Letter: ‘The Greatest Generation’ is a misleading concept

By John J. Mathews /

Published Jun 5, 2014 at 12:01AM

This June 6, we World War II veterans could maybe be excused for reflecting soberly on the odd turns taken by our national memory during the 70 years since Normandy’s beaches and cliffs were assaulted by troops of the U.S. Army, the leading edge of what Tom Brokaw would much later anoint as The Greatest Generation.

Brokaw’s tribute to Americans of the World War II era blasted its way through the best-seller lists from coast to coast. A major reason for its success was that it was seized on by a public desperately hungering for an antidote to America’s more recent past — humiliations like our bloody frustration in Korea, our bloodier tragedy in Vietnam, and other humiliations since: encounters like Khobar Towers, Blackhawk Down, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut and the Marine hostages in Tehran.

Not only did Brokaw’s book rocket through the best-seller lists, however; its title theme swept into the popular lexicon, spreading and gradually taking on at least two new meanings never intended by the author.

The first has been the misapprehension that the World War II era in the U.S. had actually been a kind of halcyon period during which our citizens, as soon as perceiving a threat from the Axis, had joined in rising, all together as one man, to extinguish the threat. Nothing could be further from reality. From Pearl Harbor all the way to VJ Day — almost four years — isolationist antiwar sentiment persisted in many quarters; draft dodging was so widespread as to achieve a certain degree of social acceptability; and war profiteering gave birth to a new generation of overnight millionaires, largely at taxpayer expense. The more disturbing of the two phenomena attributable to the Brokaw book, however, has been the gradual spread of the perception that its subject players did indeed comprise a unique breed of brilliant and courageous patriots. The reality, of course, is that, whatever its achievements, the World War II generation’s feats were accomplished not by freaks but by mostly ordinary human beings, most of them descended from among America’s uniquely intermixed ethnicities, religions, educations and economic levels.

What’s so dangerous about this World War II superman illusion is that it’s a tempting invitation for all future generations just to cop out, never even to try to equal the attainments of a generation that’s already conceded to be “the greatest.” You can hear this possibility confirmed whenever you overhear a statement like, “There was a time …” or “I remember when …” or “Back in those days …”

If the damage were confined only to individuals, even those in large numbers, the country could accept the lost talents and energies as normal attrition, but if the scale of cop-out were ever to become generational, the United States could say goodbye to any hope of retaining world leadership. To anyone tempted to say, “Good riddance,” I can only reply, “Fine. Whatever your income and assets, get used to the idea of living with less. Get used to the idea of shrinking opportunities. Get used to the idea of a world ruled by China or Russia or some clique of terrorist or criminal organizations.”

I’m flattered to have my generation called “the greatest,” but I don’t believe it’s true. Looking around at the unanswered challenges facing our country today, I can only hope mine is not the last American generation to earn the title of “The Greatest.”

— John J. Mathews, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, lives in Bend.