World War II reminds us that there are clear moral contrasts
On the evening of December 2, 2017, more than 2,000 Americans dressed in vintage clothing converged upon a four-star hotel in downtown Denver to enjoy the eighth annual 1940s & ’50s White Christmas Ball. The atmosphere was festive as people milled about to sample a bewildering variety of diversions. It felt like being transported to an earlier time, though one with ubiquitous smartphones.
The scene offered some unexpected juxtapositions. In the hallways, vendors peddled everything from hats to paintings. The U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division Living History Display Group exhibited snowshoes, skis, and other peculiar equipment that the soldiers of that unit had used to fight the Germans in the Apennine Mountains of Italy in 1945. Not far from that was the leg lamp that scandalized the Parker family in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, which was set in the 1950s. People were queuing up to take selfies with it.
In the main ballroom, the audience, a mix of old and young, jitterbugged to a succession of live performances. There was a female jazz ensemble modeled on the Andrews Sisters, as well as a spot-on Frank Sinatra impersonator and such local groups as the Hot Tomatoes and the Jeremy Mohney Swing Dance Band. Several swing-dance teams performed in a smaller ballroom. I was a member of one of them, a group called “Flatiron Flyers” from Boulder. The routine was set to a bouncy tune called “Look-A-There” by Slim and Slam, which must have lightened the Great Depression a bit when it was first released in 1938. (If you missed it, you can still look-a on YouTube.)
The White Christmas Ball is one of two annual events that the 1940s Ball NFP, a Colorado-based nonprofit, produces annually. The other, the 1940s WWII-Era Ball, takes place at the Boulder Airport in June and also attracts national attention. I have a few souvenirs from these events. At last summer’s ball, I bought a U.S. Army jacket that still had the name and Social Security number of the sergeant who had worn it written in the collar. At the previous winter ball, I bought a coin that had circulated under the Third Reich, then forgot about it for six months or so; counting out change from my wallet to pay for coffee at a Starbucks in Boulder one day, I placed on the counter a coin that had a swastika on it.
The popularity of these events is evidently part of a more general American fascination with World War II. American audiences have an apparently unbounded appetite for movies about World War II, including last year’s Dunkirk and Darkest Hour. We see it in video games, too. The latest installment of the $16 billion Call of Duty franchise, Call of Duty: WWII, earned over $500 million in the first three days after its November 3, 2017, release.
Why should so much interest in this era endure in the 21st century? Our longing for a sense of national unity and for a common, righteous purpose probably has something to do with it; these things sound especially appealing in an age of political fracture. Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Joseph A. Kennedy, 96, one of four World War II–veteran VIPs present at the most recent winter ball, told me: “The whole country went [to war]. It was that kind of feeling in the community that we have to serve no matter what. The 1940s for some reason was a time of greatness, a feeling all over the country. Everyone who could walk joined.”
Of course, few today would opt to face the challenges that created that sense of unity. Kennedy, however, seems not to have been daunted by them. The first thing he said to me was “I am one hell of a pilot, I’ll tell you that right off the bat” — as if he were ready, at any moment, to climb into the cockpit of a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk single-engine fighter. That announcement might have been obnoxious coming from the mouth of a cocksure 25-year-old, but coming from a 96-year-old, it was charming.
When I asked Kennedy why so many people would want to celebrate the 1940s, he replied: “It must be the music. That’s all I can think of.” Maybe he’s selling himself and other World War II veterans short, but I think he’s right that the music is a factor. He was probably right, too, when he said, “I think the bands that played in those years helped us out.” The music of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and other big bands of the era is infused with an infectious buoyancy that’s hard to find in contemporary pop music. And the playful nature of swing dance makes it easy to understand why it endures as a niche interest long after mainstream pop culture left it behind. Better aids to morale are difficult to imagine.
“I learned to jitterbug and I’m one of the best,” Kennedy said, referring to a form of swing dance popularized in the 1930s and still enthusiastically performed on many college campuses. “I still do if I can get the strength to get onto the floor. I’m pushing it at 96 now.”
Is this nostalgia salutary, though, or just diverting? We might worry that all this amounts to is escapism from the present enabled by blithe oversimplification of the past. We can’t celebrate the era of the “Good War” without shifting at least some of its not-so-good features into our peripheral vision, if not out of sight entirely. We tend to de-emphasize, for example, morally troubling conduct on the part of the United States — above all, the targeting of civilians in Japan to expedite the war’s end. To criticize this behavior is not to suggest a jejune moral equivalency with the conduct of the Axis powers, but to grapple with the war’s complex — and tragic — moral reality.
On the other hand, almost everything in history that isn’t straightforwardly bad is morally complex. At times it’s appropriate for a society to idealize certain events and people in the interest of preserving a larger truth. In the case of World War II, that truth is that millions sacrificed to prevent evil from prevailing. Recovering a sense of the contingency of historical events after they have passed is difficult. But we must remember that there was a time when victory over the Nazis and Imperial Japan was anything but assured. It’s appropriate, then, to celebrate people who made this victory possible. Most Americans understand that at an intuitive level.
Every Memorial Day, Boulder hosts one of the nation’s largest 10K races, the Bolder Boulder, which attracts over 50,000 participants. The finish line is in the University of Colorado’s football stadium, which makes completing the race particularly exhilarating. Runners then take seats and become spectators to a Memorial Day tribute. Parachutists leap out of an aircraft and descend into the stadium one by one with flags attached to them, streaming behind: the flags of the several service branches, the POW-MIA flag, and finally, to great applause, the American flag. Sometimes the tribute culminates in a flyover by Navy aircraft. With or without the flyover, it’s quite a sight. But the most profound moment of the 2017 tribute came when 92-year-old Stewart Boone, a decorated World War II veteran, played the national anthem on his trumpet. In previous years he had played “Taps” for the tribute, as he has for many military funerals.
Boone served in the 924th Field Artillery Battalion, 99th Infantry Division, during the Battle of the Bulge, the final German offensive of the war. He is designated one of the “Lucky 11” because he was one of only eleven survivors out of a group of 68 in a specific engagement within that battle. The packed stadium was hushed as he played. It’s hard to know what people are thinking, but I doubt that many remain silent out of ordinary politeness. Something deeper was being tapped, something that I experienced as a sense of shared indebtedness for the courage and sacrifice of a generation.
In the last week of October 2005, three retired Tuskegee Airmen visited Balad Air Base, Iraq, where I was then stationed, to inspire the troops. I had the opportunity to shake their hands and thank them for their service. (Can you believe that they first thanked me for my service?) I have since come across obituaries for two of them, which has caused me to reflect: Someday in the very foreseeable future, we will see a headline with a name, an age, and two photos — one in color of an old person, and one in black and white of a strapping young man in uniform. We will be informed that the last surviving World War II veteran has died. What will the impact on our culture be when this happens? I do not know, but I hope that it will be treated as a solemn event.
World War II–era nostalgia, even if it paints a selective picture of the past, is a salutary feature of American culture. It implies respect for the past and modesty about the present. If we honor our grandparents, despite their imperfections, as the Greatest Generation, then we acknowledge that we are not the greatest, superior gadgetry notwithstanding. We have reason to consider what has been lost and what, thanks to them, has been conserved that might yet be lost. Above the front entrance of the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado Boulder is a large inscription reading, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” I wonder how many, of the tens of thousands of students who have read those words, have pondered them.
– Mr. Case is a philosophy doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder who writes for NRO, Quillette, and other outlets.