Thomas Sutcliffe: America's nostalgic desire for a cleaner kind of heroism

'A kind of willed innocence is in the air, with innocent victims to be righteously defended'
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On the evening of Sunday, 9 September – when television was still just a way of passing the time – quite a few Americans went to war. They did so courtesy of the most expensive production in Home Box Office's history – a 10-part dramatisation of Stephen Ambrose's book, Band of Brothers, the account of a single company of paratroopers fighting its way through Europe from Normandy to Berchtesgarten.

The result of a collaboration between Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg, Band of Brothers is at heart an act of humble commemoration – a gesture from a generation that had never fought to what's been described as "the best generation", the young men who battled their way through Europe. When Hanks encountered Second World War veterans at a parade he attended after the release of Saving Private Ryan, old men found themselves being asked for their autographs by a Hollywood star.

HBO broadcast two episodes on that Sunday night – the first describing Easy Company's training in Georgia and the second covering its baptism of fire on D-Day, a plunge from tidy tactical theory into terrifying chaos. And then, two days later, younger Americans underwent their own baptism in what was almost instantly and almost universally seen as another war.

It was, President Bush declared, "the first war of the 21st century". It is, according to CNN's running story caption, "America's New War". And the question must arise as to what exactly is conjured in American imaginations by that resonant monosyllable? The old men who appear at the beginning of every episode of Band of Brothers will have a clear idea of just what is meant by the word, but what of Americans who have lived at peace all their lives?

In as much as it's possible to tell what he's thinking, President Bush seems to have something sepia-toned and grainy in mind – an image of fierce resolution. While sticking to the script in his remarks to the nation on Saturday, he was at pains to point out to the American public that they had not been here before. This was a war, he explained, "without battlefields or beachheads". But talking off-the-cuff later, he reverted to a more nostalgic vision. "Everybody who wears the uniform get ready", he said, a remark which implied mass mobilisation and Liberty-ship convoys. Where exactly would all those uniforms go if there was no beachhead to receive them? For the moment, that didn't matter; it wasn't logistics that Bush had in mind but emotion, a sense of enlistment in a common cause.

His words will find a public curiously predisposed to the idea of war as an ennobling activity, a summons to the best in a nation. And this is a shift of sensibility, detectable most clearly in American popular culture. After decades in which war was depicted as essentially corrosive of moral qualities, the emphasis has shifted recently to a far cleaner kind of heroism. The many invocations of Pearl Harbor since Tuesday were understandable, a way of grasping at enormity and anger. But for a large number of Americans what those words now bring to mind is a Hollywood movie – one unabashed about the comic-book steel of its leading characters. In Pearl Harbor, war does not corrode – it anneals and hones.

Saving Private Ryan paved the way for this shift – it was a recruitment film for hand-to-hand engagement. Its prelude – in which an old man visits an American cemetery in France to pay his respects to fallen comrades – posed a sharp question to contemporary audiences. Had they lived up to those sacrifices? And this was a genuine novelty after countless films in which the sacrifice itself was often seen to be futile – a cruelty forced on young men by old. Saving Private Ryan – for all the shocking candour of its opening scenes – had a wistful quality to it, a kind of longing for combat that didn't admit of moral ambiguity.

Many Americans may feel that they have found just that – the kind of black-and-white moral contrast that black-and-white films depended on. One can only hope that they remember how easily those two tones muddle into grey. Leonard Slatkin introduced the performance of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings on Saturday night by describing it as "our music of grief". He didn't point out that one of the reasons it has achieved that status is because Oliver Stone used it to such powerful effect in his 1986 film, Platoon, a work which grieved for the death of American ideals. The tagline for Platoon was "the first casualty of war is innocence".

Now, though, Platoon has given way to Band of Brothers and a kind of willed innocence is in the air – with innocent victims to be righteously defended. On 28 October, HBO will screen episode nine of the series, "Why we fight" in which Easy Company helps liberate a concentration camp. Right now, the American public knows the answer to that question. It's ready for its own "good war". But it should remember that it might get a Vietnam instead.