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The Greatest Generation ()

CSPAN Booknotes

Let's start with a couple excerpts to give you the flavor of what Mr. Brokaw's title means:

    In the spring of 1984, I went to the northwest of France, to Normandy, to prepare an NBC
    documentary on the fortieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive and daring Allied invasion of
    Europe that marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich. There, I underwent a
    life-changing experience. As I walked the beaches with the American veterans who had returned for
    this anniversary, men in their sixties and seventies, and listened to their stories, I was deeply moved
    and profoundly grateful for all they had done. Ten years later, I returned to Normandy for the
    fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and by then I had come to understand what this generation of
    Americans meant to history. It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.


    The year of my birth, 1940, was the fulcrum of America in the twentieth century, when the nation
    was balanced precariously between the darkness of the Great Depression on one side and the
    storms of war in Europe and the Pacific on the other. It was a critical time in the shaping of this
    nation and the world, equal to the revolution of 1776 and the perils of the Civil War.  Once again
    the American people understood the magnitude of the challenge, the importance of an unparalleled
    national commitment, and, most of all, the certainty that only one resolution was acceptable. The
    nation turned to its young to carry the heaviest burden, to fight in enemy territory and to keep the
    home front secure and productive. These young men and women were eager for the assignment.
    They understood what was required of them, and they willingly volunteered for their duty.

That's it in a nutshell.  Incredibly enough, he means exactly what he says.  This unimaginably hyperbolic sack of tripe has as its premise the single most asinine argument ever made by a network anchor, which is no small feat.  It is sort of the literary equivalent of Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will.  Let me make it clear that I yield to noone in my admiration for the men who fought in WWII.  Anyone who fights honorably in his nation's service is deserving of our respect and our thanks.  But here are a few of the questions that are necessarily raised by Mr. Brokaw's treacly hyperbole:

    *The first generation of Americans settled and subdued an unknown land.  The Revolutionary
    generation created the nation and defeated the world's greatest empire.  The Civil War generation
    saved the Union and freed the slaves.  Brokaw's subjects won a war in Northern Africa, France,
    Italy and the South Pacific.  By what stretch of the imagination was their battle vital to the nation's

    *If there really was a horrible darkness falling on Europe and this generation fought it out of a
    sense of duty, why did they stay out of the fight for a full two years, until the Japanese attacked us?

    *Why did they declare war only on Japan at that point, waiting until Hitler declared war on us to
    return the favor?

    *Is there any reason to believe that there has ever been a generation of Americans who would have
    reacted differently to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?  Wouldn't every generation of Americans have
    eagerly sallied forth to crush Nippon?  Succeeding generations fought to free South Korea, South
    Vietnam and Kuwait; does Brokaw really wish to suggest that they would not have fought Tojo?

    *Is it appropriate to consider this generation the nation's greatest considering the fact that the
    Armed Forces were segregated and that we interred our own American Japanese population during
    the war?

    *How difficult a task was it to win WWII?  With Japan failing miserably in its desperate gamble at
    Pearl Harbor and the German offensive grinding to a halt in Russia, was there any way that we
    could have failed to win the war or wasn't this merely a mopping up operation, however costly?

    *Having freed half of Europe, why did this generation abandon the Eastern half of the continent to
    the ministrations of Stalin and the USSR?  Do the dead of the gulag really feel comforted by the
    fact that America allowed them to be murdered by Stalin and not Hitler?

    *Did this generation's responsibilities cease on V-J Day?  Besides the question of the Soviet Union,
    where was this generation during the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, etc?  Were they responsible for
    these failures or merely unsupportive of our soldiers during them?

    *Do the difficulties of the Depression and service in WWII really justify the massive transfer of
    payments that this generation has secured to themselves from future generations?  Social Security,
    Medicare, etc. are justly called entitlements; why is this generation the one in our history that felt
    entitled to so much in exchange for their service to the nation?

    *Do they bear no responsibility for the enormous deficits that were rung up throughout their
    lifetimes, in order to pay for the thorough Social Safety Net they demanded?  Deficits, mind you,
    which our generation will be the one to pay off over the next twenty or thirty years.

    *Who is responsible for the tremendous cultural damage that their Baby Boom children have done
    and are doing to this country?  Wasn't it this "Greatest Generation" that raised the most spoiled,
    selfish, over indulged crop of brats ever to walk the face of the Earth?

Now Brokaw does treat many of these subjects--including interviews with Japanese Americans and blacks--but does not even consider others and its obviously impossible to answer or justify most of them.

In the end, what we're left with are some interesting oral histories, like the reminiscences of  George Bush and Julia Child, that add fairly little to the prior work of folks like Studs Terkel (The Good War : An Oral History of World War Two & Hard Times : An Oral History of the Great Depression), unified by a thesis that is completely risible.


Grade: (D+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOKNOTES: The Greatest Generation (CSPAN)
    -BIO: TOM BROKAW Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw (NBC)
    -Bio from | Tom Brokaw (Random House)
    -EXCERPT: War and remembrance: Three women and how they served (Random House)
    -ARTICLE: A 'family portrait of the greatest generation' Brokaw shares the stories of a generation of heroes (CNN)
    -ARTICLE: The Willow Glen Resident  'Greatest Generation' failed at some things (Carl Heintze, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (Florence King, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: 'Generation' lost without connections (USA Today)
    -REVIEW: (
    -REVIEW: (Manic Monkey's Review)
    -REVIEW: (Tom Walker, Denver Post Books Editor
    -REVIEW: A Timely Reminder from Our Elders (K. Daniel Glover, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: (Bill Bell, Charlotte Observer)

    -ESSAY: How great was the 'greatest generation'?  By William A. Rusher
    -ESSAY : They're living the good life at America's expense (Andrew Sullivan, Sunday Times of London)
    -ESSAY : The Greatest Generation's greatest failure (Lawrence Henry, June 11, 2001, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW  : of The Good Fight by Stephen E. Ambrose (Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic)
-REVIEW ESSAY: The Cost of Sentimentalizing War: Has the American myth of the Good War helped ensnare us in bad ones? (Carlos Lozada, The New Yorker)