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Trump’s Military Nostalgia (or ‘Victory at Sea’ All Over Again)

Posted on Mar 14, 2017

By Michael T. Klare / TomDispatch

  President Trump gives a thumbs-up to Navy personnel after a tour of the USS Gerald R. Ford in early March. (U.S. Navy / CC 2.0)

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If you are an American male of a certain age—Donald Trump’s age, to be exact—you are likely to have vivid memories of Victory at Sea, the Emmy award-winning NBC documentary series about the U.S. Navy in World War II that aired from October 1952 to May 1953. One of the first extended documentaries of its type, Victory at Sea traced the Navy’s triumphal journey from the humiliation of Pearl Harbor to the great victories at Midway and Leyte Gulf in the Pacific and finally to Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Drawing on archival footage (all in black and white, of course) and featuring a majestic sound track composed by Richard Rogers of Broadway musical fame, the series enjoyed immense popularity. For many young people of that time, it was the most compelling, graphic imagery available about the epic war our fathers, uncles, and classmates’ dads had fought in.

Why do I mention this? Because I’m convinced that President Trump’s talk of rebuilding the U.S. military and “winning wars again” has been deeply influenced by the kind of iconography that was commonplace in Victory at Sea and the war movies of his youth. Consider his comments on February 27th, when announcing that he would request an extra $54 billion annually in additional military spending. “We have to start winning wars again,” he declared.  “I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say we never lost a war. We never lost a war, remember?”

Now, recall that when Trump was growing up, the United States was not winning wars—except on the TV screen and in Hollywood. In the early 1950s, when Victory at Sea was aired, America was being fought to a standstill in Korea and just beginning the long, slow descent into the Vietnam quagmire. But if, like Trump, you ignored what was happening in those places and managed to evade service in Vietnam, your image of war was largely shaped by the screen, where it was essentially true that “we never lost a war, remember?”

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Trump similarly echoed themes from Victory at Sea on March 2nd in a speech aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, America’s newest aircraft carrier. There, clearly relishing the opportunity to don a Navy bomber jacket—“They said, here, Mr. President, please take this home, he quipped happily. “I said, let me wear it”—he extolled the carrier fleet. “We are standing today,” he commented stirringly, “on 4.5 acres of combat power and sovereign U.S. territory, the likes of which there is nothing to compete.” Then, as part of a proposed massive build-up of the Navy, he called on the country to fund an enormously expensive 12th carrier on a planet on which no other country has more than two in service (and that country, Italy, is an ally).

The new president went on to discuss the role of U.S. aircraft carriers in World War II—yes, World War II!—a key turning point in the naval war against Japan. “You’ve all known about the Battle of Midway, where the sailors of the U.S. Navy fought with the bravery that will be remembered throughout the ages,” he noted. “Many brave Americans died that day, and, through their sacrifice, they turned the tide of the Pacific War. It was a tough tide, it was a big tide, it was a vicious tide, and they turned it.”

Again, Donald Trump (not exactly a well-read military historian) undoubtedly was recalling parts of Victory at Sea, or perhaps Hollywood’s 1976 version of the same, Midway (with its all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, and Cliff Robertson, among others). Both portrayed the famous battle in exactly this fashion: as the “turning of the tide” in the war against Japan. Yes, a speechwriter probably penned Trump’s lines, but they were spoken with such gusto that you could feel how heartfelt they were, how much they reflected his imagined “experience” of that war.

Trump’s attachment to these “memories” of America’s glory days at war helps explain his approach to military policy and defense funding.  Typically, when proposing major increase in military spending, American presidents and their secretaries of defense have articulated grand strategic reasons for doing so—to contain Soviet expansionism, say, or accelerate the global war on terror.  Trump’s White House doesn’t bother with such rationales.

Other than speeding up the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a war launched two and a half years ago by President Obama and now apparently nearing its official completion date, President Trump’s only justification for throwing tens of billions of dollars more at the Pentagon is to overcome a supposed deterioration of U.S. military capabilities and to enable the Armed Forces to start “winning wars again.”  Otherwise, the rationale seems to boil down to something like the following: let’s rebuild the Navy that defeated Japan in World War II so that we can win battles like Midway all over again.


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