For 65 years, World War II has been America’s “good war.” We’ve had all that time full of works celebrating America’s great victory, many of them tinged with the Oedipal anxiety of the Baby Boom generation. Just this summer, for example, a pair of Boomers delivered yet another paean to World War II heroism in the form of the HBO miniseries The Pacific.
More importantly, to the propagandist of any war it seems it is always 1938 and our adversary is always Hitler about to invade Czechoslovakia. Recently we’ve seen Mahmoud Ahmedinejad cast in that role; previously it was Saddam Hussein.
But as powerful as this strain of valorization has been, there have been powerful statements of dissent along the way. The Americanization of Emily, for example, or Catch-22. Lucky in Love: Book 1 (by George Cheiffet, with art by Stephen DeStefano) follows their path, though it takes a much more personal, less grandiose tone than those two examples.
It’s drawn in a style reminiscent of Disney WWII propaganda cartoons, though DeStefano arranges the backgrounds and perspectives with far greater sophistication. It opens in 1942; fifteen-year-old Lucky gets into trouble with his friend Babe, goes on a date with a girl six inches taller than him, and dreams of being a hero aviator just like Morrie Weingarten, the hometown celebrity. His dreams of war heroism are explicitly linked to his masturbation fantasies.
At the opening of Part 2, “Lucky at War,” though, he is watching a war propaganda movie. When it finishes he tells us, “That’s how we fought the Japs at Hiccup Field in the 15th Air Force.” He is no hero pilot but a mechanic; only WASPs got to become pilots. A shrimpy Italian like him wasn’t wanted. Even Morrie Weingarten, who looked like Jimmy Stewart, was only allowed to be a navigator.
But this is mostly okay with Lucky. He’s more worried about whether or not he should visit the local brothel, and more importantly how he can do so without revealing that his claims of sexual experience are lies. His war job is of little interest to him. It is merely to remove guns from bombers. An editor’s note explains:
The guns were removed to make room for more bombs because General Curtis LeMay instituted a policy of low-level fire bombing of the wooden cities of Japan. By 1945, Japanese air defenses were non-existent. The bombed cities burned to the ground, killing tens of thousands, and maiming hundreds of thousands more.
Speaking about this time in The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who served under LeMay, said, “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”
We pull away from Lucky for a long, sad set piece that forms the heart of the book: the account of Morrie Weingarten’s death. That part is directly—and deliberately—reminiscent of Harvey Kurtzmann, the great antiwar comic book author/artist of the 1950s, who repeatedly bemoaned the pointless death of the Korean War in his classic Two-Fisted Tales.
In Part 3 Lucky returns home to New Jersey, not really a hero, and goes to work for Morrie Weingarten’s father. It’s here that the book takes on WWII mythologizing most directly. Lucky knows a small part of what happened to Morrie: his plane simply disappeared at sea. But that’s not a satisfying enough story for the grieving father, so he embellishes it, making Morrie a hero volunteer on a secret mission. In return the father treats him as a war hero himself. Lucky likes the adulation but knows full well what he really did during the war.
The final major episode of the book is a small-scale lesson in a community’s capacity to invent heroes. Lucky and some of his friends from the neighborhood form a team for a greased-pole climbing contest. Their competition is a team from another neighborhood that includes an injured veteran. Lucky’s team loses but his uncle, who’s judging, proclaims them winners anyway. They are celebrated by the whole town in a parade. “They thought we were heroes,” says Lucky. “I knew different.”
PDF preview here.