Skip to content

Fables of Our Fathers

Flogging the “Greatest Generation”

America’s World War II ancestor worship is one craze whose onset can be dated with precision. On January 11, 1993—that is, right before that draft-dodging, narcissistic boomer Bill Clinton’s first inaugural—Newsweek’s cover featured a vintage photo-graph of a World War II serviceman turning to bid farewell as he boarded a troopship. Coverline: “So Long, Soldier.” Story’s thrust: onetime Navy pilot George H. W. Bush’s reelection defeat marked the GI generation’s exit from public life. Time to give ’em a salute before we moved on.

Bob Dole’s reaction is unrecorded, but “Gah” seems like a reasonable guess. A greenhorn infantry lieutenant in Italy in 1945—and soon a grievously wounded veteran who had worried he’d end up selling pencils on Main Street in Russell, Kansas, though law school and politics beckoned instead—Bob Dole was still Senate minority leader, was Bob Dole. He’d live to contest Clinton’s reelection in 1996, would Bob Dole.

Yet that melancholy campaign, bituminous with Dole-speak about having “one more mission” to perform for his country, only earned him ridicule. Seriously, how were we supposed to get busy honoring our foxhole grandpas so long as this fossil in pistol’s clothing kept insisting they still had a contribution to make? That they weren’t done yet, for Ike’s sake?

Only once Dole accepted his status as a living relic, did Bob Dole, would he become a figure inspiring awe among twenty-first-century schoolchildren on his Santa Clausewitz visits to the National Mall. His not-unimpressive political career turned out to be a mere prelude to his enshrinement as America’s most prominent octogenarian, then nonagenarian, survivor of World War II.

Because it didn’t fit the narrative, nobody lingered over how Dole the college athlete had postponed going into the Army as long as he decently could. That hardly made him uncommon among American boys his age, a distinct minority of whom were slavering to get killed. Even after he was in uniform and in Italy, Dole had futilely tried to cadge a non-combat job behind the lines as a sports instructor before getting half his right shoulder blown off just weeks before V-E Day.

None of this is remotely to Dole’s discredit—and, just for the record, my enduring affection for him has been driving my friends up the wall for decades. But his glum story comes much closer to typifying his generation’s wartime experience than our latter-day valorizations. They were people sent somewhere they didn’t want to be to do things they didn’t want to do, and they’d have loved to have avoided it if they could have swung the trick without inviting opprobrium—or even while inviting it, in some cases. By one estimate, there were fifty thousand American deserters on the loose in Europe by the war’s end, many of them merrily black-marketeering or otherwise engaged in criminal pursuits.

The veterans lucky enough to make it home in one piece—my dad the onetime teenage sailor definitely included—were champing at the bit to get on with their civilian lives, families, and careers. As far as they were concerned, the stupid mess they’d been dragooned into in their youth was a brutal and outrageous interruption of their destiny, not its climax. Odds are they’d have been dismayed back then to learn we’d honor them most for having served in World War II.

But so it goes, and just two years after Dole’s 1996 defeat, he and his GI contemporaries got permanently saddled with a sobriquet for which Tom Brokaw’s name deserves to live in infamy. The way Brokaw tells it, he first blurted it out in ’94 during NBC’s coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Looking, as usual, as if his eyes were put on earth to explain how Christmas ornaments keep busy once it’s springtime, quiz-show host manqué Tim Russert asked his fellow newsman what Tom thought—meaning, of course, what we should think—of the elderly vets on hand. Came the stout-hearted answer, “I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

Roll over, grandeur-that-was-Greece, and tell glory-that-was-Rome the news. True, we all get carried away sometimes. Viewers could well understand why broadcasting live from the spot at D-Day’s golden jubilee might be one of those times. A reasonable man, which was what NBC’s anchor had always seemed to be up to then, would have briefly gone crimson and then hoped his hyperbole met a speedy oblivion. Heck, didn’t his gaudy CBS rival, Dan Rather, say kookier stuff every day?

Instead, Brokaw thought so well of his notion that The Greatest Generation hit bookstores four years later, soon followed by The Greatest Generation Speaks and The Greatest Generation’s Golf Tips. Okay, I made up the last one, but I bet I had you going for a nanosecond or two.

