Debunking the Greatest Generation

What 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."

Orfalea 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."


Now 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.

What 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 followed.


The 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.

The 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.


Finally, 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."

"I 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.

"After 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."


Mr. 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."

Americans 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."

Not all American soldiers did such things, but enough of them did so routinely to make one wonder how great the greatest generation was.


Mr. 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."

The book that kept popping into my mind as I read this was Robert Higgs’ classic, Crisis 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 size.

Even 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.


Books like Tom Brokaw’s do a disservice not only to the generation he wanted to idolize, but to those who cane before and those who have come along since. At bottom, there is no such thing as a "generation" about which we can generalize. There are only people, who respond to the challenges and opportunities they face in both admirable and despicable ways. Trying to idealize the generation that fought World War II is particularly dangerous, however, as Clubb points out:

"No one learns integrity from any war. There was nothing glorious about World War II, even if it might have been necessary. Undeniably, there were many fine men and women in the armed forces during World War II and many fine men among the relatively small minority who saw combat in all its brutality. And many were able to maintain some sense of moral rectitude during the atrocities of war – but many were not."

It would be a mistake to blame "the greatest generation" collectively for McCarthyism or the Tuskegee medical experiment in which black men with syphilis were left untreated (even after medical people knew penicillin was effective) just to see what would happen. Individual people were responsible for those events and mistakes. Lumping people together into generations or ethnic groups and assigning them characteristics and collective blame or credit degrades individual human beings and the personal responsibility they bear for the choices they make and the actions they perform.

The Brokawization of the "greatest generation" is particularly pernicious, however, insofar as it glamorizes and romanticizes war and suggests that without a war peoples’ true mettle cannot be tested or displayed. Life has plenty of tests of courage and integrity without having governments place weapons into the hands of young people and forcing them to go out there and kill or be killed.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).