The Greatest Generation?
By Jack Mandaville
“It would be redundant to say that I would trust my life to these men. Because I already have, in more ways than I can ever recount. I am alive today because of their quiet, unaffected heroism. Such valor epitomizes the conduct of Americans at war from the first days of our existence. That the boomer elites can canonize this sort of conduct in our fathers’ generation while ignoring it in our own is more than simple oversight. It is a conscious, continuing travesty.”
-Jim Webb, “Heroes of the Vietnam Generation”
In the wake of the tragic double-murder of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, I found myself desperately sifting through numerous online news outlets in order to find answers. But no matter how momentous the heartbreaking incident was, I had to eventually take a step back and avoid the subject altogether. That level of negativity can wear down your sanity after a while.
That same day, I hopped on a different CNN.com article that was completely unrelated to the Kyle/Littlefield episode. It was about one US Navy and three US Army chaplains who helped evacuate sailors on the USS Dorchester after it was hit by a German torpedo in 1943—resulting in a heroic act that saved over two-hundred and thirty soldiers and sailors. All four chaplains eventually died along with six-hundred other brave Americans.
It sounds a bit depressing, but I assure you there was a feel-good element to it.
So what did I do next? One of the most idiotic things imaginable: I scrolled down to the comment section of the article.
I don’t know what compelled me to read the comments on this particular article (something I wisely refrained from in the aforementioned Kyle/Littlefield articles… strictly adhering to my “don’t be around shit-talkers unless you’re within punching distance” policy), but it happened… and this is what I saw:
Mother. Of. God. I couldn’t believe the colossal amount of asshatery I was witnessing.
This is the thing: it wasn’t the comment itself that enraged me. I’ve certainly seen worse things said on the internet. What pissed me off was the fact that this is something I’ve frequently been told in real life. The notion that the WWII generation (AKA, “The Greatest Generation”) was somehow more dignified, humble, and better-behaved than the current crop of Afghanistan/Iraq vets is, perhaps, one of the greatest fallacies being committed regarding our generation’s legacy. I’ve heard it from relatives, friends, professors, people on the left, people on the right, baby-boomers (most notably that pseudo-intellectual, Chris Matthews), etc. It’s a sentiment that’s patently idiotic.
Look, I understand I’m kind of preaching to the choir on this one, but I’m sick of people holding WWII vets in a holy light while simultaneously taking a steaming dump on all the following generations—including mine.
And I just want to say, before I proceed with this unsolicited diatribe, it’s not the WWII generation’s fault. They’re not the ones who built-up their legacy. It was their shitbag kids who spent their youth protesting the system and spitting on returning Vietnam vets, then turned around, donned a suit, became the establishment, and sold the fuck out from all the shit they preached in the sixties. It’s not that I in anyway think WWII vets are less than, I just don’t buy into the fabrication that they’re better than us.
Okay, let’s debunk some myths here, folks.
Falsehood #1: WWII vets were humble about their experiences and didn’t seek attention in the media.
I have one name for you: Audie Murphy.
Murphy is undoubtedly the most decorated soldier of WWII. The guy was a pure, unadulterated badass. This is undeniable. What he did to earn his Medal of Honor in Sicily is, arguably, one of the most heroic things in American history.
Let’s not forget that Murphy came home from Europe and, capitalizing on his post-war fame, co-authored a best-selling memoir about his experiences in the European Theatre, which was subsequently adapted into a film titled To Hell and Back. The protagonist of the movie was, of course, Audie Murphy and the actor who played him was… AUDIE FUCKIN’ MURPHY! Yep, he played himself.
If that doesn’t deflate any notions about the WWII generation’s concept of humility, I’ve got more.
Have you ever read James Bradley’s Flags of Our Fathers or seen the film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood? The three surviving members of Iwo Jima’s second flag raising—John Bradley (the author’s father), Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes—weren’t just depicted on film by modern actors in Eastwood’s 2006 film. In fact, all three of them played themselves in the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne. Not only that, but three other Marines who were involved with the actual battle ended up playing themselves in the film—including David M. Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient who later became Commandant of the Marine Corps.
These guys (The Greatest Generation) were in films, wrote books, gave/give interviews, ran for political office on their service record… all that jazz. I could go on and on, but I won’t because there are too many examples and I’m already on course to demolish the word limit RU Rob has set for me.
Falsehood #2: The WWII generation was upright, godly, and carried themselves in a mature manner.
