The myth of the greatest generation

How great were the greatest?

American marines at Guadalcanal
American marines at Guadalcanal
(Image credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

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How great was the greatest generation? That's the question raised by a research project at Virginia Tech, which went public on Pearl Harbor Day earlier this month. Called "The American Soldier in World War II," the volunteer initiative transcribed and digitized responses to surveys administered to hundreds of thousands of military personnel between 1940 and 1941.

Some of the responses are what you'd expect from a force composed largely of conscripts. Servicemen complained about the food, lack of recreational opportunities, and the military bureaucracy. Other reports are jarring by 21st century standards. The surveys found tense and sometimes embittered relations between northerners and southerners, black and whites. Contrary to pop culture depictions, many also expressed ambivalence about the goals of the war and their willingness to face combat.

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It's a cheap shot to blame young men for holding views that were widespread in their place and time. Emphasizing the now-retrograde attitudes toward race and sex, a Washington Post account of the project read almost as a generational cancellation. But any serious assessment requires balancing what members of U.S. forces said during World War II against what they did. The defeat of the Japanese Empire and National Socialism (in cooperation with allies appealing, repugnant, and somewhere in between) was an indisputable moral achievement.

Even so, the project strikes a blow against the sanitized version of World War II promoted by media figures like news anchor Tom Brokaw, who popularized the term "greatest generation." In a provocative recent book, historian Elizabeth D. Samet argues that nostalgia for a glorious national effort in defense of worldwide freedom and democracy has distorted American politics for at least half a century. In pursuit of the cohesion and purpose that we think we enjoyed between 1941 and 1945, we translate every problem, foreign or domestic, into the idiom of the Second World War. That's led to mixed and sometimes disastrous results in both 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 strongman ruler is another Hitler). It's that the mythology of collective redemption through violent struggle sets expectations that can never be realized, encouraging a cycle of idealistic overreach followed by disappointed pessimism. In her introduction, Samet notes that when journalist Studs Terkel invoked "the good war" in the title of his own oral history, he insisted that the phrase be placed in quotation marks. The decision was not a "matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective 'good' mated to the noun 'war' is so incongruous."

Ironically, the people who experienced the war were our best reminders of this incongruity. When telling their own stories, whether in private or in print, they displayed little of the certainty or triumphalism now associated with their experiences. The explicitly war-themed works of Norman Mailer or Paul Fussell, to say nothing of more oblique treatments in mid-century film noir, are hardly advertisements for the restorative properties of war.

Rather than a form of self-congratulation, the cult of the greatest generation was the product of Americans born during or shortly before the war who grew up in awe of fathers, older brothers, or relatives who'd worn uniforms. Many of this cohort did serve — in Korea, Vietnam, or elsewhere. But few found the moral or political satisfaction they'd expected.

Partly inspired by genuine historical interest, immersion in the "good war" of the past could also be a compensation for uncertainty and upheaval younger Americans wrongly believed was specific 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 late middle age.

At the time, the greatest generation could still speak for themselves, sometimes offering a sharp rebuke to excessively romanticized depictions. That's more difficult today, with only about 240,000 veterans still alive, and many of those failing in mental and physical health. The Virginia Tech project is essential neither because it documents people who were much better than us, nor because it provides a window onto a benighted past. Instead, it records the voices of ordinary men, whose experiences warn us against the confusion, corruption, injustice, and horror that attend even the most necessary of wars.

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