The greatest generation and its myth

Christopher Hayes thinks we can blame the myth of the “greatest generation”—the monicker stuck on the pre-Baby Boom generation—for the way we’ve handled 9/11.
As he points out at the link, 9/11 followed several years of paeans to the WW II era and the people who fought it. And he argues persuasively that the vision of them as the Greatest Generation largely whitewashes the reality.
True, they fought in World War II and won. But as Hayes points out, some of them also opposed fighting the war because it would sacrifice Real American lives for the benefit of European Jews.
Some of them traded with the enemy. Contrary to the image of America chomping at the bit to free the world from the Axis threat, we maintained relations with Germany up until Pearl Harbor. If Japan hadn’t bombed us, we might never have gotten involved. If Germany hadn’t declared war on us, we might never have gotten involved in Europe. Some people, of course, were passionate about fighting, from Edward R. Murrow reporting from London to the Flying Tigers in China. Many others weren’t.
I don’t mean by this that they were all horrible human beings—just that being part of a particular generation doesn’t, in itself, give them any nobility. Some of them fought for civil rights and treated minorities well (or so I’d like to think). Some of them lynched blacks who got out of line. Some of them were heroes on the battlefield, monsters off it; the blogger Jeanne d’arc some years back told how her father, a much-decorated WWII veteran, also liked to beat her and her mother bloody.
I’ve always been inclined to agree with D’Arc’s assessment of the Greatest Generation legend: Baby Boomers spent years demonizing their parents as racists, sexists and supporters of the establishment; now that we’ve noticed they’re dying, we’re swinging in the other direction (“No, you’re not bad people, you’re wonderful! Why you’re—you’re the greatest generation!”). Some of them are genuinely great, but it’s because of who they were, not because of some magical generational element.
Pretty much like every other generation, in short.
Hayes’ argument is that on a wave of nostalgia for WW II as the Good War Against Evil—ignoring any of the complexities or moral ambiguities (check out Studs Terkel’s The Good War or David Brinkley’s Washington Goes to War for some of those) made it easy to see the War on Terror as WW II redux: We were rejecting Boomer rage against the system and Gen X selfishness for the self-sacrifice of an older, purer time.
This, I’m not so convinced about. Hayes argues that the WW II themes rushed in to fill the heroic void left by the end of the Cold War and give us a War-on-Terror template, but I think the Cold War actually fits better. What happened (IMHO) was that when 9/11 hit, we had an administration staffed by Cold War leftovers such as Rumsfeld and Cheney and we almost immediately fell into the Cold War pattern. We’re good. They’re evil. If we fight dirty it’s okay, because we’re good. If they fight dirty, it’s proof they’re evil. The enemy is so horrible that we can’t stop fighting, can’t hold back because they’ll overwhelm us. Everyone who isn’t with us is against us. The enemy’s agents lurk among us. People who oppose the war are traitors.
There was a lot of this in WW II, but it was brought to fruition during the paranoia of the Cold War (as I covered in Screen Enemies of the American Way). With or without the WW II themes, I suspect things would have turned out the same.
Read the article for yourself (and if you want to buy my book too, I won’t object) and see what you think.


Filed under Politics, Screen Enemies of the American Way

4 responses to “The greatest generation and its myth

  1. Peter A.

    This article is self-contradictory. On the one hand you point out, quite correctly, that generational labels that categorise all, or most, people within them with certain qualities is, at best, a dubious practice, but then you yourself engage in what you condemn when you write:

    ‘We were rejecting Boomer rage against the system and Gen X selfishness for the self-sacrifice of an older, purer time.’

    Boomer rage? Gen X selfishness?

    The entire notion of human ‘generations’ is problematic at best, if only because it would lead us to believe that someone born in (for example) 1964 (boomer) will have more in common with someone born in 1946 than a person born in 1965 (Gen X), which is both counter-intuitive and illogical.
    The concept also transcends national boundaries, so, of necessity, one must include amongst the ‘greatest generation’ those who fought for Germany, Italy and Japan (i.e. the baddies). Were they great as well, even though their cause was far from it?

    • frasersherman

      Huh? I don’t say that–it’s not a quote from me, nor can I find it in the Hedges piece. Nor does it work as a synopsis of anything I said. Did you post to the wrong blog?
      That being said, I agree with you that the tail and beginning ends of the Boomers are far apart. Don’t agree on the cross-borders argument: The “Greatest Generation” proponents are always quite clear they’re referring to that generation of Americans (I actually don’t know if other nations went through the same Baby Boom and Gen X cycles as we did).

  2. Peter A.

    ‘(I actually don’t know if other nations went through the same Baby Boom and Gen X cycles as we did).’

    Yes, they did and, yes, that IS a quote that I have taken from above. It is right between the words ‘…easy to see the War on Terror as WWII redux’ and ‘This, I’m not so convinced about. Hayes argues that the WW II themes…’

    • frasersherman

      My bad. I was rushed, and you were correct. However the quote in question is Hayes assessment of the WW II nostalgia, not his declaration (or mine) about what Boomers or Gen Xers were like. So I don’t think I am contradicting myself.

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