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In the Spring of 2016, under the instruction of Dr. Sara Egge, students at Centre College undertook a project that struck us as both incredibly important and equally as ambitious. Over the course of five months, undergraduate students from Centre interviewed over fifty World War II veterans across the state of Kentucky. These veterans came from different backgrounds economically, geographically, and racially, but they share this experience in a profoundly impactful way. Virtually everyone interviewed was ninety years old or older, though that still puts them in their very early twenties, if not their teens, when they entered the service. This project, therefore, grew more and more time sensitive as the months went on. The fact is, we do not have much time let with these veterans, and so many have gone already. The project, quite simply, is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the millennial generation to honor a generation who played an integral role in the pivotal turning point of the twentieth century.
My personal outside research and analyzation of the interviews evaluates the American idea of “The Greatest Generation” – a term coined with the release of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book of that name, but an idea that existed long before. The generation in question “came of age” during the Great Depression and spent their young adult years serving the American war effort both overseas and at home. Shortly after this generation saw the end of the “war to end all wars,” the country faced communism and, once again, combat, crumbling the seeming unity that came along with Americans’ responses to the “good” war. After that they raised children as the country faced both overwhelming economic prosperity and national upheaval with the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of unrest amongst other marginalized groups such women and homosexuals. They grew old as international affairs again sent soldiers overseas to fight in mysterious and muddled combat, all the while watching as means of media and communication exploded with the rise of the internet age. Now, post-9/11, as more World War II veterans pass every day, war is no longer nation against nation, but power against Terror, with no end in sight; all this in the span on one generation.
The myth of the “greatest generation” seeped into national consciousness in large part thanks to their children, the Baby Boomers, but the mentality that accompanies this idolization is a steady thread throughout the second half of the twentieth century and the first sixteen years of the twenty-first. My research question explores how simply having an ideal of what a “generation” or a form of American identity should be has affected both the country as a whole, as well as our individual veterans. In their eyes, what made America great, and what makes it more or less so now?