The War Complex: World War II in Our Time

December 2, 2020
The War Complex: World War II in Our Time

The recent dedication of the World War II memorial and thesixtieth-anniversary commemoration of D-Day remind us of the holdthat World War II still has over America's sense of itself. But theselective process of memory has radically shaped our picture of theconflict. Why else, for instance, was a 1995 Smithsonian exhibitionon Hiroshima that was to include photographs of the first atomicbomb victims, along with their testimonials, considered socontroversial? And why do we so readily remember the civilianbombings of Britain but not those of Dresden, Hamburg, andTokyo?Marianna Torgovnick argues that we have lived, since the end ofWorld War II, under the power of a war complex—a set of repressedideas and impulses that stems from our unresolved attitudes towardthe technological acceleration of mass death. This complex has ledto gaps and hesitations in public discourse about atrocitiescommitted during the war itself. And it remains an enduring wartimeconsciousness, one most recently animated on September 11.Showing how different events from World War II became prominentin American cultural memory while others went forgotten or remainhidden in plain sight, The War Complex moves deftly from war filmsand historical works to television specials and popular magazinesto define the image and influence of World War II in our time.Torgovnick also explores the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, theemotional legacy of the Holocaust, and the treatment of World WarII's missing history by writers such as W. G. Sebald to reveal theunease we feel at our dependence on those who hold the power oftotal war. Thinking anew, then, about how we account for war toeach other and ourselves, Torgovnick ultimately, and movingly,shows how these anxieties and fears have prepared us to think aboutSeptember 11 and our current war in Iraq.