When images of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were first broadcast, American journalists almost immediately invoked the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Even as that analogy became standard rhetoric of political commentary, the Bush administration altered its characterization of the events, eschewing an early preference for terms such as "terrorist" or "criminal acts" in favor of saying America had witnessed "an act of war." Yet while a country feeding on electronic images of the carnage called for a vigorous military response, wary studio executives scrambled to cancel or postpone television programming and movie releases suddenly deemed inappropriate or insensitive.
The premiere of a new Schwarzenegger film about terrorism was put on hold, the broadcast of the mini-series Band of Brothers was interrupted for a week, and a rerun of an X-Files episode featuring the terrorist bombing of a bank patronized by FBI agents was cancelled. Overnight, the real terror of history had displaced (at least temporarily) the manufactured variety, and the prospect of a new kind of military conflict of incalculable dimensions and uncertain outcome crowded out the simulacra of war, violence, and bloodshed that are a staple of the entertainment industry.
One of the striking features of the cultural environment in which the events of September 11 exploded has been a burgeoning fascination with war, specifically with World War II. Since the release in 1998 of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, America's theaters have been crowded with major motion pictures devoted to that war. The Thin Red Line (1998), Enemy at the Gates (2001), Pearl Harbor (2001), and Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001) are soon to be followed by Windtalkers, the story of the WW II Navajo codetalkers, slated to open in early 2002. For those who cannot wait, HBO's Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose's book, is back.
Programs on the second world war are featured so regularly on the History Channel that wags commonly call it "The Hitler Channel." Since September, the History Book Club, which has always carried a long list of World War II titles, has barraged its subscribers with new books about Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, Omaha Beach, and the German army.
Meanwhile, Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers has climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and Tom Brokaw's An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation -- his sequel to The Greatest Generation -- can be found in every airport. Stephen Ambrose, a talented writer of considerable range, might well have made an entire career out of the books he's penned on the war: new hardback copies of Band of Brothers (originally published in 1992) are currently billeting in the major bookstores alongside his The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B24s Over Germany and The Victors -- Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II. It is not overstating matters to claim that for the last three years we have been awash with World War II reminiscences and cultural memorabilia the extent of which we haven't experienced since before the Vietnam War.
Why now? How do we explain the current resurgence of interest in the second world war at a time when the last surviving veterans of the conflict are passing away? The producers and executives of Hollywood, to say nothing of its screenwriters, are more likely to belong to the baby boom generation (or even Generation X) than to "the greatest generation." In fact, many members of the target audience for Pearl Harbor or Enemy at the Gates are young enough to be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the vets who took up arms nearly 60 years ago. Why should they be so eager to weep for the dead of Pearl Harbor or Stalingrad?
Unlikely as it may seem, the 19th century novelist Sir Walter Scott might provide us with a clue. Scott was one of the most famous writers of his age, and his reputation rested in large measure on his popularizing a new sort of literary work: the historical novel. Although American readers are more likely to know Scott's medieval tale Ivanhoe, it was the 1814 publication of his first historical novel, Waverley, that established an international craze for historical fiction.
Significantly, Scott subtitled that work 'Tis Sixty Years Hence, a reference to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the vain attempt to reclaim the British throne for the Stuarts. What 60 years before had been an immensely controversial political event that deeply divided public opinion in Scotland (and greatly inflamed passions in England) had become by 1814 a purely historical event suitable for fictional treatment that would appeal to a diverse international audience.
It was Scott's genius to recognize that a political event, especially one of great import, could best be transformed into fictional history precisely at the moment at which the living witnesses and participants of the event inevitably exited the scene. For all of his antiquarian attention to historical detail, Scott characteristically altered history for dramatic purposes. He offered a new and improved version of the past that championed his own bourgeois vision of the ideal political order, one characterized by peace, religious toleration, civility, moderation, commercial activity, individual freedom, and steadfast loyalty to God, king, and country.
Written at a time when the great political conflicts of Europe seemed momentarily at an end, Scott's historical novels looked back to the political and religious tumults of the past from what seemed the more secure and peaceful world of the late 1810s and 1820s. The lives of Scott's fictional heroes and heroines inevitably intersect with those of famous historical personages -- Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Duke of Monmouth, Cromwell, Saladin -- during a period of political crisis of far-reaching consequence: the Jacobite war of 1745, the Scottish religious wars and political rebellions of the 17th century, the English Civil War, the Crusades.
Scott's fictional protagonists are always "middling folk." These respectable, often prosperous and genteel characters with their "modern" middle-class mores appear anachronistic against the backdrop of historical epochs filled with violent religious fanatics, doomed aristocrats, deposed monarchs, wild romantic Highlanders, chivalric Christian knights, and Muslim warriors. But if Scott's fictional heroes seem to have been magically transported backward into time, they nonetheless fulfill an important narrative function by allowing Scott's readers to identify with the witnesses and minor actors in great historical events. Careful to appeal to the widest possible audience, Scott made certain that the stories he told offered a romantic hook; the resolution of the historical or political crisis is typically punctuated by the long-delayed and much anticipated union of Scott's fictional hero and heroine. Scott's formula is imitated to this day, especially in Hollywood.
Prior to the beginning of the present "War on Terror," in the post�Cold War era of the 1990s, writers, film producers, and the American public as a whole might be said to have found themselves in a historical lull comparable to that of Scott's readers in the 1820s. The United States in the 1990s seemed more peaceful and prosperous -- and more self-satisfied and uninteresting -- than the America of 30 or 60 years ago. The anxieties of having finally achieved cultural preeminence and political authority in uninteresting times seems to have particularly burdened the baby boomer generation.
If their youth was characterized by the turmoil of the Cold War, the nuclear threat, political assassinations, the civil rights movement, Watergate, and above all, the Vietnam War, such grand historical events were, with the possible exception of the civil rights struggle, resented or mourned rather than welcomed, forced upon a recalcitrant generation rather than passionately embraced in the manner with which their parents had greeted the epic challenge of World War II. At the moment that the first boomer was finally elected to the American presidency and his generation seemed at long last poised to determine the destiny of the nation, if not the world, the engine of history seemed to have stalled. The historical legacy of the boomers was not to be a new Camelot, of which they'd dreamed since their youth, but the Lewinsky White House. The great matter of the '90s was not a cause that would hallow any war, but the rancorous impeachment and Senate trial of a president whose most memorable acts were the proper subject of a fabliau rather than an epic.
In recent years, there has been a widespread and unfulfilled cultural yearning for a cause worth fighting for. The great majority -- including the Big Boomer himself, Bill Clinton -- had side-stepped or avoided the Vietnam War, rather than passionately engaging in it or opposing it. Clinton's "mixed emotions" on the events of September 11, as reported by Andrew Sullivan, reveal with shocking clarity the degree to which the ex-president nevertheless yearned for a historical cataclysm as a means to his own self-definition and glorification: "He [Clinton] has said there has to be a defining moment in a presidency that really makes a great presidency. He didn't have one."
The recent spate of World War II movies, books, and television programs has provided an ersatz means by which those anxieties, self-doubts, and recriminations -- and, inevitably, the boomers' characteristic narcissism and self-justifications -- could be expressed. Like Scott's historical novels, the films signaled an unfulfilled epic desire on the part of a generation that has felt itself diminished by comparison to the one that preceded it. They have, for better and worse, functioned as a means by which some influential boomers might, surreptitiously, assign themselves a central place, even an epic role, in a history that in fact did more to shape them than they it.