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The Greatest Generation?

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

War has been described as the most successful of all of our cultural traditions, a dehumanizing reality confirmed by Ernest Hemingway when he once observed that many a good man “will die like a dog for no good reason.” As a hand-me-down inheritance over the ages, war has been a congenital habit of virtually every society since the days of Jericho. At any given moment 30 or more conflicts are raging in various parts of the world, most of them localized but nonetheless catastrophic. The Sudan’s civil war, for example, has been going on for 18 years and has claimed two million lives.

It is a plague that has not escaped the United States. Besides the two world wars, the 20th century saw the nation swept up into the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf conflicts as well as Kosovo and several other lesser military engagements. The first year of the new century was highlighted by the anti-terrorism strikes in Afghanistan, which have served as an important showcase for an array of new weaponry technology and battlefield strategy. For all the impressive advances in war craft, though, the defeat in Vietnam still rankles with policymakers more skeptical about fighting in faraway, perilous places.

The consequence is much more soul searching these days about America’s role in the global age and how far the country should go in playing the chief cop for democracy. Rather surprisingly, this debate is taking place against the backdrop of a remarkable renaissance in matters related to the greatest of all conflagrations—World War II—which ended not so coincidentally in the greatest of all American victories.

It is a revival which has ignited a publishing phenomenon, a veritable flood of new histories, archival material, battle reassessments, personal memoirs, diaries, and letters. The mania began five years ago with Steven Spielberg’s gruesomely graphic movie Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw’s runaway best seller The Greatest Generation, which chronicles the experiences and deeds of individual servicemen. The historian and writer Stephen Ambrose, who has turned out several blockbuster books about GI valor, has become a one-man industry on the war, one that The Wall Street Journal characterized as “an extraordinarily successful business.” One of his books, Band of Brothers, an HBO TV series last fall, returned to the best seller list last year after first making it nine years earlier when originally published. All of this has served to make World War II the fashion of the day.

There are many reasons for the new fascination. First and foremost, it was truly a world war, much more so than World War I, having been fought on six continents and touching some 50 countries. It had big heroes and big villains. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and Charles deGaulle, among many others, have all taken their places in that special Valhalla reserved for Western civilization’s finest warriors. On the opposite side, Adolph Hitler and his Nazi courtiers will forever be assigned to the first rank of sadistic monsters.

Because it was so easy to single out the good guys from the bad guys, World War II has always been seen as a classic study in good versus evil, virtue versus depravity. It is also remembered as a time when the country rallied from a lethargy of innocence and marched forth in a spontaneous sense of national unity in the cause of freedom. The disciplined, can-do spirit of the early 1940’s not only paid off in victory for the Western Allies, but sent a resounding signal that the United States had arrived as a prominent player on the world stage. In short, it was America’s finest hour.

Hence, the widespread nostalgia for those good old days of dedication and determination. One detects a hunger for new glories and heroic times that will wipe away the last vestiges of Vietnam guilt. Not surprisingly, these feelings have become even more pronounced since the September 11 suicide bombing attacks against New York and Washington. With the nation suddenly awakened to the hazards of a new high tech era of warfare, the invulnerability that had been so commonly assumed about the homeland has given way to a frightful new reality. In looking back to World War II, Americans are finding solace and strength in facing a menacing new challenge to their safety. And, with it, there is an accompanying rebirth of national pride, a flowering of patriotism and citizenship.

There is, however, a troubling downside to the World War II revival. For one thing, there is the tendency to sentimentalize and to portray the war as something of a grand and glorious adventure. Instead of an exercise in terror and madness, military operations are celebrated with a sunny sanctimoniousness that accentuates the positive and softens the negative. And, because American might proved so decisive, the myth of “the good war” is perpetuated.

Many historians decry this emphasis. Paul Fussell, who has written extensively about the brutality and barbarism, suggested that the face of combat had been systematically sanitized—or, as he put it, “Norman Rockwellized.” He noted that “the real war was tragic beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest.” Even now it is hard to grasp the appalling horror of it all and the unfathomable pain, misery and destruction. Some 60 million men, women, and children died—a figure that averaged out to 27,000 per day—in a ghastly testimonial to John Steinbeck’s definition of war as “organized insanity.” Even more amazing is the degree to which atrocities and injustices were perpetrated. The Germans and Japanese were skilled masters of cruelty, but Western forces were far from paragons of good behavior, sometimes targeting civilians during bombing missions, strafing lifeboats, and occasionally executing innocent hostages and prisoners.

The battlefield carnage was equally unparalleled. In the 1944 D-Day landing in Normandy, one regiment of the Army’s 29th Division suffered 90 percent casualties in the invasion’s first few minutes. Another Division, the 90th, lost 100 percent of its men in six weeks. The ensuing winter, one of the worst in Europe in many years, resulted in the loss of 45,000 men—the equivalent of three divisions—to frostbite and trench foot. All told, in the 11 months before VE Day a total of 135,576 Americans perished. As the British historian John Keegan said in his recent History of Warfare, “modern war has given moderation or self-restraint a bad name.”

To be sure, much of the new literature tells it like it was. It is just that in heralding American achievements we are sometimes given a one-sided perspective of the war and how it unfolded. By obscuring or sidestepping the harsher, inhumane aspects of conflict, what emerges is an incomplete picture that blemishes an otherwise truthful reckoning. The notion that those who fought the war somehow constituted a unique generation—the greatest “any society has ever produced” in Brokaw’s words—is simplistic embroidery. Of course, World War II veterans deserve our deepest respect and gratitude. As Ambrose so well put it: “They were the sons of democracy, and they saved democracy. We owe them a debt we can never repay.”

