Is World War II turning into a Fairy Tale?

I made reference in a thread about an upcoming WWII computer game, Call of Duty: World At War that World War II is at serious risk of turning into a simplified Fairy Tale for future generations.

If you believed many computer games and several more recent movies, WWII went something like this:

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour for no reason at all. America declared war on Japan, and, for the hell of it, Germany, because Hitler was a Bad Guy™ and need a good ass-kicking- he’d invaded France on the same day, you see.

There’s a very picturesque war in the Pacific, with lots of Palm Trees and Coral Atolls and American & Japanese aircraft bombing ships and shooting each other down. America wins, of course.

In 1944 the Americans suddenly show up in England- who have been building a lot of aeroplanes for some reason- then the US single-handedly cross the channel, invade France, and liberate the French from the Germans, who’d been there since Pearl Harbour and not a moment before. About the same time the Russians decide- again, for no particular reason- to invade Germany. The Russians get to Berlin and level the place, and the Americans drop Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, acheiving much the same thing as the Russians in Berlin but with more fire and radioactive death.

Germany and Japan surrender at the same time, and the credits roll. The End.

Yes, I’m deliberately over-simplifying to make a point, namely that Popular Culture is ignoring the wider aspects of WWII (You know, like Other Countries besides the US, Russia, Germany, and Japan being involved) and is simplifying WWII into a Good vs Evil Fairy Tale starring America and Adolf Hitler (with special guest appearances by Josef Stalin, Emperor Hirohito, and a cameo by Winston Churchill).

I know there are movies about the British in WWII, and a couple of computer games acknowledge this too, but the current generation of games and movies seems to focus simply on the US/Russia/Germany/Japan aspect of the war and make it a very black and white story and as an historian that concerns me.

So, am I alone in thinking that WWII is turning into a sort of semi-mythical Fairy Tale, or am I just being un-necessarily pessimistic about the US-centric nature of movies and computer games concerning the war?

You’re not alone, and it is kind of inevitable seeing as those who participated are passing at a rapid rate, and the popular culture memories are generated overwhelmingly in one country.

But there are few wars that are so patently just as WWII. The Nazi government and the Japanese government needed to be wiped out. Not just beaten, but destroyed. Not all the good was on one side, bad things were done all round, and there were some distinctly unsavory Allies, but bottom line, those two regimes needed to be terminated. And they were. And the world was a better place for it.

We haven’t lived happily ever after as a result, but we have lived happier. That certain groups lived at all was a benefit.

I’m not sure we should expect a lot of depth from video games.

As far as popular culture goes, yeah, WWII is going to turn into a fairy tale as it recedes further into history; popular culture has a tendency to do that to everything. We make the story simple, we put a lot of gloss on it, we like to have some nice neat morals, we forget about moral ambiguity or difficulty.

At the same time, as it gets a little further away, I think it’s also possible to think more deeply about certain things. I’ve noticed more books being published that explore difficult things about the war, that acknowledge that it wasn’t all white hats vs. black hats, that study a lot of things that were ‘common knowledge’ to the people who lived through it but that now is obviously propaganda.

Not that I’m an expert in WWII scholarship or anything, I’m sure you know far more about it than I do, that’s just how it seems to me. So IMO while the war will be fairy-taleified in popular culture (faster and more shinily than ever before, since we have the ability to do it and a serious lack of memory or sense of reverence for the past), I think we’re also getting a better perspective on it as far as real studies go. It’s more possible for a serious reader to get a better picture of the war. Just MHO, though.

A while back I was talking to someone about the landings at Omaha and Utah beach on D-Day, and happened to mention the heavy casualties at Gold. Blank stare. After some prompting, he vaguely recalled Gold and Sword, and conceeded that the British were along, too.

He flatly refused to believe that the Canadians were involved at all, and accused me of lying (!).

Unfortunately, this is a guy in his late 50s; not a young kid who only knows of WWII through Call of Duty, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. You may be behind on your timeline for this happening.

Also, presumably, this is an American-culture phenomena. Hopefully, Britain and Canada know they landed in Normandy on D-Day…

All of history is being cartoonized, not just WWII.

