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The 'Greatest Generation' Didn't Think They Were

02/19/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

Yes, they've become "the greatest generation" (a phrase that's always reminded me of an ad line for a soft drink), but they didn't feel that way at the time. As Susan Faludi pointed out in her classic book Stiffed and as I experienced as a boy, the men who came home from World War II were often remarkably silent about their wartime experiences -- at least with their children. My father, who had been the operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma, had a couple of pat stories he would fall back on, if pressed, but normally only spoke of the war when angry. I can, for instance, remember him blowing up and forbidding my mother and me from using a nearby grocery store because, he claimed, its owners had been "war profiteers." On rare occasions, he might pull out of the closet an old duffel bag filled with war souvenirs, including a Nazi armband (undoubtedly traded with someone who had been on the European front) and several glorious orange or white silk maps of Burma, assumedly meant to take up no space in a commando's kitbag. These were thrilling moments of my childhood, though again my dad had little to say about what we looked at.

Otherwise, his war was a kind of black hole in family life. But for boys like me, that mattered less than you might expect for a simple reason: we already knew what our fathers had experienced at war. We had seen it at the movies, often with those fathers sitting silently beside us. We had seen John Wayne die on Iwo Jima and war hero Audie Murphy (playing himself) gun down the Germans. We had been with Doolittle's Raiders over Tokyo for more than 30 seconds, had won back Burma, landed on Omaha beach, and fought island by island across the Pacific toward Japan. And of course, as our "victory culture" assured us we would, we had won.

It's hard to emphasize just how formative those war movies were for so many of us, especially if you add in the cheap, all-green sets of World War II toy soldiers with which we reenacted movie versions of our fathers' war on our floors and, of course, the sticks, and later toy guns, with which we so gloriously shot down "Japs" and "Nazis" in any park or backyard. A whole generation of young Americans would go off to Vietnam stoked on John Wayne & Co. -- on a version of war, that is, that our fathers never told us hadn't happened.

Ron Kovic, who came back from Vietnam in a wheelchair and wrote the memoir Born on the Fourth of July, recalled the experience vividly: "I think a lot of us went to Vietnam with movie images of John Wayne in our minds. On a reconnaissance patrol, I remember once imagining that I was John Wayne."

Today, in "War Porn," former diplomat and whistleblower Peter Van Buren explores the way American war movies, from World War II to 2015, have produced a remarkably uniform vision of how American war works, one that, in its modern form, is undoubtedly once again lending a helping hand to our latest conflicts. In May 2011, Van Buren arrived at TomDispatch, just back from a 12-month State Department assignment in Iraq embedded with the U.S. military. In his first piece for this site, he reported on the heroic balderdash that embedded reporters -- think, for instance, of Brian Williams -- delivered to the American people about the U.S. military. It was, he wrote then, a kind of "war pornography." ("Let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves.") So think of his new piece, almost four years later, as a reprise on that theme with an embedded Hollywood stepping in to take the place of all the Brian Williamses of our world.