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Richard Doty
IU Media Relations

John Bodnar
Department of History

Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2003

IUB history professor views how movies, books portray World War II

World War II is the focus of a historical research project on war and memory under way at Indiana University Bloomington.

John Bodnar, Chancellor's Professor and chair of the History Department, is studying movies, books and monuments to determine how Americans remember World War II.

"I'm interested in how people and nations remember war and the relevant issues that this involves. My aim is to foster an understanding of war as a complex phenomenon that evokes contrasting interpretations," Bodnar said.

An example of this contrast is how trauma and death are viewed. Bodnar said it certainly can be controversial to ask whether killing is worthwhile and whether the death of the enemy is justified. He compares Norman Mailer's book The Naked and the Dead with the writings of famous World War II correspondent and Indiana native Ernie Pyle. "Mailer's book conveys the belief that some soldiers actually enjoyed killing the enemy, perhaps for the revenge factor. But Pyle's writings are the opposite, as he writes to convince us that soldiers don't enjoy killing and aren't inherently violent."

Bodnar said another contrast involves two monuments in Washington, D.C., the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial. The former represents courage by showing soldiers raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, and the latter presents a somber reminder of the Americans who died in that war by listing all of their names.

Regarding the current war in Iraq, Bodnar said he is interested to see how it will be portrayed in movies, books and any monuments that may be erected. "I anticipate that many people will view the Iraq war as a patriotic experience. Much like World War II, as time goes by, the deaths and other negative images will fade and be replaced by glorified images of battles and heroes," he said.

Bodnar also is co-director of the IU Center for the Study of History and Memory, which studies such issues as how we remember historic periods, such as wars, in books and movies. He said the movie industry portrays war in more comprehensive ways than we realize. "Mass culture is about displaying the complexities of our emotions, and I think Hollywood is more realistic than most people give credit for," he said.

The IU historian sees his role as a teacher and scholar to be reconstructing the past without presenting either a pro-war or anti-war position. He authored a scholarly article on his World War II research two years ago.

For more information, contact Bodnar at 812-855-3236 or