Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Greatness of Generations

Some years ago I had a brief exchange with a very sweet lady who, having been born around 1920, was of my parents’ generation. She was boastfully teasing me by pointing out that unlike me, she belonged to “The Greatest Generation.”

“But,” I replied, “your parents are really the greatest generation because they were the ones who raised you. And I’d like to know why you guys were all so incompetent as to raise a bunch of out-and-out losers like us baby boomers.”

She did not reply.

OK, my response was not entirely legit, since crediting parents with their children’s accomplishments can only make sense (and then only sometimes) in the context of individual families, not entire generations.

On the other hand, how can an entire generation, like, for example, the World War II generation, be identified as great, while its forebears and descendants lurk in the shadows of mediocrity?

It can’t.

Actually, talking about generations like this is arrant nonsense (though it does give me an opportunity to use “arrant,” which is one of my favorite words).

Anyway, here’s the scoop: what happened in the case of the WW II generation is that a famous television personality, Tom Brokaw, wrote a book in the 1990s honoring them just as some of their most prominent members were fading from public view. George H. W. Bush, for example, a Navy pilot who had demonstrated admirable courage in combat during the war, stepped down in 1993, as the last member of his generation to occupy the White House.

But Brokaw went overboard with his argument, claiming that this generation was the greatest not just in American history but in world history, largely because they fought the good fight against the Nazis and the imperial Japanese.

From Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe series in The Stars and Stripes 

I don’t want to be thought unappreciative of my parents and their cohort (my dad was a WW II era pilot, stateside), but I do feel obligated to mention Russia’s 1940s generation. It was the Soviet military, after all, that did most of the work and suffered, by far, the bulk of the casualties in destroying Hitler’s war machine. The entire world is very much indebted to the people of the Soviet Union because they were the ones who, in Churchill's words, “tore the heart out of the German army.”

But I wouldn’t even agree that the Soviet Union’s WW II generation deserves to be labeled “the greatest” - despite their suffering, sacrifice and success.

Generations, after all, are collections of people of a certain age who find themselves in circumstances beyond their own control. It is hard to see how they can be described as responding to these circumstances by virtue of sterling character traits with which they are endowed, though apparently their parents and offspring are not. The baby boomers who went off to fight in Vietnam in 1965 were inspired by the same patriotic fervor as their parents had been in the 1940s, but unlike their parents, many of these boomer vets came back from that misguided war soured and disillusioned. It wasn’t that their characters were different from those of their parents; their war was different. And, it may be worth adding here, the boomers were sent off to fight that dreadful war because Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both members of the so-called greatest generation, lied about our need to fight it.

One thing for which the world will always be indebted to the World War II generation is their handling of victory. Both Germany and Japan, because of the wisdom and generosity of the post-war occupations in those countries, flourish as prosperous and stable democracies today. This is largely due to the policies promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and the people of their administrations. As progressive liberals, they promoted such transformational policies in the defeated Axis nations as…

strong labor unions,
redistribution of property to the poor,
restraints on corporate power, and
gender-neutral voting rights.

In other words, one of the greatest things about the “Greatest Generation,” was the liberalism with which they helped transform the right-wing dictatorships of Germany and Japan. Did Brokaw make note of this? Don’t know, since I never read his book.

Anyway, thank you, Parental Generation, for this and other gifts. But please forgive me if I reject the idea that of all the generations the world has known, yours is the greatest.