The Greatest Generation
The No. 1 best seller in America this week is The Greatest Generation, by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. The most acclaimed and second highest grossing film of 1998 (just behind Armageddon) was Saving Private Ryan. Though Steven Spielberg’s film is fiction and Brokaw’s book is something akin to oral history, they have in common a fashionable theme: the nobility of those who served in the armed forces during World War II and, by extension, Americans of that age in general.
You might describe this perspective as GI envy. Both Brokaw (born in 1940) and Spielberg (born in 1946) evince a powerful sense of nostalgia for the world of their fathers. As his title suggests, Brokaw makes an explicit case for the superiority of the World War II generation. In an introduction to the interview-profiles that make up his book, he repeats a claim he first made on television when he was swept up by the emotion of the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994: “This is the greatest generation any society has produced.”
The corollary of this reverence is an often underarticulated feeling of generational self-loathing. Echoing through Brokaw’s book, and to a lesser extent through Spielberg’s movie, is an implicit comparison to the softer and more selfish generation that followed. Joe Klein, another boomer critic of his own generation, often drew this contrast during the Clinton-Dole presidential race, which he described as “a choice between experience and callowness, between sacrifice and self-indulgence, between the most heroic American generation of the century and the most coddled.” Boomer self-disgust has also been making itself felt in the impeachment battle. Many of those who want to remove the president are conservative boomers who believe that Bill Clinton symbolizes a generation raised amid postwar prosperity according to the principles of Dr. Spock, one that lacks the moral fiber of those who experienced the Great Depression and fought in World War II.
Were they the greatest generation that ever lived? Their children’s generational neuroses don’t necessarily prove Brokaw wrong. But the Brokaw position is badly flawed, not because of the instinct that motivates it but because of a romanticizing tendency that eclipses all logic and evidence. The notion that the GIs were somehow better people than those born after them remains, like most facile generalizations about generations, a matter of prejudice, not analysis.
Let’s look at a few of Brokaw’s overreaching assertions. In his introduction, he writes of the GIs, “They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.” That sounds plausible–where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? But consider just one of those attributes: “faith.” Putting aside the question of whether more faith is a good thing, was the GI generation really more religious than others? Brokaw doesn’t offer any support for this claim, and one might well make the opposite case. The United States has probably become more religious as boomers have become the dominant demographic group. About 10 percent more people now say they belong to churches than did so in the 1950s, when the GIs predominated.
Almost all the traits Brokaw attributes to the GIs are subject to similar demurrals. “That’s another legacy of the World War II generation, the strong commitment to family values and community,” Brokaw writes in another characteristic passage. It’s true that returning veterans didn’t get divorced in large numbers. But that doesn’t prove that our grandparents and parents had a deeper commitment to family values. It simply testifies to the legal and social reality they inherited–it was hard to get divorced in the 1940s and ‘50s. Who changed that reality? The GIs did, because they found the virtual prohibition on divorce an intolerable restriction on their freedom. As divorces became more readily available, GIs had them too. The baby boomers who inherited the divorce laws the World War II generation loosened have in recent years begun to contemplate tightening them again.
I don’t mean to imply that Brokaw’s book is all drivel. It includes a number of moving stories about wartime heroism that can be appreciated without reference to its argument, which is pretty much superfluous. But what’s missing from Brokaw’s book–as from most oral history–is any hint of analytical rigor. Aspects of American life that Brokaw deplores, such as segregation and McCarthyism, are viewed as part of the wallpaper. It was not the GI generation that rounded up Japanese Americans and put them into camps. That was merely “American racism.” But when it came to the good that happened on their watch, Brokaw gives the GIs themselves full credit. “They came to understand the need for federal civil rights legislation,” he writes. “They gave America Medicare.” Well, GI Johnson did give America Medicare. But others, such as GI Dole, voted against it. Let’s not forget that George Wallace and Joe McCarthy also served in World War II.
Brokaw repeats most of the other familiar clichés: World War II veterans know the value of a dollar, they never boast, and they’re reluctant to talk about their wartime experiences. I’m tempted to say that Brokaw never met my Uncle Stanley. Of course, it’s true that there are a lot of World War II-era vets who aren’t inclined to relive the battlefield horrors they experienced. But this may have less to do with the unique stoicism of a generation than with the natural inclination everyone has to repress traumatic experiences. If Vietnam vets have been tempted to make more of a meal of their experiences, it’s partly due to the fact that those experiences weren’t widely shared. The therapeutic culture of the present era also probably plays a role, teaching us that it’s not healthy to keep one’s pain bottled up inside. But who created that therapeutic culture? You could argue, once again, that it was a bequest from members of the GI generation, who introduced psychiatry and psychoanalysis into American life.
What many of the GIs Brokaw interviews say explicitly is that the baby boomers lack the moral character they themselves had. “They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest,” Brokaw writes of the GIs, casting another aspersion at the Vietnam generation (italics mine). But at the risk of stating the obvious, Vietnam was not like World War II. The question men of draft age faced after Pearl Harbor was whether they would serve their country in an unambiguously good cause. The challenge faced by the Vietnam generation was morally more complex: How do you serve your country when it is engaged in a morally dubious cause (a cause the country as a whole–not just a few protesters–came to conclude was a mistake)? The World War II generation also had little choice. Everyone was needed in the war effort, and there were few opportunities to dodge the draft. During the Vietnam War, the military needed only a small percentage of those who were eligible, and there were many options for evasion, legal and illegal. Some served and didn’t protest. Others protested and didn’t serve. Some, like Bob Kerrey and John Kerry, served and then protested. Even today, there is no obvious answer to who answered this quandary in the best way. The GI envy felt by members of the Vietnam generation seems in part a longing for the clearer moral imperative of another time.
There are, to be sure, pivotal generational experiences. No one would deny that the Great Depression and World War II molded one group of people or that Vietnam shaped another. But attempts to explain history in terms of common traits already possessed by the peer groups that confronted these events are seldom illuminating. Just as we cannot know how the baby boomers would have responded to the moral challenge of World War II, we cannot know how the World War II generation would have responded to the different moral challenge of Vietnam. For that matter, we can’t compare the GIs to the Athenians of Pericles’ time, the Florentines of Michelangelo’s, or the Americans of Abraham Lincoln’s. To call one generation the “greatest” doesn’t say anything meaningful about that generation. It does, however, reveal something of what the speaker finds lacking in his own.