The sappiest generation

My cantankerous father and my own better judgment won't let me get sentimental about WWII veterans.

By Sean Elder
July 31, 2000 12:53PM (UTC)
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The weekend before July Fourth found World War II being fought all over again on the New York Times bestsellers list. Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation" and its sequel, "The Greatest Generation Speaks," held the No. 2 and No. 3 spots, respectively, flanked by James Bradley's "Flags of Our Fathers" at No. 1 and Bob Greene's "Duty" at No. 9. While the preponderance of titles relating to the war and its veterans constitutes an obvious trend (sales doubtless reflected a recent spate of Father's Day gift giving), "The Greatest Generation" is the real phenomenon. The book has been on the New York Times bestsellers list for more than 80 weeks now and shows no signs of flagging.

If you are recovering from severe head trauma, or have been overseas for the past year and a half, you may not know that Brokaw's book is a celebration of the generation of Americans who survived the Depression and fought the Second World War -- my parents' generation. As the title implies, "The Greatest Generation" is a straightforward, largely unironic appreciation of the (mostly) men and women who served. The NBC anchor interviewed scores of veterans and their kin to come up with the 50-odd sketches that make up the book. (The sequel is drawn from the voluminous responses he first received.) There are famous people and unknowns chronicled here, men who escaped the conflict unscathed and others who paid dearly.

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To Brokaw, all are united by a certain stoicism and bravery. "They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest," reads a typical quote, and they didn't quit when they made the world safe for democracy, either. "They helped convert a wartime economy into the most powerful peacetime economy in history," Brokaw writes. "They made breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences. They gave the world new art and literature. They came to understand the need for federal civil rights legislation. They gave America Medicare."

All of which sounds too good to be true.

"I keep saying, 'They weren't perfect, they made mistakes, there were failures,'" Brokaw told me in April. "There are even accounts of those failures in the books."

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But the fact that those shortcomings don't register with readers says a lot about who is buying the book: veterans of the war -- now in their 70s and 80s, many of whom have formed Greatest Generation clubs and held Greatest Generation reunions -- and their children, some of whom are finally ready to listen to their parents' war stories.

Mortality certainly has something to do with it: Approximately 32,000 WWII vets die every month, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs -- a little over a thousand per day. For many men of that generation, war was the defining experience of their young lives, just as the absence of war and, in some cases, resistance to the war in Vietnam were the defining experience of many young men of my generation. Those are a lot of the people buying Brokaw's book, trying to make peace with their fathers before they die and, perhaps, close what newsmen like Brokaw used to call the generation gap.

But closure is one of those overrated concepts in American culture today. It's as if our recent history were an episode of "Oprah" and everyone is supposed to cry and hug before the credits roll. There is a reason there are so few rough edges in Brokaw's books: It is considered almost as much in bad form to speak ill of the dying as it is to speak ill of the dead, and the same sort of sentimentality we mocked and loathed in the '60s is making a comeback now, at least when it comes to our own parents. "The Greatest Generation," as the title implies, is a valentine and, for some of those grown children buying it for their parents, a peace offering. But peace is not always so easy.

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Growing up, my brothers and sisters and I heard plenty about my father's war experiences in the Marines. He enlisted just after his 17th birthday, in May 1942, and served as a gunner in a torpedo bomber in the Solomon Islands. As kids we marveled at his stories of close calls in combat and out (he told us a sniper's bullet grazed his hair when he stuck his head out of his pup tent once), and wondered at the photos of him from that time. There was one in particular that caught our fancy: young Dad, dressed in khaki pants and a T-shirt, cradling a machine gun and smiling like he'd just won the lottery. Upon receiving the picture in the mail his mother was said to have cried, "They've made a killer of my baby!"

Killing was not much on the mind of most of the veterans represented in Brokaw's books. Congressional Medal of Honor winner Bob Bush, who served as a Navy medic in Okinawa, is representative of the men the reporter profiles. After enlisting he told his mother, "Mom, I'm going into the service to help people, not to kill them." Not so my dad.

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"We were all hot for action in those days," he says when I ask him why he chose the Marines. "I wanted adventure -- they were having a big war out there and I was missing it." Life on a small farm (near Ellwood City, Pa.) seemed awfully tame compared to the stories that filled the papers every day. Though the Marines sent him to aviation mechanics school (over his heated protests), they later relented and allowed him to attend gunnery school.

