Monday, June 20, 2011

Greatest Generation My Ass

Can we stop all this "Greatest Generation" nonsense yet? It's indisputable that the fighting force that battled the Axis Powers in WWII showed incredible gallantry and sacrifice, as did the civilian population during wartime. The nation's war effort was a collective undertaking, combining soldiers' bravery and citizen resolve. Corporations transformed their factories into armories where women worked the assembly lines in the absence of men who were serving their country, and everyone supported the troops because the soldiers were us. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, men from every station rushed to enlist in the military. No American family was left untouched by the war, and the leadership of government, armed with a righteous cause, rose to the occasion. If there were ever a war worth fighting, this was it. The defeat of Fascism and Nazism by the U.S. military and our allies was among the noblest  achievements of the 20th century, and for that, the generation that fought and sacrificed so much deserves to be called "the greatest." After the war was over? Maybe not so great.

The former mush-mouth anchorman, Tom Brokaw, has created a cottage industry celebrating our parents' and grandparents' exploits in war. I know I bought a copy of his "The Greatest Generation" to give to my dad one Fathers' Day. The book proved to be such a cash bonanza that Brokaw followed up with "The Greatest Generation Speaks," a series of letters and interviews with former soldiers. Brokaw's gravy train slowed when he discovered that his planned third book in the trilogy, "The War Lover," had already been written by John Hersey. But just when Brokaw was becoming the wrinkled equivalent of a teen-idol for the aged, the cause was joined by director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks. One WWII vet was quoted as saying that Tom Hanks has spent more time filming the war than the actual soldiers did fighting it. Suddenly, WWII movies were back in vogue, and Hanks and Spielberg became the John Wayne and John Ford of this generation, as if every conceivable battle were not already portrayed by a Hollywood movie. Post-war kids were fed a steady diet of films celebrating war; "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Back to Bataan," "To Hell and Back," "Flying Leathernecks," "Sands of Iwo Jima," and so on. War seemed so damned exciting, I could hardly wait until I was old enough to go kill somebody in battle and be a quiet hero about it when I got back.

War seemed a rite of passage for American men and we were certain that God was on our side. However, a  golden opportunity was missed to remedy the societal inequities in this country that were magnified by the war. One million black men served in WWII with the hopes that their patriotic service would be rewarded, yet they were segregated into separate units in the Army, the Navy limited blacks to service roles like cooks and janitors, and the Marines excluded them altogether. Everyone knows about the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were stockpiled after Pearl Harbor. Less well-known are the first-hand accounts of black soldiers returning home from the war and being forced to sit in segregated sections of trains and buses, while Nazi prisoners of war received the accommodations and amenities reserved for whites. 400,000 German and Italian prisoners were transported to the U.S. during the war and confined to military bases, mainly in the South. While black soldiers were relegated to separate facilities, prisoners of war were permitted to dine with white officers and enlisted men. The war against the rabid racist Hitler was fought with the most segregated army in history. Although President Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948, it wasn't accomplished until the sixties. The civil rights movement was the direct result of the unjust society left in place after the war.

The 1950s are often portrayed in fictions like "Grease," and "Happy Days," but the reality was far more grim. In prosperous, post-war America, with Ike on the golf course and the Korean conflict concluded, it may have seemed as if all was well with the world. But these were also the days of the Cold War, "duck and cover" drills, McCarthyism and red baiting, black-listing and Jim Crow. While white America embraced a corporate culture and a celebration of consumption, seeds of unrest were sown in  those left out of the "American Dream," and their children. A new phrase entered the lexicon: "Juvenile Delinquent," and it was no coincidence that the boldest critique of society came from the movie "Rebel Without a Cause." A straight line can be drawn from this film about teenage alienation to Elvis Presley, and then the generational breach became irreparable. It might have been different, but the "Greatest Generation" had turned into the "Whiskey and War Generation" that instituted segregation, glorified war, and assumed an authoritarian puritanism that ultimately caused their children to erupt in social protest.

Such a mindset created the Vietnam War, the meat grinder which caused my generation to turn into schizoid Mouseketeers. Our patriotic parents could not understand why anyone would object to fighting in an ideological politicians' racist war. Add to that unrest a president who accrued votes by pitting the old against the young and a "Generation Gap" materialized. The so-called "counterculture" would never have happened without the Vietnam War. Say what you will about hippie excess, but the unifying message of non-exclusivity, and the belief that all people had value, was closer to Martin Luther King's vision of a "Beloved Society" than the "Love it or leave it" sentiment of the "Silent Majority" of militant patriots. My bi-polar generation is best represented by Bill Clinton on one hand, and George W. Bush on the other, dividing my age-group between those that dropped acid in the 60s and those that did not. People of all ages have fought the good fight, but the societal progress made since WWII in civil rights, women's equality, and human rights were accomplished in spite of the so-called "Greatest Generation." They were magnificent in wartime. Then they became Republicans.

13 comments:

performs said...

One noteworthy person who fought in WWII who did not become a Republican is Howard Zinn. He woke up to see the great need for the progressive values of seeking peace, fairness, equality, and generosity, based upon brotherly feelings. His commitment to these values was expressed through writing, speaking, teaching, organizing, and demonstrating.
In the book, "Back to Our Future," by David Sirota, it is shown how the think tanks, supported by BIGBIZ (Republicans, conservatives, whatever they're called), successfully attempted during the 80's to promote the 50's as when the country held to the "real red-blooded, war-loving, patriotic American values. And at the same time spun the 60's as the decade of America-hating, hippy-thinking activities, like spitting on Viet Nam vets (no actual proof that hippies did this).