All the same, this does not justify a promotion to sainthood. The historical record compels honest and candid appraisal without revisionist sugarcoating. Even Ambrose has a lamentable tendency to drift into moralizing embellishment with his reverential references to America leading a “crusade” to rid the world of tyranny. Actually, all of this lofty cant and excessive veneration does a disservice because, as New York University media professor Mark Crispin Miller wrote in The Washington Post, “it leaves little room for the pluck, imagination, generosity and crankiness essential to democracy.” Miller concluded that the veterans themselves “were not inclined to deem themselves the greatest beings ever to walk the face of the planet—a planet that recalls the wartime propaganda of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan.”

Indeed, American veterans have never really trumpeted their heroism. To the contrary, some of the more recent memoirs are notable for their frankness, vividly capturing the random slaughter experienced by so many. Far from espousing any cult of greatness, the old vets reject any notion of war as a noble calling or that its participants could do no wrong. Instead, they manifest a laudable appreciation—and warning—for the darker side of battle. One especially candid account of front line savagery is given by Corp. Leo Litwak who served with an Army medical unit on the Belgian front. There were no rules for combat and “no clear distinctions between winners and losers, the quick and the dead,” he writes in The Medic, describing how a comrade calmly shot two German soldiers after they had peacefully surrendered. In My War, a poignant collection of love letters from Ensign Tracy Sugarman to his bride, the expressions of affection are consistently interspersed with blunt commentary on life in the European theater. It was mostly rough going, and Sugarman didn’t view all of his colleagues charitably, at one point wondering “how such marvelous fighters can be such rotten people,” adding that “their conceit, their arrogance, their obscenity and vulgarity in front of anyone shames the life out of me.”

It thus follows that the new glamorization is being tempered by some distasteful new doses of realism. Moreover, it should be emphasized that all of the hyperbolic cheerleading conveniently overlooks a more ambiguous America of that time.

Isolationism was the reigning spirit in the land when the war started in September 1939—a Gallup poll showing that 94 percent of Americans believed the country should stay out of the “European mess.” With many people still suffering from the lingering effects of the Great Depression, foreign policy was driven by an obsession to concentrate on home front problems and the avoidance of “foreign entanglements.” These cries, however, could not conceal an economically appeasing recognition that Germany was a major export market for American goods and that U.S. investment in Germany had increased 40 per cent since 1936. Notwithstanding these facts, Germany’s relentless advances across Europe finally persuaded Congress to impose the first peacetime draft in 1940. A year later, three months before Pearl Harbor, it was renewed by the isolationist-leaning House of Representatives by the slimmest of margins, 203—202.

Nor can we disregard the civil liberties abuses of Japanese-Americans once America entered the war in December 1941. Xenophobia gave way to hysteria as 110,000 men, women, and children were shipped to internment camps hundreds of miles from their West Coast homes. Malicious rumors circulated that traitors were secretly sending electronic messages to enemy agents, prompting the inflammatory columnist Westbrook Pegler to scream “to hell with habeas corpus.” Even though almost all of the internees were loyal citizens, the Supreme Court upheld their incarceration despite the concern of Justice Frank Murphy that the government’s action bore “a melancholy resemblance to the treatment accorded to members of the Jewish race in Germany and in other parts of Europe.”

Another myth about “the good war” is that it struck a much-needed blow for equality by providing opportunities for African-American soldiers and sailors. Ambrose has maintained that the armed forces were an important melting pot. Minimally perhaps, but the overall thrust of military policy was one of indifference toward civil rights. Two recent books, one by Gail Buckley and the other by Maggi Morehouse, detail a wide pattern of discrimination and ill treatment of minority servicemen. They lived in separate, inferior quarters, often had inferior weapons and received few promotions. So striking was the military’s Jim Crow character that when the war began there were only two black officers in the entire Army. With so much rampant racism, Buckley contended that “black GIs fought fascism on two fronts in World War II—at home and abroad, where, as often as not, the enemy wore an American uniform.”

Another misleading impression is that America won the war almost single-handedly. Here, too, the truth is more complex. For one thing, Britain carried the burden against Hitler for the two years before Pearl Harbor and stood alone after the fall of France in 1940. An undaunted London persevered through the Blitz that destroyed one third of the city and took 80,000 lives. Without Winston Churchill’s stouthearted resolve, Whitehall might well have succumbed to a powerful political faction that favored a peace settlement with Hitler. Then there was the Soviet Union whose unexpectedly stubborn resistance to the 1941 German invasion motivated Allied forces to proceed with all deliberate haste with their plans for retaking Western Europe. Had the Wehrmacht not irretrievably lost the initiative and become bogged down at Stalingrad and Kursk, it is entirely possible that the D-Day landing would not have succeeded. More than 80 percent of German casualties occurred on the Eastern Front. Thus the irony that Joseph Stalin’s Communist armies engineered the war’s pivotal turning point, thereby helping save Western democracy.

None of this is meant to denigrate American accomplishments or the gritty resourcefulness of those who served on so many fronts. In fact, there is much to applaud in the new wave of war works which reinforces the magnitude of U.S. involvement and the enormity of the stakes. The declassification of additional wartime documents, updated histories and the avalanche of personal recollections—the veterans are now dying at a rate of 1,100 per day—are shedding much new light on major actions and high command decision making. In particular, we have learned that the Allies might not have won but for the tireless persistence of intelligence agents who broke the German and Japanese codes. Commendably, too, the war’s economic side is getting increased attention and for the first time there is solid evidence that IBM and other corporations helped the Axis war machine more than hitherto suspected.

The story of any war is one of tragedy and heartache, heroism and treachery. All in all there was not much good about the “good war” except that the right side won. To paraphrase General Sherman, war is a rendezvous with hell—and World War II proved the point beyond any conceivable doubt.


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