The Boys of Pointe du Hokum

Because nostalgia has always been this country’s favorite substitute for history, something like the “Greatest Generation” cult would almost certainly have materialized without Brokaw’s help—albeit with, presumably, a less egregious name. By the time he came along to play posterity’s landing-craft coxswain, the sanctification of World War II as America’s twentieth-century crucible had been brewing for a good long while. The phenomenon’s early stages were just off the cognoscenti’s radar.

We went from respecting our elders’ sacrifices, which was only right, to envying them—which was lunatic.

It began in brackishly Nixonish 1971, when Herman Wouk came out with his doorstopper novel The Winds of War—followed seven years later by its even lengthier sequel, War and Remembrance. Yet the huge sales clocked by his earnest World War twofer went all but unnoticed as the tectonic rumbles they were. Cosmopolitan taste was even more at odds with the heartland’s than usual in that era of mutual contempt, which meant that Wouk was too unfashionable and his audience too squaresville to seem predictive of much. It was only when the miniseries version of The Winds of War became a pop phenomenon in 1983 that the culture’s tortoise-deriding hares began to suspect that debunking treatments of WWII like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Gravity’s Rainbow—or The Dirty Dozen, for that matter—hadn’t been the last word on the subject as far as the great American public was concerned.

A year later, D-Day’s fortieth anniversary rolled around, and Ronald Reagan’s PR guru, Michael Deaver, saw an opportunity for a media coup. Earlier commemorations of the Normandy landings had been relatively low-key affairs; no POTUS had ever attended. But Reagan was up for reelection, and Deaver meant to sell him as nothing less than America made flesh. Besides, Reagan’s presidency was all about reinvigorating—that is, resimplifying—a country pining for antidotes to the moral murk of the 1960s and 1970s. What better way to put Vietnam behind us than to put World War II back in front of us?

So Ron went to Normandy, huskily delivered one of Peggy Noonan’s best speeches—“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc,” and so on—and every president since has probably cursed him for making that visit near-mandatory on the big anniversaries. But Reagan’s speech was the one that cemented the war’s transformation into a distinctively American legend: the founding myth of our superpower incarnation, just as the winning of the West had been the founding myth of our manifest-destiny incarnation.

No wonder, then, that Reagan’s D-Day address undiplomatically segued from elegy to anti-Soviet combativeness. The Cold War was still unfinished business, and Mikhail Gorbachev was just a bobblehead rising through the Politburo. If our reverence for the WWII generation hurtled into overdrive when the twentieth century’s final birthday candles were guttering out, one obvious reason was that the Berlin Wall’s fall left “the indispensable nation” without a whole lot in immediate view to feel indispensable about.

Then there were the actuarial tables—another, more human reason for this renewed veneration. Not only convinced of their own immortality but also in love with their immaturity, the Boomers hadn’t previously registered that their parents wouldn’t always be their parents, at least in non-desiccated form. They’d been pretty mean to Daddy in the sixties, with all that long hair and dope and gruesome noise masquerading as music. They’d spent their Wonder Years not caring that the pot-bellied, bandy-legged bore snoring through Bonanza one chair over was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. But the realization was dawning that Daddy was going to die soon, and they’d better make amends.

One major beneficiary was Stephen E. Ambrose, whose garrulous GI chronicles, larded with firsthand testimony—Band of Brothers, D-Day, Citizen Soldiers—hit bestseller lists in the nineties and early aughts with the monotonous regularity of guano sacks tossed off a tramp steamer making its latest port of call. Ambrose was at best an amiable chowderhead whose Capra-esque thesis was that we’d prevailed against Hitler because democracy produced superior fighting men—the sort of poppycock that drives serious military historians to despair. Our reluctant, sullen draftee Army was rated low on martial spirit by American generals, not just German or even British ones; it’s widely agreed that the conflict’s outcome was clinched more by the U.S.A.’s formidable industrial, technological, and logistical resources than the average GI’s battlefield prowess. But Ambrose, whose case of WWII hero worship was severe (as critic John Powers once maliciously noted, he’d have given his right arm to have lost his left one at Omaha Beach), never stopped dressing up American exceptionalism in khaki.

Among other things, you’d hardly guess from his books that we hadn’t won the war all by ourselves. (The token exception is 1985’s Pegasus Bridge, which lionizes a British airborne unit.) Ambrose’s know-nothingism epitomizes how, to the public—whose susceptibility to glorifications disguised as raw verisimilitude could give “magic realism” a whole new meaning—America’s World War II had become the only World War II that mattered. No longer an ordeal we might wish grandpa had been spared, it had become a validation of our national character that simultaneously justified everything we’d done abroad in the fifty years since and served as a rebuke to the Clinton era’s gutless idealization of peace and prosperity.

