The World War Two Generation is not the Greatest Generation
Published on January 11, 2014
I've always been dubious of self-pronouncements.
For example, the oft-cited modern declaration, "I'm a patriot." Right wingers say this a lot, and of course, they never bother to cite the exact circumstances of how they came to this determination.
When you say you're a patriot, exactly what do you mean and what constitutes to you patriotism? What is patriotism? It can't be mere love of country. I could be a home-grown communist and still love the United States. I just love it in a different way (even if misguided) than you do.
Of course, right-wingers probably don't like the saying, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
On the news the other night an announcer in recalling an aerial dogfight between the American pilot of a P-51 Mustang and the pilot of a German Messerschmitt over the skyline of Paris called the American a member of America's "Greatest Generation."
This saying entered general American lexicon usage ever since television newscaster Tom Brokaw
coined it in a 1998 book. Brokaw, born in 1940, is not a Second World War veteran, but my estimate is that few veterans or non-veterans who lived and served during the war would disagree with the label.
Like the term patriot, what do you mean by greatest?
Brokaw based his estimation on two major American events of the 20th century, of course the war and America's victorious involvement, and the Great Depression of the 1930's, which preceded it. In other words, because Americans of that time got through the Great Depression and won World War Two, they are the greatest generation.
They're a great generation, if we want to use a vague, sentiment-motivated, often historically unquantifiable, one-size-fits-all, misleading designation. But they're not the greatest.
Most of the war veterans were in their teens during the height of the Depression in 1933. They were not the bread winners of the families in cities and farms of which they were a part. They may have suffered along with their parents during the joblessness of that period, but most will tell you if they're honest that they got through it okay.
There had also been economic depressions in 1837 and 1892. While the Great Depression of the 1930's impacted more Americans than earlier economic slumps partly because the population was greater, no one in his right mind would try to make the point that life was easier in 1837 before the advent of electricity, auto travel and penicillin than it was in the 1930's.
You didn't purchase butter from a store in 1792. You made it yourself. Life then was grindingly hard.
So, Americans of Brokaw's Greatest Generation are not the greatest because of the Great Depression. The Great Depression was easing and finally ended because of World War Two. War work in defense plants ended joblessness.
It has to be the war.
Here's where I get in trouble with World War Two veterans. But first a little postscript:
PBS (Public Broadcast Service) ran a documentary on World War Two about the mistakes Adolph Hitler made that caused Germany to lose the war, for example, driving his tank forces within reach of Moscow, then changing his mind and sending them north and south to take Leningrad and the Ukraine, then changing his mind again, sending them back to attack Moscow after a month's delay with the Russian winter approaching.
Hitler also made other huge mistakes of judgment.
American World War Two veterans were furious at the show and phoned in complaints. They said the show made it look like they won World War Two not because they were better soldiers than the Germans, bigger and tougher, but because Hitler made mistakes.
Here's where I get in trouble with veterans.
They are not the greatest generation because they won World War Two.
The generation that fought the Revolutionary War, created the nation and the Constitution we still live under are the greatest generation.
At no point am I trying to dismiss the achievement, sacrifice or heroism of the World War Two generation.
But the odds a group of farmers could defeat the reigning superpower of 1776, the British, even if it was on our own home turf----the odds were greater against it than our victory in World War Two. It never would have happened without the military assistance of the French at the crucial moment, a decision undertaken only because Benjamin Franklin lobbied successfully for it in Paris---itself another improbably long shot.
The Founders in addition to creating a new country created the Constitution which we still live under to this day and while it was originally hypocritical in some ways (did not originally extend itself to women, blacks and Native American Indians), it nevertheless was a workable and inspirational document that set the tone for everything that followed.
Contrary to that:
America was one of 20 countries fighting the Germans in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific, and while the U.S. took a leading role, the Russians killed in the final Battle of Berlin alone numbered about one-fourth of all the Americans killed during the entire war. For each ten Germans killed in the war, eight were killed on the Eastern (Russian) Front.
Thomas John "Tom" Brokaw, born February 6, 1940, is an American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. | Photo: NBC Nightly News | Tom Brokaw, Journalist, News, Anchor, Icon, Nbc,
The World War Two generation is the third greatest generation.
The Civil War generation is second greatest. The Union Army preserved the country and ended slavery. Over half a million were killed, more than the number in World War Two. A Civil War is always the worst, brother killing brother, over and above the defeat of an evil foreign power.
Brokaw bases his decision on four fallacies;
- Bigger is more important. Because World War Two was bigger in participants on a global scale.
- If it happened in or near my lifetime it's more important. People who died long ago are not as important. Out of sight out of mind.
- If it's closer to my own generation, then like World War Two veterans---I myself am more important.
- A book about World War Two veterans will sell better because they're still around (100 are dying each day). This really isn't a fallacy, but a truism.
It also begs the question? What is the most worthless generation? For example, the World War Two generation could be also condemned as being the most polluting generation (toxic chemicals and global warming) in the globe's history.
If there is a greatest generation, then correspondingly there has to be a worst, and perhaps it's my own, the 1960's generation. Though some of us opposed the Vietnam War and others fought it, we also often exhibited cowardly and selfish behavior, throwing riots when we were displeased, vandalizing property, promoting drugs and sexual licentiousness, turning the country into a drive-by-shooting, serial and schoolyard killing hell. Perhaps.
But that's another story, for another time.