There’s a great deal of literature, research articles, scholarly reviews, and popular culture about World War II. It’s a staple of our national memory; one that doesn’t escape our history. Everyone thinks differently about the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and was hardened by the ferocity of war. To many they are heroes who drew on their service to empower them in achieving their goals. Others quietly kept their service under wraps and remained humble through it all. Many of us see the Second World War as this ultimate evil between good and evil; Nazi depravity and Japanese aggression against the hard-scrabble, morally up righteous, and self-made U.S. citizen from a mural of ethnicities. We can think many things of this generation of Americans. I think about them a lot as my grandparents were part of that group. Tom Brokaw, in his book ‘The Greatest Generation’ draws on his own memories and interactions with a number of World War II veterans. His conclusion was this:
“it is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do.”
Initially, ‘The Greatest Generation’ focused significantly on the author’s own interaction and experience with interviewees. Not just because of the journalist approach, but because of the emotional involvement. While this is commendable, it became repetitive and had a tendency to focus away from the interviewees themselves. When their stories were told however, the tone of the book changes immediately. Explaining and trying to understand such experiences are honestly difficult to comprehend for those non-veterans. We can read all the after action reports, unit records, and witness accounts, but nothing does it justice than being in the heat of battle.
Stories they share are filled with heartache, humor, adrenaline, love, and death. As they tell the stories year later, some are eager while others are far more reluctant. Everyone experienced WWII differently and its lasting impact set them on a multitude of life paths. The discipline of Army life gave many direction while the Great Depression hardened them to the realities of how life can change at the drop of a hat. Many did not expect to go to war. They did anyway when the United States was thrusted into the global conflict.
They are the greatest generation to those who succeeded them. However, not everyone believes that epithet. Generations can think of themselves as ahistorical, meaning that they only judge their accomplishments by the standards of their society at that time. A successful moon landing could be the greatest accomplishment to the baby boomers. For Generation X, maybe the creation of MTV was their greatest achievement (hopefully not though). Every generations has it gallant heroes and proud warriors. For those that came of age during the Great Depression, the war was a crucible unlike anything of its time. Brokaw inserted his own memories of the war as a child in the book also. Examining it through this lens is hard because bias becomes prevalent, but Brokaw does his best in remaining impartial whole still inserting a personal touch.
Overall, ‘The Greatest Generation’ while not chock full of history, provides us with the cultural and societal emphasis of those who fought in WWII. This population decreases every day with a nearly every survivor now in their 9th decade or more. Stories like these will soon be without the living to tell them, but the memories and memorials will endure.