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The greatest generation?

by Philip Martin | June 4, 2023 at 2:18 a.m.

He never hit my mama

But hit that beach at Omaha

He lived, not to tell

About a g****** thing he saw

-- Paul Westerberg, "Pine Box"

I never bought into the idea of The Greatest Generation.

While those of us who haven't been tested by combat, who didn't come of age in a worldwide depression, have a lot to be thankful for, human character hasn't changed much. We are no more or less capable of sacrifice and atrocity than our ancestors. And in the year 2525, if man is still alive, we will still be petulant and murderous and tender in roughly the same proportions.

Those people born from 1901 to 1927, the Western demographic cohort that follows The Lost Generation and precedes The Silent Generation--parents of baby boomers--were no more innately noble or moral than we are, than the kids today are. But they were shaped by the challenges of their time.

The phrase "Greatest Generation" goes back at least to 1953, when the recently retired U.S. Army General James Van Fleet, who had served in both world wars and led the Eighth Army in Korea, addressed Congress.

"The men of the Eighth Army are a magnificent lot, and I have always said the greatest generation of Americans we have ever produced," Van Fleet said. "They are your sons and husbands. God bless them."

It is significant to note that many of the soldiers Van Fleet was talking about were not old enough to have fought in World War II. The average age of an American soldier in Korea was about 22. So Van Fleet's "greatest generation" isn't precisely congruent with "The Greatest Generation" as codified by former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw in his 1998 best-seller of that name.

The book is a love letter to the aging survivors of the last unequivocally necessary worldwide war, and a decent gesture. But was that generation genuinely greater than the one that produced Washington, Jefferson, Paine, and Hamilton? Or the one that produced Leonardo, Machiavelli and Columbus? Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Nikola Tesla were contemporaries.

But Brokaw, to be fair, was born in 1940. (A member of the Silent Generation.) He is right to be impressed by the selflessness of his forebears, and even 25 years ago, his thesis that subsequent generations have been spoiled by relative prosperity and peace resonated with Americans.

He ends his book in a South Dakota cemetery, watching his uncle and another man placing small American flags on the graves of veterans. "It came to me then that this was, in many ways, the essence of the American experience. These two men had gone off to war in distant places, then returned to the familiar surroundings of their youth, the small town and farmland where lifewas often difficult. They came home to resume lives enriched by the values they had defended.

"I thought of the farmers, the merchants, the railroad men, and all of their families who had gone through so much to tame the prairie and start communities, build schools and churches, and look after one another. They had gone off to war, or sent their husbands, sons and boyfriends, and they now lay side by side beneath the sod, mute testimony to sacrifice and service.

"They will have their World War II memorial and their place in the ledgers of history, but no block of marble or elaborate edifice can equal the lives of sacrifice and achievement, duty and honor, as monuments to their time."

There is something clean and solemn about Brokaw's sentiment, and while I may disagree with his thesis, it's right to consider the difficult and dangerous endeavors of ordinary people under pressure. When I was growing up, there were still a lot of World War II vets around; most bore their scars with a taciturn dignity that wouldn't be encouraged in today's culture of self-care.

And maybe it shouldn't be.

Nostalgia can be a useful psychological mechanism. It's a method of draining away the pain and particularity of the past, limning it in soft Hollywood light and placing it under a bell jar high in a corner of our mind's attic. It can provide comfort, and a sense of belonging, increasing feelings of social connectedness and self-esteem, and add meaning to our lives.

While contemporary American politics seems less grounded in first principles than partisan careerism, we imagine the Americans who fought the Nazis were united in a clear struggle against evil. Through the gauzy lens of nostalgia, World War II seems like a righteous battle against an intolerable enemy.

We won World War II, and our victory was not complicated by any negotiated concessions to our enemies. (The Soviets were nominally our allies.) We were unquestionably the good guys, and unquestionably the victors -- we dictated terms of peace to countries that had demonstrated barbaric potential.

But the past only resolves to clarity through a backward-looking lens. What you do is the best you can; the next necessary thing. You do your job, or try to do it, even though it feels impossible. You do it not for glory or for some high-minded ideal but because you don't want to let your family--or your buddy next to you-- down. You fear the shame of failure, of being thought a coward, more than the artillery of the enemy.

When I was a kid we had lots of World War II vets; they were my grandfather's age. We could talk to them, hear their stories, if we could draw them out. Most of the ones I knew were reluctant to talk about whatever part they played. Some were stricken, inwardly turned men; the worse they saw, the less they spoke in platitudes. They are all but gone now, white stones in ranks in green fields.

"For most younger Americans, D-Day has been a page or two in their history books or some anniversary celebration with a lot of white-haired men leaning into the winds coming off the English Channel," Brokaw writes, adding that Steven Spielberg's brutal recreation of the landing at Omaha Beach in the film "Saving Private Ryan," where the first wave of Allied troops suffered 90 percent casualties, "is true to the sound, the fury, the death, the terrible wounds of that day."

Brokaw surely doesn't intend it, but I hear a note of condescension in the phrase The Greatest Generation.

Maybe it's the smug notion that we are more complicated than our grandparents, more alert to nuance, and less likely to be suckered by oratory. We can divine degrees of evil; that one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. We might believe ourselves more subtle than those simple folks who saved the world.

Nostalgia can let us compartmentalize and move on--to memorialize and pay our respects. But it can be dangerous as well. Evil is still with us, though perhaps not in as blunt a form as Hitler and the Nazis. And there is still the need to sacrifice, the need for serious people to contend with serious issues.

Those great old folks didn't settle things. The fight goes on.

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