I call the idea of the “Greatest Generation” a myth for four reasons. First and foremost, to call these men the “Greatest Generation” robs the brave ones of their true glory. These were ordinary men. Just like you and me. On occasion, a handful of these ordinary men found within themselves the courage to do extraordinary things. And that is what we should honor. To say they were some kind of supermen does a terrible disservice to the men who fought bravely and to the men who died bravely.
The true measure of their courage is that they weren’t supermen at all but regular men who were scared out of their wits most of the time but fought anyway. Courage doesn’t mean one is free from fear. Courage means that one acts in spite of fear. (And I asked a US Navy SEAL this question and that is the answer he gave me.)
The second reason I call the “Greatest Generation” a myth is that I have known, talked to, and interviewed dozens and dozens of World War Two vets and not one of them took the expression the “Greatest Generation” seriously. To a man they thought it was specious. A good friend of mine who fought on Okinawa said, “it’s a bunch of bullshit. No one wanted to go. No one. We didn’t feel called upon by history. We just got stuck with it and there was no choice. We had to do it.” Private Webster whom I have written so much about in my last posts, says in his memoirs that his enthusiasm for war was very limited even at the start and vanished as he fought through Europe.
And for those who disagree, I would respectfully suggest you visit the Vietnam Memorial in DC. On that black granite wall are the names of the 55,000 young men who gave their lives during the Vietnam War. They wanted to live. Weren’t they as great? People have enjoyed giving President Clinton hell for taking advantage of his student deferments and thus not serving in the military during Vietnam. Curiously, few have criticized Vice-President Cheney during his time in office for doing the exact same thing. I point this out because Cheney was the most ardent advocate for war against Iraq of any public figure and struck a bellicose pose throughout his tenure in office. Yet during the Vietnam War, Cheney received five student draft deferments because, as he told the Washington Post, “I had other priorities.” So did the young men whose names are on that wall, Mr. Cheney. (Cheney stated this in an interview with the Washington Post in 1989 and the comment is not disputed. As cited in Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan by Derek Leebaert.)