"There had previously been a height limit of 5-10," recalls my 6-foot-tall father, but the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal nearly wiped out their supply of right-height gunners. "Now they'd take anybody.

"I was a turret gunner in the Avenger. They started off the war, at Midway, with the Douglas Devastator. The only thing it devastated was themselves. You'd just fire on them and shoot 'em down. They were slow and clumsy and the torpedoes weren't any good, which didn't help any. That's why we were wiped out so badly at Midway. Torpedo Squadron Eight was annihilated completely; I think one pilot came back. Another squadron, they sent out 10 and I think two came back. The torpedo squadrons were considered to be sudden death."

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The appeal of a job universally referred to as "sudden death" is hard for many people to fathom today. The relentlessly romantic recruitment campaign launched by the U.S. government -- as blatantly nationalistic as any propaganda commissioned by Stalin or Mao -- fed the gallant fantasies of many young men at the time. The age was closer to the chivalry of Kipling than the chaos of the Korean War, and Europe had been at war for years when the U.S. finally joined in.

"I was a romanticist but a lot of other people certainly weren't," my father says now. "At 17 I forgive myself, but I'd never do it again."

Never do it again? For many of the veterans in "The Greatest Generation," the experience of the war is sacrosanct, and the vows of the military more important even than those of marriage. Joe Foss, another recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, told Brokaw, "Folks now just don't have an appreciation for what an oath means. When we took the oath when we were sworn into the Marines, it was a contract. That's what we went out there to defend."

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At a time when most WWII veterans are taking their victory laps, reminding anyone who will listen that they saved civilization, my father takes a somewhat contrary position. Of the First World War (which his father tried to join by lying about his age) he says, "We went off to war and we didn't get anything. They could have given us Canada, at least. I think the motto after World War I should have been, 'How about Canada this time?'"

Of the European conflict, he says the Germans weren't that bad, and we had no business fighting other people's fights, be they in defense of England or China. And yes, he is one of those revisionists who think FDR not only knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance but may have been somehow complicit in it.

"We were hopped up because we believed that they had attacked us," he wrote me after a telephone conversation about the war. "I'm sure plenty of old vets today would beat me to death with their crutches for even suggesting we were suckered. You may live to see the tide of opinion change -- when all the people who were personally involved are dead."

My mother served in the Marines as well, teaching in a gunnery school. The women of the United States Marine Corps were not as famous as their sisters in the WAVES or the WACS, and didn't even get a decent acronym. "They used to call us a very unflattering thing among themselves," she recalls of the men in the corps: "the BAMs, the broad-assed Marines."

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Hers was a hard-knock life -- her mother died when she was a teenager and she cared for her father and siblings until she left home -- and when the war broke out, it offered the opportunity of escape, mixed in with a higher calling. "Something was going on and you weren't part of it," she says when I ask her why she joined. "There was no fear or gallantry; I just wanted to be part of it."

It was while teaching at a gunnery school in California (she instructed Marines in firing at planes on a movie screen, using what was essentially a toy gun) that she had what she calls "my only claim to fame." Tyrone Power was in her class one day -- something the other women she worked with had to point out to her. "He was a handsome, dark-haired young man -- as most of them were," she says. "They were very clean and neat-looking in their uniforms."

Here my mother taps into one of the less-discussed aspects of women in the service: "For me it was a job," she admits. "It was something to do and it was exciting. And besides, there were men around." The pickings among civilian men were slim, remember -- and not altogether choice.

One of the soldiers she met was my father, who had returned from his first tour of duty with a bad case of jungle rot. "He had already been and thought he was awfully salty," says my mom. "In fact, they called him Salty for a while because he got up and said nobody had to tell him how to shoot that goddamned gun."

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By the time his jungle rot was cured and he was ready to go back to the South Pacific, the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. My parents married and continued to live on the barracks until my father mustered out in May 1946.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Tom Brokaw was born in 1940, a "niche," as he calls himself. A proud native of South Dakota, Brokaw is the archetype of the Good Son. He sees himself as a bridge between the two generations he stands between -- the boomers and their parents -- and is amazed at the ignorance many veterans' children have of their folks' wartime lives.