Consider what popular culture did to WWI, long ago.

History is simply not a serious passion for far too many people and games (and movies) do nothing to improve that situation.

The best we can do is struggle against it (It’s taking longer than we thought) and hope that fewer Wolfowitz types get to exercise their ignorance at the national or international level.

Right. Most people are familiar with the basics, and that’s enough for them (or so they think). Movies and videogames are not out there for historical accuracy, they’re entertainment, so they follow the standard human tendency of simplifying things into easy to follow storylines with identifiable good guys and bad guys and so on. Unfortunately schools often do the same thing because it’s easy for kids to understand.

World War II has gotten this treatment to a greater degree than other historical events because of its continuing effects (it helped make the U.S. the most dominant world power and precipitated the Baby Boom and the Cold War, for starters), and because, you know, the Nazis really were that bad, so there’s the continuing fascination of the depths of human cruelty.

There’s not as much out there about WWI, though- it’s just too long ago for most people.

The Gallipoli campaign is well known in Australia and New Zealand for National Pride reasons, and most people know who the Red Baron was, but asides that you’ve basically only got Lawrence of Arabia, Blackadder Goes Forth, Gallipoli, Flyboys, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles covering WWI (The Biggles movie doesn’t count, as fun as it was) in Modern Popular Culture, along with an honourable mention for the Biggles books which almost no-one my age has read.

Most of Pop Culture stuff on WWI (with the exception of Blackadder Goes Forth, obviously) is also reasonably accurate, IMHO- it’s certainly more “rounded” than the stuff currently coming out about WWII (again, IMHO) if that makes sense.

Well, I’m confused. The story teeling process necessarily involves lots of paring down to essentials and over-simplifying to get the main points across, and it doesn’t mean that the original subject matter is being forgotten or turned into a fairy tale. Also, if this is something you are concerned about on a wider scale, WWII is a weird target for your rant. There are more photographs and video and first-hand recorded accounts and archived newspaper articles and books that delve into minutia about WWII than probably any other event in human history. Do you think that any telling of part of WWII that does not include a full treatment of every possible detail is somehow illegitimate and harmful?

If you watch most of the documentaries on the [del]Hitler[/del] History Channel; they tend to be about the American involvement in WWII. Ditto computer games, ditto movies.

I don’t expect every single thing about WWII to be a completely objective, all-inclusive coverage of the subject. What I’d like is an acknowledgement what WWII was a lot more complex than the US (with the British sending some commandos and a couple of squadrons of aircraft to help) fighting Japan and Germany because Japan bombed Pearl Harbour and Hitler was bad while the Russians fought the Germans as well for no adequately explained reason.

You’re right that WWII is probably one of the most recorded and documented conflicts in history (along with the Vietnam War), but most people are never going to go to the trouble of looking at any of the primary (or even reliable secondary) sources and soak their history up via osmosis.

Well, that is I think because the decisive theater of WW1 was also the theater that the countries that define popular culture fought in - the Western Front. The Eastern front of WWI has been pretty much totally ignored in that respect.

Now fast forward to WWII and you see the decisive action as being on the Eastern Front, but popular culture focusing on the Western Front because of who the combatants there were.

That leads to popular culture views of WW1 being more likely to be accurate.

You are just demonstrating your youth. :smiley:
There was a lot of stuff on WWI prior to WWII and it was every bit as oversimplified as anything we see regarding WWII. Since WWII was a much bigger affair, it has dominated current fiction and games for a longer period, but throughout the 1930s (and into the 1950s, e.g., The African Queen) there were portrayals of the first war that had no bearing on reality and I have never seen a popular movie that treated the conflict as anything more than a stage set with good guys and villains (or, occasionally, villains and villains).

Few movies are created about WWI, today, but that war suffered the same dumbing down while it was being used as a set for the movies.

I know it’s a popular meme that “young people nowadays are stupid and read and watch stupid crap”, but it’s likely the guy you’re talking about got lots of his WW2 information from John Wayne and Robert Mitchum movies. Just because he’s older doesn’t mean he knows anything.


