the Greatest Generation
got me started was a book review in the conservative magazine National
Review of yet another of those books by sons of World War II-era
fathers glorifying their participation in the "good war."
This one was by the son of one of those who raised the American
flag at Iwo Jima. As the reviewer, Gregory Orfalea (who has also
written a book about his father's WW II unit) notes, with that glorification
of war that affects so many conservatives, "It may well be
that for sheer emotional weight, no image of war has had such a
hold on American hearts."
touches on the phenomenon of "sons writing about their fathers'
lives in the Second World War. At bottom is a son trying to bring
an extraordinary father back to life, and wanting to teach us what
a hero really is."
ONLY BRED BY WAR?
I have nothing against sons admiring their fathers or wanting others
to understand their more admirable qualities. There's something
quite touching in some of the impulse to produce memoirs.
bothers me is the unstated and sometimes openly declared assumption
that it is only war that produces heroes, only war that provides
the real test of manliness and decency, only war that can unite
a country, only war that can confer nobility and greatness on a
generation. NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw was widely admired for his
books on what he chose to call "the greatest generation,"
the generation that went to war and rid the world of the scourge
of Nazism. Admiring that generation was widely viewed as a sign
of generosity and humility, of being able to appreciate those who
had gone before and perhaps had to endure more tests of character
and courage than the privileged generations (one's own) that had
whole phenomenon struck me as rather less noble or generous. It
seems to me that those who want to sanctify the "greatest generation"
are mostly aging Yuppies safely beyond the age at which they
might actually be called to go to war themselves indulging
themselves (as usual) in a few moments of war envy. The current
boomer generation didn't have a war or a depression during which
its members could demonstrate their courage or test their mettle.
So some of them have chosen to glorify those who lived through a
war most Americans could believe in at the time, not to mention
a Depression and the beginning of the Atomic Age.
potential danger here is that all this glorification of those who
proved their mettle by obeying government orders to take up weapon
and laughter strangers will inspire people to want another war to
test and fortify spoiled American youth who haven't had that dubious
opportunity. So the impulse might be to think kindly of new opportunities
to let young Americans see what they're really made of.
SIDE TO THE GREATEST GENERATION
somebody has told some of the other side of the story. Merrel Clubb,
professor emeritus of English at the University of Montana, has
an excellent piece in the current (August) issue of Liberty
magazine, though it might not be for the weak of stomach. Born in
1921 and a Naval officer who volunteered for service in World War
II and participated in amphibious assaults in the Pacific, Clubb
reminds us that there was a darker side to the "greatest generation."
am a member of the great generation," he writes, "that,
even before we were formally engaged in World War II, refused entry
to a shipload of Jewish refugees, forcing them to return to Europe,
some eventually to Hitler's gas chambers.
entering the war, my generation burned, bombed, and otherwise destroyed
the lives of countless, often innocent, people caught up in a total
war all over the world: Europe, Africa, Asia, and islands in the
pacific Ocean. Members of my generation destroyed hospitals, killed
and mistreated civilians, tossed hand grenades into houses and cellars ‘
just in case' where civilians as well as soldiers might be hiding.
In the Pacific we sometimes buried the dead with their penises or
testicles in their mouths."
ALL AMERICAN ATROCITIES
Clubb doesn't suggest that it was only Americans who were capable
of atrocity. The Japanese and Germans did their share and more,
from the savage treatment of POWs by the Japanese to germ warfare
experiments to, of course, the Holocaust. "Nevertheless,"
he writes, "this does not condone the evil that men of my greatest
generation were capable of during World War II. It has been acknowledged
that terror bombing entire cities does little to win wars, and for
the most part in Europe we kept to what was euphemistically called
precision bombing. [For some reason he doesn't mention Dresden.]
Yet my generation fire-bombed and virtually destroyed some sixty
cities in Japan toward the end of the war, including a huge section
of Tokyo in one night when over 100,000 died."
cut off Japanese ears as souvenirs, and collected gold teeth from
the mouths of dead (and sometimes still alive) Japanese soldiers.
Some "placed Japanese skulls on posts as decorations, or cut
off Japanese heads, then boiled the flesh off so they could send
the cleaned skulls to sweethearts back home."
all American soldiers did such things, but enough of them did so
routinely to make one wonder how great the greatest generation was.
Clubb notes that it wasn't just soldiers in the field who engaged
in less-than-admirable activities. "Members of my generation
shattered democracy as we once knew it in this country. Soon after
we entered the war, we deprived thousands of Americans of their
rights by sending them to Japanese-American internment camps. Shortly
after the war Congress, infused with newly-elected members from
my generation, passed laws establishing the Atomic Energy Commission,
the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency,
all staffed and controlled by members of my great generation, who
were responsible to virtually no one except for an unelected few
running them, and whose policies and actions were shrouded in secrecy.
In creating these agencies, we destroyed the kind of open government
envisioned by the framers of our Constitution, an open arena where
issues could be freely debated in full public view."
book that kept popping into my mind as I read this was Robert Higgs'
and Leviathan. Higgs' thesis is that crisis, or perceived
crisis, with war being the most signal example, has led during the
20th century to enormous growth in government. After
the crisis is resolved one way or another, some of the "emergency"
measures and agencies are eliminated or trimmed back but not all
of them and not all the way. So government, even after the postwar
retrenchment, is noticeably bigger and more powerful than before
the crisis was perceived. And it never goes back to its original
more significant, Higgs argued, is how institutions can shape ideology.
For many boomers, for example, the military draft begun during World
War II and continued thereafter seemed not so much an imposition
of temporary slavery as a normal part of the landscape. What's in
place as we become more aware of the world can seem "normal"
even if in the longer run of history it's unusual. Few Americans
even now are ready to abolish agencies like the CIA or National
Security Agency, though the case for doing so is strong. To most
of us it seems as if they've always been there even though, as Clubb
reminds us, they were only established fairly recently. The idea
of eliminating them seems terribly radical.