As recounted in many speeches and editorials, Brokaw's interest in the war generation manifested itself in 1984 when he was doing a documentary on the 40th anniversary of D-Day for NBC News. Ten years later, during a ceremony honoring the veterans of the same conflict on its 50th anniversary, he said, "I think this is the greatest generation any society has produced."

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"That's my story and I'm sticking to it," Brokaw tells me, nearly six years later, and he's certainly found a lot of people to go along with him. (It's worth noting that some of Brokaw's colleagues who are among the "Greatest Generation," such as professional curmudgeon Andy Rooney, protest the appellation.) Aside from the first book and its sequel, his conceit has yielded an NBC documentary (available on videotape) and he is now considering a third book on the subject. In this one, he says, he may accentuate the negative a bit more, tell a few more tales fraught with postwar failure and disappointment.

"It might be helpful to kind of underscore that a little more and give it just a little more context," he says. "Because I think there's a lesson in that, as well. With their own failures came successes and understanding -- even insights."

"You kind of get the laurel pressed down upon your brow whether you like it or not," my father says when I ask him how he likes being part of The Greatest Generation. When I ask him if he thinks men were more selfless then, his response is equally jaded.

"I don't buy it," he says with a laugh. "I was just reading about the Mexican War here and how they were saying, 'What we need are more selfless men!' That's fine for the guy who's not going. Everybody's for himself, to a certain extent."

He attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and then UC-Berkeley while my mother began to have children, five in all. He majored in English and ended up teaching but not, as I learned, because he thought it was some great calling.

"I thought I'd be a writer but I could never get going on it," he says now, with a candor that surprises me. "I thought, well I can teach, anyway. I should have tried something else. Your mother had her first baby by then and I was really pushed for time, I was out of school and I had to get a job right away."

That sense of desperation plagued a lot of men after the war -- more than Brokaw's books suggest, certainly. At the time it was only occasionally acknowledged, as it was in the classic film "The Best Years of Our Lives." "The veterans hospitals were very full of returnees," my mother recalls. "Suicides, people who had lost everything. Their jobs were gone. Their skills, whatever they were, weren't suitable to the civilian world. Who takes guns apart and puts them together, like we did then?"

For some men, military experience fed directly into their work lives. "The Greatest Generation" is filled with countless stories of struggles in business -- almost all of which, inevitably, led to success. Bob Bush bought a small lumberyard in Washington that he and a fellow vet turned into a juggernaut. "They had learned in their military training how long they could go without sleep and still function," writes Brokaw, "so they developed a plan. Every other week, one of the partners would work a full 24-hour day, driving through the night to Portland [Ore.] to pick up an extra truckload of lumber. That demanding schedule went on for seven years."

By the same token, the regimentation of military life -- not to mention the mindless, by-the-book bureaucracy of its day-to-day operation -- prepared many vets for corporate life. "They were the We generation, not the Me generation," says Brokaw. "They really did believe in collective effort and the big corporation. They thought that's how you got things done ... They came back and went to work for General Motors, or GE or RCA, and lived the corporate life. Now there was the downside to that, but that's kind of how they were raised, in big institutions."

This is Brokaw in classic Good Son mode. There is a photo of him as a young man in his first book; he is wearing a jacket and tie and sporting a crew cut. Bell-bottom pants and a little hair on the collar were about as far out as he got in the '60s, he tells me. And philosophically as well as sartorially, he seems uncomfortable with the condemnation of corporate culture that most of us embraced. It's easy to see what such pull-together, can-do thinking did for IBM or GM -- especially if you were the president of the company or a shareholder.

As a teacher in California's public schools, my father did not so much join a corporate structure as follow the jobs (albeit within a considerable bureaucracy). In the early '60s, we moved to Crescent City, a rather beleaguered fishing and logging village near the northernmost part of the California coast, where my father taught high school English. It was there that my parents' marriage fell apart, and by 1966 they had divorced and divided the family, with my father taking custody of my older brother and sister while my younger brother and sister and I stayed with Mom.

My parents separately moved closer to the Bay Area (my father remarried), and my brothers and I took our cultural and political cues from whatever was going down there. I remember having a knock-down, drag-out fight with my mother over whether I would dodge the draft or fight in Vietnam. We had this fight when I was 14, a good four years before it would even be an issue. (I had been playing Army just a few years before.) But my attitude, even at that tender age, struck my mother the ex-Marine as downright treasonous.

