Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: January 2010

18 - The Second World War: American writing

from Part III - Poetics


Stories of war display essential cultural concepts, expectations, and self-images more prominently than other kinds of literature. In the extreme situation of war, society demands that its (mostly young) citizens risk their lives for the common good. So conflict becomes the occasion for questioning the validity of those individual and collective values and concepts of self and other in whose name one might die prematurely - especially at moments when victory is uncertain. Thus, the literature of war brings forth models of a nation's (or a people's) “storifying of experience”: acts of “literary sensemaking” (or the lack of it) performed in response to particular historical situations - situations that, effectively, require the suspension of norms crucial in peaceful societies and sanctify the use of collective violence.

American experiences of the Second World War provided ample scope - and need - for storifying. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 created a massive consensus in the USA about the moral and political necessity of fighting the Japanese military hegemony in Asia and its fascist European allies. The ensuing conflict saw US armed forces deployed all over the globe - on land, on sea, and in the air - for nearly four years. According to estimates, about fifty million people died from 1939 to 1945 in combat, through bombing, in prisoner-of-war (POW) and concentration camps, or through famine and disease induced by the conflict.