Before I go into anything else, I just want to state that the types of people who say this kind of shit are the same ones who also say, “The forties and fifties were a simpler, better time in America.” And they’re absolutely right! The forties and fifties were a better time… if you were Protestant… and of Northwestern European ancestry (not including Irish-Americans)… and a man… and straight… and between the ages of 18 to 60… and someone who walked the line of societal norms. If you fell into all of those categories, shit was off the hizzle!
My point? A lot of Americans have a very selective view of how things are/were—including military history.
A big reason why people buy into this erroneous belief is because they base their perception of that generation off of their personal experiences. Well, the relationship you had with your father/grandfather is vastly different from the relationship he had with his military buddies. Trust me, I know. Most of the guys I served with are in their late-twenties/early-thirties and are upstanding fathers and husbands. That’s how their family knows them. I know them from their days in the Marine Corps, and I assure you they were extremely crass, dirty, and violent during that period of their life. That’s the nature of military service (in any nationality). It’s been like that since the beginning of organized warfare and it will never change.
Your father or grandfather did at least one of these things (if not all of them) while he served in Dubya-Dubya-Deuce—unless he was a Mormon:
· Got sloppy, can’t-remember-my-name drunk.
· Solicited a prostitute… and banged her brains out.
· Talked back to and/or questioned his superiors.
· Got into a fist fight over something ridiculous.
· Looked at pornography.
· Cursed like he had a severe case of Tourette syndrome.
… You get the point.
And if you have any doubt about the similarities between “The Greatest Generation” and the Iraq/Afghanistan click, I humbly submit to you an excerpt from the book, Brothers In Battle, Best Of Friends: Two WWII Paratroopers from the Original Band of Brothers Tell Their Story… and it’s comin’ from none other than William “Wild Bill” Guarnere, himself:
“You kind of felt like combat was behind you for a while. Our next jump was supposed to be in the spring. So me and Johnny Martin, Burt Christenson, Joe Toye, Chuck Grant, and a couple of other sergeants went out and robbed about twenty cases of champagne. We threw a party in our barracks, got drunk as skunks, and trashed the joint. We ripped the bunks out of the floor, threw them out the windows, broke everything we could get our hands on. Lit things on fire. Just destroyed the place.”
Falsehood #3: WWII was a good war.
No, folks, it wasn’t. There was nothing good about over fifty-million civilian and military deaths.
This argument is, typically, the most common method of subtly disrespecting the Iraq/Afghanistan generation. It’s a backhanded way of linking the politics of the two conflicts with the people who fought them. But just like in WWII, the politics and the people who fought had little to do with each other—except, statistically speaking, both the politics and the conflict were at a much larger magnitude during the Second World War.
The Marine who survived a near miss on the sandy island of Iwo Jima is the exact same Marine who had a near miss in Fallujah. Bullets don’t discriminate with the politics of war. A bullet doesn’t care what generation you come from or what nationality you are. It causes the same terrifying feeling either way. The people in uniform are who matter. And the 21st century American war fighter has enthusiastically shown up to the game—only to have our service relegated to a secondary level of importance by an apathetic population.
This “good war” was a result of numerous diplomatic mishandlings and years of pent-up animosity between numerous nations. It wasn’t as simple as “Germany, Italy, and Japan bad… America good… we won war.” It was, in many ways, just as avoidable as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were failed by our elders and went in to clean up their mess, just like our predecessors.
My grandfather was killed in WWII when his PB4Y-1 bomber barreled into the Pacific Ocean somewhere near Midway on December 19, 1944, just six days before Christmas. My father was only six months old.
I’ve heard quite a bit about him from family members—including a great-aunt (his sister) who cried every year, until she died two years ago, whenever Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” came on the radio. And I know, whether he wants to admit it or not, that my father has carried an emptiness about never knowing his father. As for me, he’s nothing more than a name. I know a little bit about him, but I’ll be honest: I have no real heartbreak over the tragedy. That shit happened almost forty years before I was born. He’s just another brave American out of thousands who lost their life in that war. Nothing more.
However, I do know a few people who lost their life in Iraq. I had relationships with these people either through friendship or mere acquaintance. Their faces, voices, and stories are ingrained in my head. One of them had a direct impact on my life.
Those grossly misinformed individuals—like the one who made that comment on the internet and the ones who have said it to my face—who continually perpetuate the notion that the lives of those who fought in WWII are more important than those who fought in the 21st century failed to discern between those who fight and the war they fight in. Like Senator Webb said, “It’s a conscious, continuing travesty.” You see, conflicts and the politics behind them will constantly change, but the people fighting have always been the same.