role in perpetuating the idea of a noble and just United States battling savages of color including Native Americans and Japanese soldiers in World War II.

The public eagerly imbibed this "victory culture," regularly attending movies featuring John Wayne defending America by battling Indians; playing games like "cowboys and indians;" and reading cartoons featuring horribly caricatured Japanese and Chinese soldiers, never questioning the integrity of the government or doubting United States policies.

A seismic shift occured during Vietnam when, for the first time, Americans became especially frustrated over a war that could no longer be justified by statements from the President. Demonstrations raged throughout the country as the once sacred tenants of U.S. heroism and leadership were shattered.

During this time, the media's role transformed as well. Rather than mindlessly trumpeting American nobility, the media worked doggedly to unearth the truth. David Halberstam's coining of the term "quagmire" when referring to war and Morley Saffert's piece revealing the horrible killings of helpless Vietnamese villagers are just two examples that Englehardt cites.

Although accounts from Vietnam and World War II comprise the bulk of Englehardt's thesis, he provides copious examples of the movies and excerpts from television programs when talking about the 1980's in an effort to further demonstrate the dismantling of the "victory culture."

Brilliantly written and extremely well documented, Englehardt has written a gem of a book that remains as relevant today as it was 11 years ago when it was first published.
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HALL OF FAMEon January 3, 2003
Tom Engelhardt's The End Of Victory Culture is a thought-provoking, historical look at how the concept of defeating a less-than-human enemy was part of American culture. Ingrained in that was the mission to defeat that enemy. The trouble was, the enemy was human, be they the Native Americans the colonists and later the American government displaced. We also had this mindset that we were always on the right and they were always wrong, therefore, they had to be defeated.
One element was to exaggerate the atrocities committed, meaning that yeah, some of it happened, but not in the large scale depicted by the white leaders to drive home the point that we had to kill these unholy, ungodly, <insert enemy race here>. Colonist Mary Rowlandson's accounts on her captivity and the massacre she survived was the archetypal demonizing of the "enemy."
Victory culture nestled itself cozily in new visual media--the movies and television. Basically, the enemy performed some horrible atrocity on innocent whites, and it was up to the heroes to punish the enemy. The enemy would be defeated, more often than not killed, and everybody would live happily ever after. Straight and simple. It was in straight black-and-white (the issues as well as the early programs before colour TV and film came into being).
Engelhardt argues that between 1945 and 1975, the ends of WW2 and Vietnam respectively, that victory culture ended
Pearl Harbor gave plenty of opportunity to dehumanize the Japanese as an enemy, along with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The Cold War was where it all went into overdrive. The Communists were now the enemy, and that paranoid ideological struggle into the unknown carried through not only into Korea and Vietnam, but into movies, TV shows (Twilight Zone), comic books (Tales From The Crypt, MAD), and even toys (GI Joe).
A new dynamic also came, of the enemy hiding behind some citadel or bunker, such as the Forbidden City or Kremlin, with only large posters of the leader representing the human face of the enemy. Thus the enemy couldn't be destroyed.
Vietnam demonstrated once and for all that we were fallible, and for a while, we were in a funk. And with My Lai, WE became the massacring enemy, the Vietnamese the colonists. The concept of victory culture was turned on its head with that event. And think about it: we lost Vietnam for the same reasons the British lost the American War for Independence. History has come full circle to America.
This book came out in 1995, and early on in the book, Engelhardt makes a well-worn but important point: "with the end of the Cold War and the loss of the enemy, American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity." Ponder that passage, and what's going on today in the world.
The main thing to ask today is, do we really need to have an enemy and a war to unite the people together? Peace and harmony can do the same thing. We do not need victory-for-one-side culture anymore. What we need is victory-for-all culture.
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on June 27, 2000
"Is there an imaginable 'America' without enemies and without the story of their slaughter and our triumph?" (p. 15) This is the question at the heart of Engelhardt's remarkable blending of popular culture studies and military history.
In its outline, the thesis is straightforward: a long-established racially-exclusive national myth of bloody but righteous American retaliation to treacherous foes unraveled in the three decades after World War II. The new limited war strategies of the nuclear age forced awkward "containments" of this myth. The battlefields of Asia and, in particular, of Vietnam, led to "reversals," in which increasing numbers of Americans came to conclude that the familiar patterns that had helped to define national identity had been turned upside down. It is in the details of his argument that the author is at his best, making unexpected but genuine links between Mr. X (George Kennan) and Malcolm X; between the Mary Rowlandson captivity narrative of 1675 and the My Lai massacre of 1968; between the Strategic Air Command and Rod Serling; between V-for-victory signs and peace signs; between Chewbacca and Edward Teller; between Charles Manson and 1950s comic book culture.
Engelhardt brilliantly explores the complex connections between the games of American children and the broader national culture. That Engelhardt himself, born in 1944, was embedded in the post-war childhood culture is simultaneously a source of the book's greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses. On the positive side, he draws upon autobiographical reminiscence in an understated and thoughtful manner. At times, however, he risks confusing the disillusioning of a generation (his own) with the end of what he calls "victory culture." The myth of American innocence is indeed a powerful one, but Engelhardt perhaps exaggerates its coherence and pull in the pre-December 7, 1941 world. The boundary lines of any national story are always fluid, and it was not only the Civil War that tested these boundaries in earlier eras. I also wonder whether it may be too soon to conduct post-mortems on victory culture. Engelhardt sees efforts to reinvigorate the tales of American exceptionalism in the post-Vietnam decades as tortured and ineffective. His comments about yellow ribbons, POWs, and new myths of victimization are intriguing, but my sense is that the metaphorical circling of the wagons will continue. Americans are not yet ready to see themselves as part of a vast human comedy.
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