"I do remember when you kids were all doing the peace march thing," she says. "I thought, 'We never did that.'"

My father was of two minds during the Vietnam War. "I felt that we should go and fight and at the same time I felt we got in the wrong goddamn war at the wrong place," he says. "They weren't fighting it properly. I still think the old military axiom is, Go for the throat, for the king. We should have made it a flat-out, all-out attack on North Vietnam. Instead they pissed around in the jungle, and the longer they did it, the madder I got."

His anger was not confined to the Pentagon, or the Viet Cong, for that matter. I remember a blistering conversation we had about People's Park in Berkeley, a few blocks of real estate the university wanted for housing and the people wanted for, like, the people, man. Gov. Reagan sent the National Guard in, a protester was killed and I ended up screaming at my father about it.

I'd never been to People's Park, mind you; Berkeley was a good three hours from where I lived and meant almost nothing to me personally, but the stakes were higher then. Everything was personal. My father had been back to his beloved Berkeley and found the place overrun by freaks. Soon his van was sporting a "Democrats for Nixon" bumper sticker and he was carrying a .45 with him when he drove. "This is in case the revolution starts," he told me once, racking the pistol before my startled eyes. What the insurgents would want with Rio Vista, Calif., was something he never explained.

But beneath the reactionary front, he was starting to have his doubts. "I remember driving across the Bay Bridge and being behind a military truck full of stuff, headed for Travis Air Force Base, and I looked at all these things piled up in the back and realized they were caskets," he recalls. "Jesus, that gave me a terrible turn. Thinking Brian [his oldest son] could have been in one of those."

I never heard my father talk about seeing those caskets that day, and I doubt my brother Brian has, either. My father is a remote figure, emotionally and physically. (He's retired, living in a double-wide in a trailer park in Barstow, Calif.) I did not know that he had ever thought of us in the context of war. I did not know that he had ever had his doubts -- about that or much of anything.

My mother remained true to her liberal roots. It was with her blessing that I picketed a Safeway with the United Farm Workers, and I still remember her getting me out of bed to watch the news of Robert Kennedy's assassination. She came around on the subject of the Vietnam War as well. She also believes my generation would rise to the occasion if our nation was truly threatened. "If something momentous happened," she says, "if we went to a war with a major equal of some kind, I think people would scurry around like crazy." My father goes her one further:

"I think this generation, if there was what they thought was a just war, would do just as well as we did," he says. "Probably better. You guys don't smoke as much."

Gym-fit boomers, spoiling for a fight! The Gulf War saw millions of same watching CNN and cheering as Norman Schwartzkopf showed film of "smart bombs" taking out enemy installations. Game over! It seemed too easy -- and as Saddam Hussein continues to remind us, it was.

In the documentary made from "The Greatest Generation," Frank Kilmer, the son of a former prisoner in a Nazi POW camp, admits to Brokaw that he envies his father his war experience -- not the danger of the bombing runs or the fight for survival in the camp but the sheer certitude of his actions. For his father, he said, going to war "was a clear road to virtuous activity. I think in our day and age, it's a lot harder to find."

But as writers from Homer to Remarque have reminded us, it is a "virtuous activity" that involves the death of many young men. By 1945 the Germans were sending pie-faced boys just a few years past childhood to serve as cannon fodder. The justness of the cause certainly served to ameliorate many of the horrific memories veterans of that war brought home with them. (Vietnam vets had no such solace.) But it does not erase the stain of the memory, as the emotion many of Brokaw's subjects conjure up bears witness. It does not wash away the blood.

And as truly noble as I believe the author's intentions were, as much as Brokaw wants to honor the experience and memories of those whose lives he chronicled, the Greatest Generation phenomenon is only reducing it to a clichi. Like Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" -- which began so well, conveying a sense of claustrophobia and fear as sharp as the taste of metal on the tongue -- it fades to sepia as an old duffer asks his wife if he's been a good man.

There isn't much that's sepia-toned about my dad. As a teacher I think he must have been a tyrant, and as a father -- well, suffice it to say his phone isn't ringing off the hook on Father's Day. Some of my siblings have no desire to speak to him and those of us who do sometimes wonder why we bother. I know he sometimes wonders about his own life and its purpose, if not whether he has been a good man. But he is not going all that quietly into his dotage, and the last thing I expect him to accept is the accolade of greatness as they close the coffin lid.


Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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