The myth of the greatest generation

How tall was the greatest generation? That’s the question raised by a Virginia Tech research project, which was made public on Pearl Harbor Day earlier this month. Called “The American soldier in World War II“, the voluntary initiative transcribed and digitized responses to surveys administered to hundreds of thousands of servicemen between 1940 and 1941.

Some of the answers are what you would expect from a force made up largely of conscripts. Servicemen complained about food, lack of recreational opportunities, and military bureaucracy. Other reports are discordant by 21st century standards. Investigations revealed tense and sometimes soured relations between northerners and southerners, blacks and whites. Contrary to pop culture portrayals, many also expressed ambivalence about the war’s goals and their willingness to face the fight.

It is a low blow to blame young men for having opinions prevalent in their time and place. Highlighting now retrograde attitudes toward race and gender, a Washington Post Account of the project almost reads like a generational cancellation. But any serious assessment requires weighing what members of the US forces said during World War II against what they did. The defeat of the Japanese Empire and National Socialism (in cooperation with allies attractive, repulsive, and somewhere in between) was an indisputable moral feat.

Even so, the project strikes a blow at the sanitized version of World War II promoted by media personalities like news anchor Tom Brokaw, who popularized the term “the greatest generation.” Provocatively recent book, historian Elizabeth D. Samet argues that nostalgia for a glorious national effort to defend freedom and democracy around the world has distorted American politics for at least half a century. In pursuit of the cohesion and purpose we believe we enjoyed between 1941 and 1945, we translate every problem, foreign or domestic, into the idiom of World War II. This has led to mixed and sometimes disastrous results in real and metaphorical conflicts, including this century’s War on Terror.

The problem isn’t just that specific historical analogies don’t work (not every foreign policy dispute is another Munich, not every strong leader is another Hitler). It is that the mythology of collective redemption through violent struggle creates expectations that can never be realized, encouraging a cycle of idealistic overcoming followed by disappointed pessimism. In his introduction, Samet notes that when journalist Studs Terkel invoked “the good war” in the title of his own oral history, he insisted on placing the phrase in quotation marks. The decision was “not a matter of whim or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective ‘good’ mated to the noun ‘war’ is so incongruous.”

Ironically, people who lived through the war were our best reminders of this incongruity. When they told their own stories, whether in private or on paper, they displayed little of the certainty or triumphalism now associated with their experiences. The explicitly war-themed works of Norman Mailer or Paul Fussell, not to mention the more oblique treatments of mid-century cinema noir, are hardly advertisements for the restorative properties of war.

Rather than a form of complacency, the cult of the greatest generation was the product of Americans born during or shortly before the war who grew up in fear of fathers, older brothers, or parents who had worn uniforms. Many of this cohort served – in Korea, Vietnam or elsewhere. But few found the moral or political satisfaction they expected.

Inspired in part by genuine historical interest, immersion in the “good war” of the past could also be a compensation for the uncertainties and upheavals that young Americans mistakenly believed to be unique to the second half of the 20th century. That’s why the 1990s saw an explosion of World War II-themed popular culture, much of it produced by and for men in their late middle years.

At the time, the greatest generation could still speak for themselves, sometimes offering a harsh rebuke to overly romantic representations. It’s more difficult today, with only about 240,000 veterans still alive, and many who have mental and physical health problems. The Virginia Tech project is essential neither because it documents people who were much better than us, nor because it opens a window into a dark past. Instead, it records the voices of ordinary men, whose experiences warn us of the confusion, corruption, injustice and horror that accompanies even the most necessary wars.