Fawning over World War II generation

January 22, 1999|By Jacob Weisberg

THE NO. 1 best-selling book this week is "The Greatest Generation," by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw. The most acclaimed and second-highest grossing film of 1998 was "Saving Private Ryan."

Though Steven Spielberg's film is fiction and Mr. 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 Mr. Brokaw (born in 1940) and Mr. Spielberg (born in 1946) evince a powerful sense of nostalgia for the world of their fathers. As his title suggests, Mr. Brokaw makes an explicit case for the superiority of the World War II generation.

In an introduction to the profiles that make up his book, Mr. Brokaw 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."

Was it?

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.

GI myth

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 Mr. 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.

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? Mr. 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 Mr. 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," Mr. 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.

Divorce rates

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 got 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Brokaw's book -- as from most oral history -- is any hint of analytical rigor.

Aspects of American life that Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Lyndon Johnson did give America Medicare. But others, such as GI Bob Dole, voted against it.

Let's not forget that George Wallace and Joe McCarthy also served in World War II.

Mr. Brokaw repeats most of the other familiar cliches: 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 Mr. Brokaw never met my Uncle Stanley. Of course, it's true that a lot of World War II-era vets 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.

Also, the World War II generation had little choice when it came to fighting the war. 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.

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.

This is an excerpt of an article by Jacob Weisberg, chief critic of Slate, an online magazine.

Pub Date: 1/22/99

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