As I have done every year for the past four years, last Saturday I attended the Bay Area’s Battle of Midway Commemoration. It was, as always, wonderful. I enjoy the shiny dress-up clothes and the fun of the dinner. And I am, as always, deeply moved to heart the stories about the Midway veterans attending the gala. Only this year, I was less moved than in past years. It wasn’t that the stories were less riveting; it was that there were so few stories to tell. Only two men attended this year. The rest were honored in their absence. A few days later, America had the opportunity to mark the 69th anniversary of the longest day — D-Day. Those Old Soldiers, too, are fading away.
There can also be no doubt that those who fought in WWII, or supported the fight at home, were indeed the Greatest Generation in recent American history. We can revisit such things as stupid war decisions, or racism, or individual cowardice, or sexism, or the true horrors of war that both Hollywood and post-war mythology sought so hard to hide, but the fact remains that a generation tempered by the Depression marched into battle, and fought and died (in the hundreds of thousands) to defeat a dictatorship of unspeakable evil. When they were done, they managed to keep half the world free from another dictatorship of unspeakable evil. Needless to say, both of these dictatorships were predicated upon building up the collective state in opposition to the honor and integrity of each individual citizen.
No matter how many times I read the books, watch the movies or documentaries, or speak directly to the WWII generation, I am struck by the fact that they were and are better than we are. We’re soft. We have our warriors — Thank God! — but they’re a separate class, and are often quite isolated from the mainstream of America. Were it not for my participation in the Navy League, I would know only two people who serve, and that’s because I went to school with them a long, long time ago. People of “my class” — educated, affluent, and urban or suburban — consider themselves “too good” for the military. “What a waste of a good education and marketable skills,” we all think, even if we don’t say it. Never mind that those who serve in our military are more educated, on average, than the overall American population, or that the military allows young men to start maturing so that they can more successfully become educated, affluent, and urban or suburban.
Incidentally, I know several executives who consider a military background a plus when they’re hiring. Unlike their limp, floppy, and needy non-military peers, vets take responsibility for doing the job and, if the job goes sour, they take responsibility for that too. Kids who bypassed the military and went directly to college need endless hand-holding and refuse to take responsibility for anything. (I was one of those when I left college. I don’t like looking back on my younger self. It’s not a pretty picture.)
So, the Greatest Generation is fading away….
I consider myself a stepchild of the Greatest Generation, as are all Baby Boomers. Why do I say stepchild instead of child? After all, we Baby Boomers are the children of those who marched off to war. That’s a biological truth, but it’s not an ideological truth. The 1960s severed our claim to be the Greatest Generation’s true children. They were do-ers. We’re whiners. They were givers. We’re takers.
Having said that, I’d like to think that we stepchildren still have a connection to those who lived through the Depression and survived WWII. Our values may have drifted away, but at least some of us have enough understanding of history to maintain a certain mental and emotional rigor.
There’s a reason for this spill of reverence for the WWII generation and this sniff and sneer at my generation. I had lunch today with some friends, all of whom, without exception, are educated, interesting, really good people. (And they all voted for Obama, but I’m not going to go there right now.) They’re also all post-Baby Boomers by, on average, a decade.
One of them mentioned that her children attend a school where they are the only representatives of their religion. They often feel “left out” because everybody is celebrating this holiday or that . . . and they are not. The mother thinks that’s a problem. In order to make her children feel better, she wishes everyone else would check their beliefs at the door. Mind you, when she talks about this “in your face” religion, she is not talking about the school’s teaching; she’s talking about the other children and the way they openly, and non-religiously, celebrate their holidays.
I had an entirely different take on the situation, and this is where I feel I’m akin to the Greatest Generation, whereas she, whose American parents were probably born only shortly before the war, has no connection at all. To me, it’s a cause for celebration that the other children in the school aren’t out to kill her children because they are different. So what if you’re a little out of step? At least you’re not dead or imprisoned or denied educational or employment opportunities.
The Greatest Generation fought. Our generation didn’t want to fight, but we still understood the concept, so we were its stepchildren. But the next generation — by which I mean the parents of today’s young children — believes that things should be so easy that every sign of individual differences must be erased to prevent the horrible possibility that someone might feel out of step. There’s no concern that someone might actually be the object of discrimination because, especially in Marin, there is no discrimination. It’s all about feelings. If your feelings are hurt, you’ve been wronged, and society must offer a remedy.
Am I exaggerating? Is my view warped by living in ultra-liberal Marin? Or have we really gone from being a society that fought real enemies of life and freedom to being a society where we must act at all costs to prevent anyone from having hurt feelings?