Brokaw’s “greatest generation” tag made the rebuke explicit, leaving us dazed and chagrined at our bad luck in not having got to live through the Depression and Hitler. Never mind that the GI generation’s fondest hope was to secure a more placid, less arduous life for their kids. Then, in the summer of 1998—just as Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Ken Starr, and the House impeachment committee were making present-tense America look squalid as can be—Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan came out. This was one bandwagon nobody wanted to miss—and so, from the posh likes of Vanity Fair on down, every media outlet in the country told us that Ryan wasn’t just a summer blockbuster; it was a summer sacrament. I honestly can’t recall another movie on an ostensibly secular subject whose reception so uncannily mimicked an outbreak of religious hysteria.

The Greatest Genuflection

Interestingly, the right wing’s vigilant gargoyles were initially suspicious of Ryan, presumably on the knee-jerk grounds that Left Coast pinkos like Unka Steven and star Tom Hanks couldn’t be trusted to do justice to the noble side of WWII’s carnage. Meanwhile, on the notional left side of the Kulturkampf divide, Spielberg and Hanks’s participation was a giant free pass, allowing liberal outlets to fawn over the movie without being accused of jingoism. Yet of course, the movie is as jingoistic as can be—all about reclaiming America’s unblemished moral virtue to the exclusion of anyone else’s. It’s not insignificant that the only fink among Spielberg’s GIs is Jeremy Davies as the squad’s token intellectual, whose nervous-Nelly prevarications end up making him responsible for Hanks’s death.

In hindsight, Ryan is marvelously incoherent. It’s a redemption saga whose characters are already too saintly to be in need of redemption—which means that only the audience is. (Hanks’s dying words—“Earn this . . . ”—are plainly addressed to us, not poor, stupefied Matt Damon.) Spielberg was acclaimed for showing the charnel house of WWII combat as it really was, but how authentic can the depiction be when everyone’s behavior—and, indeed, the goal of verisimilitude itself—is relentlessly magniloquized? These supposedly average GIs aren’t headed for anything as prosaic as a cemetery or a job back home; they’re bound for Valhalla, and identifying with them would be unpardonable lèse-majesté. We’re meant to be awed instead, even as we wretchedly reflect on how puny our own lives are by comparison.

Because the Rangers were an elite unit, as was the 101st Airborne—and neither had much in common with your standard middling, unaggressive American infantry outfit—one basic distortion in Ryan is that the exceptional gets misrepresented as the typical. The Greatest Generation does something similar by culling four dozen genuinely impressive success stories among the WWII vets Brokaw was acquainted with and then claiming that the sterling qualities of this chosen few exemplify their whole age bracket. You don’t meet any skulkers, failures, string-pulling opportunists, or humdrum mediocrities in Brokaw’s book, and—wormy-souled egghead Jeremy Davies aside—you don’t in Spielberg’s movie either.

Needless to say, untold thousands, maybe millions, of GIs fit one or more of those categories. But anything that would make them strike us as ordinary, humanly flawed, or less than gigantic has been eliminated from both hymnals. Aside from a couple of fairly forced interludes of bawdy talk in Ryan, these high-minded heroes—unlike their randy real-life counterparts—don’t even evince any interest in sex, making you wonder how the “greatest generation” wasn’t also the last one.

No matter how many realistic-looking intestines splattered the screen, Spielberg was plainly welcoming us to the Church of World War II. Disconcertingly, the values we were supposed to admire often didn’t seem all that distinguishable from those of our Blut und Ehre enemies: unquestioning obedience, the necessity of savagery in a holy cause, a martyr’s death for one’s country as one heck of an exalted way to go. As inane as Ambrose’s paeans to capital-D Democracy were, at least they’d proved his heart was in the right place. That wasn’t the case for his wallet, though, since Ambrose flacked for Ryan as if he was getting paid to—and, as a nominal “consultant,” he was. But that usually went unmentioned in his many TV appearances vouching for the movie’s authenticity.

Ironically, the war had been widely perceived at the time as a great liberal crusade. Would Franklin D. Roosevelt have led any other kind? Its energies had loosened up all sorts of hidebound notions of decorum and seemliness. Half a century later, with all that unruly stuff excluded from the stained-glass window, 1941–1945 had been retooled into a reactionary lecture. Like Brokaw, whose enthusiasm for the GI generation’s mindset extended to treating their horror of divorce as a moral standard we’d sadly fallen away from, Spielberg was telling us that we’d gone soft if not decadent compared to our valiant forebears.