Alan said...

History repeats. It was Democratic Progressive President Woodrow Wilson who segregated the armed forces. Prior to Wilson the armed forces and the federal government workers were integrated. It was Eisenhower who sent troops to Little Rock to integrate Central High School against Democrat Faubus. It was the Democrats who blocked the 1st civil rights legislation that was introduced by Eisenhower and the Republicans. It was the Democrats in Chicago in 1968 that fought anti war protesters. I am willing to bet that most young Americans think just the opposite.

Father Farken said...

Randy! Wrote a sermon a few years back...The Greatest Generation fell Short! & as you said...the problem was racism. I am going to try to find it & check back with you! The Peace of the Lord! FFF

Cindy said...

Randy! Good Stuff. Hope they don't edit ANY of it.

-j. said...

You should read 'Stiffed' by Susan Faludi. She talks about how these "great" men weren't very good fathers and left an empty model of masculinity for their sons. They were absent and didn't talk about their experiences. Their middle management jobs were devoid of meaning.

Alan said...

My experiences with the Greatest Generation are different from yours. Surprisingly, considering they should have been the same. My parents and their friends were amazing people. They had a tight knit group of friends that stayed close their whole lives. When they threw parties it was a group project. Their friends produced the first female President of a Jewish Congregation in the world. They were always there to help each other out. They produced a generation of children who have had a great life thanks to them. Civic minded people like your sister and her charity work. There is a long list of accomplishments from the people who were confirmed by Rabbi Wax. They also grew up in the South. My Fathers Company hired mainly Black workers who were lifted into the middle class, not left in poverty. This is the generation of The Plough Foundation, Lichterman-Lowenberg Foundation, Folgelman School of Business, Sam Cooper and on and on. They were not perfect, but who is?

Anonymous said...

I believe we are in a mess of unprecendented proportion. God help us if that "Dick" is re-elected.

Jim said...

You're 100 percent right. I'm sick and tired of hearing about the Great Ass Generation. It was the Soviets who won WW 2 and it was the German rocket scientists who put us on the moon. During the cold war years all you ever heard about was D-day and the battle of the bulge, how we liberated Europe and won WW 2. Then in 1974 a British war documentary called The World at War hit the airwaves in this country and it opened up my eyes. The important battles on the eastern front were revealed along with the enormous amount of Russian’s killed, between 20 and 30 million people, in this horrific struggle. The first big ground force defeat of the German army occurred on December 6th 1941, one day before Pearl Harbor, on the outskirts of Moscow that signaled the beginning of the end of German aggression. The great battles of Stalingrad and Kursk were key Soviet victories that sent the German army reeling backward to their final doom at the battle of Berlin. Yes we did beat Japan, but a lot of credit should be given to the atomic scientists, both foreign and domestic, that gave us the atomic weapons that finally ended the pacific war. Eight out of every ten German soldiers were killed by the Soviets during WW 2 and you never heard about it in this country during the cold war years. Now, because of the web, you can see the original films of the great Soviet battles as well as their defense of Leningrad that were shown during the forties in American movie theaters before the cold war when both countries were united against the Nazis. During the cold war years American propaganda distorted the truth about Soviet involvement in WW 2 so we could claim more credit then we deserved in winning the war and this gave the generation of Americans who fought the war an elevated status that was beyond their real accomplishments.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for saying what needed to be said. I am constantly hearing these old men on TV saying we are all smart asses or didn't get enough ass whoopings from our parents. I never hear them saying thanks for the social security or medicade they get, which will ultimately be gone when we get that age. I don't think my generation has taken anything for granted. In fact, I think we are striving hard to fix the fuck ups that these geriatric clowns left us with.

Rohit Sharma said...

Thanks.

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grannyol'hippy said...

My 1950s, 1960s parents were cold, cheap, bigoted, entitled assholes. Brainwashed by Washington and Hollywood. They hated their children, and thought of us as their born Social Security providers. If the truth be told, I bet many, much beligned, Babyboomers had the same fake, image is everything, upbringing too. This "Babyboomer" worked her fingers to the bone to provide food and shelter for my kids. They had all my love, understanding and free time, not every newest "thing". They were taught the truth about life in America and how it was never great for everyone who wasn't white, and we are white. They are honest, hardworking, caring people, who love their kids too. Isn't that really what we want our "great" America to be? A kind, caring society who Love and help eachother. Come on America, greatness begins at home, so let's get our priorities straight. Stop playing into the government and media lies, which make us unhappy. Peace and love has never died or gone out of style. I thank God that most people in our Great Country still practice it and pass it on. We don't need someone or something to make us great-we are great. We-the people- made America great, and we-the people-will keep it great.




Anonymous said...

OMG. My generation fought and died, many under 21 before the voting age was lowered to 18. Orders of the commander and chief of the United States, don't you know? Not many choices there, it was called the draft. American politics rigged, unfair? No shit! To think those fine young people sacrificed their lives for a bunch of sniveling cowards who would slit their own throats, and their country's too,because they didn't get their way, makes me sick. Bernie said Clinton HAS to win this election. Think he was just blowing it out his old ass? What do you brats think he is so afraid of? Sacrificing another generation to an unstable, lunatic president, maybe? Grow up and be a patriot. Sometimes you have to do what you don't want to. Your mamas ever tell you that? Maybe it should have been you, lying dead in a foreign country instead of the brave and honorable young MEN
and WOMEN who gave you the privilege of the vote that some of you are too young/immature to handle or appreciate.