Stephen Ambrose: Lumped in with Brokaw and Spielberg

Historians in the News

HNN blogger Tom Bruscino (June 8, 2004):

With Memorial Day and the 60th Anniversary of D-Day over the last two weekends, attention has once again turned toward military history. The rush of book reviews of World War II has once again brought to the fore an issue that deserves closer scrutiny: the ongoing and offhand evisceration of the work of Stephen Ambrose by some professional book reviewers.

In Washington Post Book World, book reviewer Jonathan Yardley, begins his review of Matthew Parker’s new study of the Battle of Monte Cassino with this line:"Those who have been persuaded by Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, Hollywood screenwriters and other facile popularizers to a romantic, sentimental view of World War II as the"good war" fought by"the greatest generation" are advised to spend a few hours with Matthew Parker's grim depiction of the six-month battle in 1943-44 to gain control of Monte Cassino in central Italy." Yardley is not alone. Atlantic Monthly book review editor Benjamin Schwarz began his October 2003 review of Paul Fussell’s The Boys’ Crusade with,"In this superb, tough-minded, and impressionistic introduction to the experiences of the U.S. infantry in northwest Europe from D-Day to Germany's surrender, Paul Fussell confronts the sanctimonious"military romanticism" of Messrs. Ambrose, Brokaw, and Spielberg,"which, if not implying that war is really good for you, does suggest that it contains desirable elements--pride, companionship, and the consciousness of virtue enforced by deadly weapons.""

Mercifully, both Yardley and Schwarz avoid Ambrose’s plagiarism, so we can perhaps save that debate for another time. We can also debate the merits of the book The Greatest Generation (although I don’t know why) and the movie Saving Private Ryan (much more useful) later. But grouping broadly the work of a distinguished scholar and first-rate historian like Ambrose with the books of journalist Tom Brokaw and movies of filmmaker Steven Spielberg is ridiculous on its face. Although Ambrose served as a consultant on Private Ryan and a producer of the miniseries based on his book Band of Brothers, there is no comparison of his lifetime of research, training, and experience in the historical profession with the work of Brokaw and Spielberg. Such comparisons are done solely to dismiss his arguments as amateurish and superficial. Yardley's and Schwarz's real issue with Ambrose is when they call him a facile popularizer and sanctimonious military romantic. So let's look at those charges.

Here 2001 review by Schwarz of Ambrose's World War II book for children The Good Fight is interesting. Schwarz criticizes Ambrose for"retroactively impos[ing] an elevated meaning on the American side of the war." Like almost anyone, Schwarz has little problem with praising American infantrymen for being tough and brave. But he takes especial issue with Ambrose"insisting on a sentimental and high-minded explanation of what those men believed they were fighting for." Schwarz writes:

“Ambrose, if not Brokaw, has read too much military history not to acknowledge plainly--as he wrote in a passage in Citizen Soldiers which contradicts the thrust of the rest of the book--that, according to the vast literature that assesses the motivation of U.S. fighters in World War II, “there is agreement that patriotism or any other form of idealism had little if anything to do with it.” “The GIs fought because they had to,” he continued. “What held them together was not country and flag, but unit cohesion.” In the same book Ambrose papered over this difficulty by informing his readers that although the GIs fought for “decency and democracy,” “they just didn't talk or write about it”. How, then, does he know? Rather than rely on what these men did write and say repeatedly during the war (which boils down to the reasonable, even courageously clear-eyed, but hardly righteous formula of kill or be killed, fight the war to end it so that we can go home), Ambrose draws on reminiscences and interviews and at least one “beer-drinking bull session” with a small number of veterans forty-five years after the fact--hardly the most reliable testimony."
A fair enough criticism on its face. But let's assume for just a minute that in the myriad books he studied on combat motivation, the untold number of memoirs, oral histories, and interviews he read, and the thousands of interviews he himself conducted with veterans, that Stephen Ambrose might have come to a better understanding of what drove World War II soldiers than a very erudite book review editor who nevertheless is not a scholar of American soldiers in World War II. Especially when that book review editor seems to have drawn most of his knowledge about the combat infantry experience from the work of Paul Fussell. For those who do not know, Fussell was an infantry lieutenant in Europe who later became a English professor. Professor Fussell is a wonderful writer who has offered some important insights into war in the twentieth century in his books and memoirs. Nevertheless, he is a flawed source for any kind of general understanding of the infantry experience. His personal disillusionment with his wartime experience has colored all of his work, with the result that his memoirs and studies of World War II differ significantly in tone and general conclusions from the majority of his contemporaries. I’ll not list specifics, but the most striking example comes from a published oral history collection of Fussell's WWII battalion edited by Richard Stannard called Infantry. Fussell’s interviews stand out in stark relief from the rest of the men in his platoon, company, and battalion--a reasonable scholar should thus question how well he speaks for the experiences of men army-wide. (Stannard’s book is in the bibliography for Citizen Soldiers.)

Furthermore, Citizen Soldiers was a study of the combat experience in Europe from the perspective of soldiers and junior officers, not an argumentative book about enlistment or combat motivation. Ambrose was just providing his informed impression that though the men did not talk about it, they had a deep-down belief that they were fighting for a just cause. As someone who has also read thousands of World War II interviews, oral histories, questionnaires, and memoirs I happen to think Ambrose was correct. See Peter Kindsvatter’s 2003 study of soldiers in the twentieth century American Soldiers on this question. All that said, Schwarz is still right to question Ambrose’s impressionistic conclusion for not providing evidence. The problem is making the jump from that criticism to dismissing him for sanctimoniously romanticizing war.

I suspect Yardley’s and Schwarz’s problem with Ambrose stems from elsewhere. One line from Yardley’s review is instructive:"Certainly World War II was necessary, and the cause for which the Allies fought was just, but there was nothing pretty about it." I’m not sure Ambrose would disagree with that sentence, but he might ask Yardley to define “pretty.” Fighting a necessary war for a just cause seems to me to be one of the more beautiful things humans can do. But if he means that the actual fighting was bloody and messy and terrible, then I suggest that reading Citizen Soldiers or D-Day or Band of Brothers, or even this interview will lead to exactly the same conclusion.

In the eyes of Yardley and Schwarz, Ambrose’s great sin was in concluding that the necessity of the war and the justness of America’s cause was far more important than the ugliness of the fighting. How dare he call it “the good war” without the irony of someone like Studs Terkel (in the title to his disorganized and overrated oral history of the war). Schwarz says as much in the concluding sentences to his review:"...the great problem with Ambrose's books--especially this one--is that they fail to treat history as tragic, ironic, paradoxical, and ambiguous. If readers are old enough to study an event that involved the deaths of more than 60 million people, they are old enough to learn that one studies history not to simplify issues but to illuminate their complexities."

Yet oftentimes 'illuminating complexities' is just a cover for muddled thinking. For all its complexities, there are some simple issues we should keep in mind about World War II. In the grandest sense, the tragedy would have been the United States and its Allies losing the war. There is nothing ironic, paradoxical, or ambiguous about the fact that the world would have been a far worse place had the Allies lost. All of the details of the war must be dealt with in light of that truth, as Stephen Ambrose came to understand over the course of his career. If in the eyes of Jonathan Yardley and Benjamin Schwarz or any others that view makes him a facile popularizer or sanctimonious military romantic, then I humbly suggest they need to reexamine their own understanding of irony, paradox, and ambiguity when it comes to the Second World War.

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