Odd, considering one of the only surviving footage of the actual landings on D Day is of a landing by the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada on Juno Beach. I’m sure most Documentaries use that shot at one time or another.

What do you mean by “an acknowlegement”? Are you saying that if a US production company makes a movie about WWII and there aren’t some Canadians and Australians etc fighting alongside the Americans then the movie is “bad” somehow?

That happens to all history (insofar as it isn’t forgotten altogether by the Teeming Millions). Most people probably have the impression that the American Civil War was purely about slavery from Day One, that the American Revolution was entirely caused by George III being mean to the colonists just because he was a big old doodoo head, and that the Middle Ages were all plate-armored knights on horseback jousting at each other.

I agree that, in American popular culture, WWII has become The Feel Good War. While it’s true that history tends to get romanticized, this seems to be much more true of WWII than other wars – Viet Nam is still viewed as tragic, Korea remains largely overlooked, and WWI gets far less attention than the sequel. Some reasons that I think WWII gets the warm-fuzzy treatment:

  1. America’s direct involvement was relatively brief, and also, had a definite begining and end – Pearl Harbor to V-E Day. (The reality was more complicated, of course, but for storytelling / folklore purposes it’s nice to have a neat beginning, middle, and end).

  2. We won. A basic requirement for fond memories. Moreover, it was a victory that was clear at the time it happened. We might eventually “win” in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it will probably be the sort of thing where we can’t be sure we’ve succceeded until 10 or 20 years have passed and we can look back and see what happened after we left.

  3. As others have noted, it was (in retrospect) a thoroughly just cause. I only bring it up again to note that, prior to Pearl Harbor, this was not the consensus opinion in America; many thought the war was not our business, and not worth sacrificing American lives.

  4. It was a type of warfare people can understand, and which lends itself to dramatic storytelling – advancing on enemy lines, seizing territory, tank battles, aerial dogfights, etc. Compare that to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the enemy is hard to identify, there are no physical battle lines, and it’s hard to tell whether you’re winning or losing. More than once, I’ve read an article about troop sentiment in Iraq or Afghanistan, and seen quotes from soldiers to the effect of “We want to have a war like World War 2.”

Martini Enfield, I note that you’re in Australia. Did you post because you see the same “fairy tale” phenomenon there, or is it just something you see in American culture?

Actually, the Call of Duty games that I played included extensive campaigns with the Russians during the seize of Stalingrad as well as the British campaign in North Africa. I thought to myself how nice it was to be able to play with the “other” participants of the war.

Looking back, I can think of flight games that gave much screen time to the RAF and both the Spitfire AND Hurricane as well as an entire game, very popular by the way, centered on the IL- Sturmovik.

There are good WW2 games out there.

Well, it really isn’t the fault of the US that other countries don’t crank out a WWII movie at least once a year even now, and that when they do they tend to be “difficult” movies that your dad isn’t going to go see. (Although my dad might have liked Downfall if he could read the subtitles these days.) Sure, American movies could definitely have a lot more acknowledgment of other countries in them, but that’s probably true of the filmic oevre of most of the world. You think if Bollywood made the Enigma story they wouldn’t have somehow made it about Indians?

Sort of, yes. I think the American involvement in WWII has been overexposed in the media and it’s time for some of the other players to have a turn in the spotlight. That’s just my opinion and I expect it’s a minority one, but there you go.

It’s something I see in American culture that’s starting to affect Australian culture because it means people here aren’t aware of what WWII was all about. It’s something that Grandad (or more like Great Grandad) was involved in, and while your average Australian knows about New Guinea and the Rats of Tobruk and so forth, the tidal wave of American-centric WWII histories is distorting to the point where far, far too many people I talk to here think WWII- and Australia’s involvement therein- started on 7/12/41 with Pearl Harbour.

I really enjoyed the first two CoD games for the same reason. I really liked playing as British and Russian soldiers for a change; it was a nice (and important) addition to the games.

Flight sims are about the only games that the British get a decent go in; European Air War remains one of my favourite WWII flight sims because you feel like you’re an RAF fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain- hence my comment about Britain’s role in Pop Culture WWII being Commandos and Aircraft.