What we were supposed to do about that in the absence of equivalent challenges was unclear, yet confusion about our national priorities and purpose once the Cold War ended was rampant in 1990s America. We were happy to go from respecting our elders’ sacrifices, which was only right, to envying them—which was lunatic.

The Faked and the Dead

To an almost comical extent, the so-called Greatest Generation’s surviving members were virtually irrelevant to the whole vogue, except as living props—the role they’d played for Reagan at Pointe du Hoc. They were certainly gratified by the late-life attention, and why not? Any number of them was spurred to unburden themselves of memories they’d kept locked up for decades, which had considerable therapeutic value for them and their families and some historical value for the rest of us. But in a sense, they’d just been drafted all over again. They weren’t in charge of the popular narrative, and therefore they weren’t in any position to take advantage of their belatedly discovered moral superiority.

What better way to put Vietnam behind us than to put World War II back in front of us?

Instead, that sacrosanct aura got transferred to their media champions, who were prone to acting as if celebrating the GI generation in movies and books gave them a stature equivalent to belonging to it. Ambrose was the worst offender, adopting a gruff, combat-weary demeanor in his TV appearances that could easily fool viewers into thinking he’d been around for the real thing. But Brokaw developed a taste for truculent moralizing once he’d attached himself to WWII’s virtues by osmosis. Even Tom Hanks became quite the pseudo–World War II vet for a few years after Saving Private Ryan, not only producing HBO’s valedictory miniseries Band of Brothers—a rather better, less hysterical, and more measured tribute to the GIs’ valor than Ryan itself had been—but turning up in fundraising ads for the National WWII Memorial on the Mall with as much solemnity as if he’d known every last one of our four hundred thousand war dead personally.

Nonetheless, Band of Brothers was also the last screen beatification of World War II to feel culturally resonant. Hanks went on to churn out The Pacific to no vast public interest—that generic title said it all—and Clint Eastwood didn’t get around to directing his WWII movie (Flags of Our Fathers) until 2006, but by then, the moment had passed. One explanation is that that’s how it goes with popular crazes, but the real reason was that Band of Brothers premiered two days before 9/11.

Finally, a new storyline! Literally out of the blue, the terror attacks ensured that whatever fin de siècle confusions our nineties epidemic of World War II fetishism had been helping Americans sublimate were yesterday’s news, because we no longer needed a vicarious war to feel resolute, righteously wrathful, and—however briefly—unified. Nobody hankering for revenge for the Twin Towers’ fall—a category that at the time included, let’s not forget, The Village Voice’s lower-Manhattan parlor pinks along with Fox News’s troglodytes—could have guessed how grotesque, misguided, and above all, protracted the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Part Deux, would be. By the aughties’ end, the WWII movie most in tune with the zeitgeist was the anti-Saving Private Ryan: Quentin Tarantino’s snotty Inglourious Basterds, which eschewed depicting the “real” war in favor of celebrating the Boomers’ own berserk comic-book fantasy version.

These days, we’re so soured on our situation that even compensatory appeals to America’s gallant past are suspect. (When Donald Trump voices them, they become something worse—more brutish, viciously exclusionary, and historically illiterate.) But even though it’s largely faded from public consciousness, the “Greatest Generation” fad remains a literal fixture in the landscape, permanently entombed in two monuments: the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, which Ambrose founded, and the WWII Memorial in Washington, which Bob Dole agitated to get finished while the GI generation was still around to appreciate the gesture. But Bob Dole was no architecture critic, was Bob Dole. While the WWII Museum is unduly America-centric and too celebratory, theme-park style, it’s still an impressive place that tells visitors a lot about not only what the war was like, but how it felt and what it meant. Not so its Washington, D.C., counterpart, a hodgepodge of alarmingly Teutonic-looking clutter evoking absolutely nothing that seems true to either the war’s reality or its place in American memory.

By the time it opened in 2004, the memorial felt archaic as well—a relic of a collective infatuation that had ended up travestying what it meant to honor. The design doesn’t have much connection to the America of the 1940s, but its botched and weirdly alienating symbolism says a lot about the over-compensating but clueless 1990s. Bob Dole will never realize as much, will Bob Dole, but it may be the last atrocity ever perpetrated in World War II’s name.