The greatest degeneration

Did the heroes of WWII really know what they were fighting for?


Sarah Vowell
January 14, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

Watching Terrence Malick's World War II film "The Thin Red Line" was a startling experience for me, and not because of its grisly death scenes, its blood and guts and lunacy. Certainly the soldier with his legs blasted off shocked me, as did the flying corpses, the rotting flesh, the screaming -- so many screams. No, I was continually flabbergasted by my own unconscious relationship with much of the ensemble cast. There I was, supposedly subjecting myself to a serious historical hell, and the second Ben Chaplin appeared on screen, all I could think about was "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," the dogs-on-roller-skates romantic comedy in which he co-starred with Janeane Garofalo. Ditto the entrances of Jared Leto (eventually I noticed that he commands two soldiers up a hill only to watch them get incinerated by Japanese machine gunners seconds later, but at first I was awash in nostalgia for his glory days as hunky Jordan Catalano on TV's "My So-Called Life"); Woody Harrelson (curiously not his star turn as Larry Flynt but rather Demi Moore's mopey architect cuckold in "Indecent Proposal"); John Cusack (Lloyd Dobler of "Say Anything," but of course); and Sean Penn (Ridgemont High's Jeff Spicoli till he dies).

Thus "The Thin Red Line," which is a brilliant if wildly incoherent film, became a two-and-a-half-hour cycle of distraction, followed by pop reverie (remember the episode when Jordan formed a band?), realization and shame. Not only is my generation devoid of the character-building experience that made the World War II generation strong, my generation is devoid of the attention span to think about human slaughter for 10 straight minutes without slipping away to contemplate characters of Cameron Crowe. It's not like I'm apologizing. Unlike the children of the WWII vets, those of us born to baby boomers did not grow up bearing the burden of our parents' heroism. We grew up being entertained -- which just doesn't sound as impressive as the hardships and victories of the Depression-to-V-J Day youth. They were brave and stalwart and stopped the Nazis and we ... recycle.

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It used to be that baby boomers' (or at least a certain kind of baby boomer's) moral claim to fame was stopping the Vietnam War. But something's been creeping into the culture as the Clinton administration staggers on. As the president's morality has been called into question, oh, once or twice in the last few years, so has the morality of the generation he represents been not only questioned, but subpoenaed, indicted and literally put on trial. Thus draft-dodging, once in some sectors a morally defensible act against a morally indefensible war, has become, like other passing '60s fads such as sex, culturally unacceptable. For example, on the Jan. 8 edition of HBO's "Dennis Miller Live," CNBC's Chris Matthews announced that in his opinion, the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam vet, would get a lot of coverage because journalists his (middle) age feel "guilty" for never having served. Maybe Matthews and his kind were absent from sixth grade on "Red Badge of Courage" day. Maybe I'm just a female -- and a female from Montana, the state of Jeannette Rankin -- but when was war inherently virtuous? Certain wars, yes. World War II, of course. But all wars? This, even I noticed, is the lesson of "The Thin Red Line" -- that even a humane cause has inhumane consequences.

But I think Matthews is on to something with regard to pressmen of a certain age. The subtext of "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw's new book, a collection of profiles of those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, "The Greatest Generation," seems to be this: "Gosh I wish I could have been a hero and slayed Nazis instead of just an ordinary old millionaire talking head with nice suits and a fly-fishing fetish."

The leitmotif of "The Greatest Generation" is this: Suck it up. We meet veteran Thomas Broderick, blinded in the Battle of Arnhem, who does not complain, who does not blame: "It was my fault for getting too high in the foxhole." We meet nurse Mary Louise Roberts Wilson, one of many whose life "had never been easy." We meet Wesley Ko, a platoon leader at the Battle of the Bulge whose "only regret is that the lessons of his generation are lost on his grandchildren."

Brokaw, born in 1940, seems to be apologizing to his subjects for his age group's petty little protests against its duty to serve. "They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest." In an interview with Bob Dole, Brokaw asks the former senator and war hero what it was like dealing with the anti-war protesters who used to drop in on his office in the '60s: "This man, who endured so much personal pain and whose life was so altered by his time in uniform, can now recall thinking during those confrontations, 'Why am I sitting here all banged up for this ragtag operation? Is this what America is all about?' Then, answering his own question, he says in that cryptic Dole style, 'I guess that's what it is all about -- freedom. But sometimes it's a stretch. I remember being glad when they were gone."

I went out and bought Brokaw's book the day last week when my mother called to tell me her brother, John A. Parson, had died. Uncle John A. served in the Philippines in World War II. I guess since I'd lost him I wanted to read a few sentimental stories of men like him, men who fought in the last war the whole country believed in. Unfortunately, I found "The Greatest Generation" unsettling, because Brokaw celebrates his subjects by insulting their progeny, progeny now with faces -- mine, my cousins', my cousins' children. I couldn't help but think that Brokaw's portrait of postwar Americans as lazy and ungrateful would somehow unnerve my uncle. If postwar America is lighter than Depression America and World War II America, that's only because my uncle and others like him made it that way and for good reason. Does Brokaw think that my uncle squeaked through the Depression (and quit school in the third grade to help work the farm) and somehow lived through the war only to come back and make a hard, cruel country?

Brokaw, looking back on the World War II vets he grew up around, mentions that none of them ever talked about it. John A. never did. When I was a child in the '70s, I wasn't allowed to ask him about it because even then, 30 years later, he was still having war nightmares and war flashbacks, waking up screaming, sweating, terrified. I think he didn't talk about it because he was selfless that way. He didn't want his children and their cousins to know how horrific life could get. And his kitchen, by the by, wasn't some thrifty monument to the Depression either. My aunt was a one-woman cookie factory, and children were always being fed, being spoiled. He did, as Bob Dole said, fight for freedom, but I think to him freedom wasn't just some high-minded liberty-or-death ideal. It could be frivolous, sweets-for-the-grandkids stuff. He suffered those nightmares and flashbacks so the rest of us didn't have to, so that I, his niece, could maybe sit in a movie theater (on her rare day off, Mr. Brokaw), watch his war re-enacted and think
of silly TV shows, silly movies, silly men.

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Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

MORE FROM Sarah Vowell

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American History Bill Clinton Music World War Ii




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