I was watching the (A&E Biography) of Ted Williams, the baseball player. This guy raised himself as a latchkey kid, gets drafted by the Boston Red Sox, becomes the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. At the peak of his career, he signs up for World War II, becomes the most decorated fighter pilot in that war, goes back into baseball. He’s the last guy to hit .400, sleeps with every woman in Boston twenty-two times, signs up for the Korean War, gets four more medals.
And then the show ends and I look up on the shelf above my TV. There’s a picture of me in fifth grade holding a three-inch sunfish.
— Nick DiPaolo, Raw Nerve
In 1998, broadcaster TOM BROKAW coined the phrase the “Greatest Generation” to describe the American men and women born more or less between 1901-1924, “who grew up in the United States during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity [on] the war’s home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort.”
“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” Brokaw wrote, because they fought “not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.”
Decades earlier, in his inaugural address, JFK (himself a decorated veteran of the Second World War) had presented a memorable thumbnail sketch of his own cohort:
[T]he torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage.
Later, RONALD REAGAN (and rookie speechwriter PEGGY NOONAN) paid unforgettable tribute to “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” – all greyhaired grandfathers by the time the president saluted them at Normandy, forty years after they’d struggled onto the beach:
These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. (…)
You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.
And yet it was Brokaw, even farther along in time, who coined that simple, alliterative phrase — “the Greatest Generation” — which now seems like it’s been around forever, instead of only thirteen years.
And if another book (that of Genesis) is any indication, we humans have always tended to believe that someone or something isn’t worthy, isn’t real, until it has a name.
So Brokaw’s non-fiction megaseller, with its ingenious title, inspired a rush of copycat books and movies and mini-series that’s never abated. If you doubt it, just visit your nearest Costco, or turn on the History Channel.
World War II vets were famously taciturn about their overseas experiences — a silence their idiot offspring denounced as “uptight” and read as indifference. Ironically, since Brokaw, their stories are told continuously now, engendering great acclaim. (And not a little marital tension: If my husband is any indication, a 24/7 Saving Private Ryan channel would be a great success.)
Inevitably, a minor backlash began stirring around the year 2000, led predictably by the iconoclastic hipster Left (like the fellow at Salon.com who unirionically complained that Brokaw’s book was “largely unironic” — alas, that was how people wrote back then…)
But the criticism never gained traction, in part because Brokaw always insisted (repeatedly and rightly) that he’d been careful to depict flawed, very human heroes, not super-powered saints. And also because even the least introspective scribbler at Vice or Gawker knows he wouldn’t survive five minutes sockless in the Bastogne snow.
Ultimately — narrative-for-narrative — caffeinated bi-coastal “irony” is simply no match against the sight of decidedly nuance-free tanks rolling along, accompanied by stirring music and somber narration.
At the end of the day, far more people of all ages bought the Band of Brothers deluxe box set (see, “my husband,” above) than premium subscriptions to Salon.com.
The saga of the Greatest Generation appeals to one demographic in particular. As Catholic blogger MARK SHEA observes:
One of the things that has most impressed me about the rising generation is the way in which so many Millennials have sought to look over the heads of Generation Narcissus and seek to connect with the World War II generation as models for how to be grownups. From the electric connection young people had with JOHN PAUL II, to the fascination (frustrating to Woodstock priests) that both [Pope] BENEDICT and the Extraordinary Form hold for young Catholics, to the popularity of shows like Mad Men or Band of Brothers, what bleeds through is the sense that the rising generation longs for adulthood and maturity in its adults and in itself.
Eventually, it fell to patriotic, pro-military conservatives like DENNIS PRAGER and WALTER WILLIAMS to try to answer what was becoming an urgent question:
How did the Greatest Generation produce those dreadful offspring, the Baby Boomers?
They and others theorized that in spite of (or because of) their astonishing accomplishments, the Greatest Generation had failed at one big thing:
By accident or design, they hadn’t passed their values along to their Boomer children, whose selfish, utopian “progressive” social engineering and “idealism” left the world in ruins.
Had the Greatest Generation (the men in particular) been so traumatized by their experiences during the Second World War that they came to question those values, like patriotism and self-sacrifice?
The question isn’t as recent as it sounds. The breathtaking film classic The Best Years of Our Lives came out barely one year after D-Day, and is a still-shockingly candid drama about three servicemen trying to readjust to civilian life, in a country that had sent them to war then changed drastically in their absence.
(Those aren’t fake hooks, by the way; HAROLD RUSSELL lost both hands in 1944):
Catch-22 (1961) — sometimes called the ultimate anti-war novel — is a broadly satirical (to put it mildly) reflection of Joseph Heller’s own time in the service.
Even a morsel of escapist fluff like the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960) is underpinned with disillusionment: the gang assembled for the big heist are old 82nd Airborne buddies turned amoral and cynical by their war experiences.
(I wonder if SINATRA and company were inspired by the real life Hell’s Angels, who — legend has it — grew out of post-war veterans’ motorcycle clubs, like The Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington.)
All this to say: Did the “Greatest Generation” concept do more harm than good?
Does the honor we’ve been taught to accord the Greatest Generation keep us from having painful but urgent conversations about entitlements like Medicare and Social Security?
And what about the cohort itself?
Obviously there were many veterans simply too modest to discuss their bravery, even after Tom Brokaw made it socially acceptable.
But others were scarred by the previously inconceivabile sights at Omaha Beach and Auschwitz.
Others were embarrassed by what they perceived as their own moral weaknesses when trying to survive in surreal circumstances, far from home. Did the “Greatest Generation” moniker simply add to their burden?
Let’s be honest: not everyone in that generation was “great.”
Next week we’ll look at the worst of the “greatest.”