Why Were World War II Vet Writers So Cynical?

Well, perhaps cynical isn’t the best word…maybe absurdist? But they – -- I’m thinking of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller – had a biting, sarcastic, and sometimes black sense of humor.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence or maybe I’m just thinking too much of their later years…when, after all, they were all old men. Still, could be there is something there…If so, perhaps people who knew their work better than I might have some insight.

Oh boy, my chance to be both a internet literary critic and armchair general!

A lot of it was in reaction to US military doctrine: “clobber the enemy” American tanks were no match for German; but the US’s industrial capacity could meet German ten tanks to one. Small comfort to the Americans in those tanks. The RAF bombed Germany in the relative safety of night, while the USAF insisted on precison daylight raids: get the bombs on-target and you won’t have to go back. Again, a bleak plane ride as the sun helps the anti-aircraft gunners more than moonlight and searchlights could, as well as enemy fighters.

Paul Fussell, in “Doing Battle,” relates how he as a 2nd lieutenant had to suffer General Marshall decision that, since American citizen-soldiers were so stupid, their only hope was to mass on the enemy’s flank as best as possible and just keep pushing. Very simple tactics, and one that an army as professional as the Germans could easily counter.

Probably a legacy of Grant’s anti-McClellan/Pope/Hooker/Burnside/etc. attitude “enough with this complicated stuff: we’re bigger than them so let’s just beat their brains in.”

Of course, imagine what Soviet authors could have written.

Compeltely incorrect characterization of Grant, and completely ignorent of Civil War history. I will fight this nonsense till the sun dies, and then fight in the cold and dark.

Well, what did they say on the topic?


Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

True, but then all wars are baby-grinders. However, as far as producing a literary genre “boy was that stupid, what the fuck was that all about anyway?”

While post-WWI British literature is rich with this, in the US it was only served by John Dos Pasos (even though the US’s involvement in WWI was even more cynical, authoritarian and inept than it would be in WWII, Japanese-American internment notwithstanding)

This same genre had one major participant after the US Civil War: Ambrose Bierce.

What the OP asks is why it was such a hit post WWII. I’d say it was because the authors the OP cites sere products of the Leftism of the Great Depression during their impressionable youths, and then after the war they reacted to how big government and big business decided to capitalize on victory by still treating its former citizen-soldiers as cogs in their great big machine.

This sounds right. I’d call it the contrast between reality and publicly exalted ideals. Certainly makes me cynical.

Part of the problem is that you’re cherrypicking from all the books and all the decades to compile a list of four writers, one of whom, Vidal, never wrote a WWII book. (You list Joseph Heller twice.)

Here are all the actual bestsellers about the war that appeared from 1947 to 1956. (Defined as: made the top ten list for the year as given by Alice Payne Hackett, 70 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1965.)

The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw
Into the Trees, John Hersey
From Here to Eternity, James Jones
The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk
The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
Return to Paradise, James Michener (sequel to Tales of the South Pacific)
Battle Cry, Leon Uris
The High and the Mighty, Ernest K. Gann
No Time for Sergeants, Mac Hyman
Don’t Go Near the Water, William Brinkley

That paints a wholly different picture of what books were like on the war. Some were cynical, some were heroic, some were flat-out comic.

Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse 5 appeared in the 1960s. (Catch-22 was not a hardback bestseller either. It didn’t become wildly popular until it appeared in paperback.) By then, the culture had changed. Cynicism, especially as a reaction to the conformist 50’s, was appearing over all the arts. It didn’t really matter whether the authors were WWII vets or not. If you look at contemporaries of Heller and Vonnegut, ones who wrote with similar styles and are usually mentioned in the same sentence with them, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover all managed not to serve in WWII. Truman Capote never served in the war. Saul Bellow did, though he wrote in a completely different idiom. Salinger did but wrote one of the early Holden Caulfield stories before being drafted.

I’d say you could make any case you wanted about authors by picking the right selection of them. It sure didn’t take WWII to invent cynicism or hated of war or contempt for bureaucracy. Not to mention that you could make the 60s look more conservative than the 50s by picking the right sets of authors.

The real moral is to beware of categorizing periods of time. It’s hard to make that stick when you take a closer look.

Two. Stephan Crane.


Crane wasn’t a CW vet, per the OP. But Naturalism probably wouldn’t have been as morose and morbid as it was if there hadn’t been as many widows and amputees around during its era.

[nitpick] IIRC, Gore Vidal’s first novel, Williwaw, was related to his wartime service in the Aleutians. However, I don’t think any combat occurred in the book.[/nitpick]

Well, yeah. Or the German authors. Or anyone. This is a preposterous mischaracterization of American doctrine in World War II (or for that matter the Civil War and U.S. Grant, the greatest general in American history and a strategic genius of the first order.)

The reason people came back cynical and jaded is that they’d just been to the SECOND WORLD WAR. It was the industrialization of murder on an incomprehensible scale, slaughter and death the likes of which could not be fully accepted by a sane person. People who saw the aftermath of the Battle of the Falaise Gap said you could walk a hundred yards stepping on parts of dead Germans the entire way, never touching the ground with your feet.

The most optimistic vet account I read was “No Surrender” that detailed Lt. Hiroo Onoda’s 30-year war in the Philippines.

“Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller”

These two WW I veterans would blow the above list:

Ernest Hemingway
Adolf Hitler

As much as Gore Vidal would have appreciated it, the Fuhrer wasn’t a mousy little mama’s boy! The Fuhrer was BUTCH!

I like Joseph Heller.

Gore Vidal lost his boyfriend (his first, I think) to combat in WWII. Forever after he didn’t seem to have anything positive to say about war.

Note too that in the excerpt from S5 quoted above, Vonnegut is expressly mocking FHTE. His book isn’t just about the war; it’s also a reaction to earlier books about the war.

Also, they were part of a culture whose ideals of masculinity prized toughness and stoicism and left men little room for talking about weakness or negative feelings. Cynicism and bitterness were the closest one could come to giving voice to emotional damage. Look again at the Vonnegut excerpt above, how the notion that soldiers are “babies” harmed by war has to come from a female character.

Paul Fussell’s the point man for this. This is a good start, an essay on the war’s legacy 50 years out. The Great War and Modern Memory is particularly excellent and contrasts the literature of WWI and WWII at length.

I’ve read most of James Jones’ war writing: From Here to Eternity. The Thin Red Line, Whistle, and the short stories, and I don’t recall any of it glorifying war as a chest-thumping, dramaturgic proving ground for ones manhood. Disgusting, brutalizing and terrifying. In the movie version of The Thin Red Line, you may remember Sean Penn’s character bitching “property, property!” In the book his point was that war and army life in general could bring out ones inner Bolshevik

Does this only apply to literature since in movies (at least until recently) and books like those by Stephen Ambrose, WWII is definitely portrayed as a “good war” and its soldiers as part of the “Greatest Generation”.