Debunking the Myth

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. The myth of the Greatest Generation may include elements that are true – overall, they were a far more unified population, they valued America and its ideals, they sacrificed for their country – but there is so much more to their story than that. And beyond even that, it is problematic not to question whether those elements really make a generation “the greatest.” This idea has changed how America identifies itself, and how it fights wars both at home and abroad. Post World War II, as America stood tall amongst the wreckage of the rest of the world, it became the strength behind major international decisions, not only because it had the strongest economy, but because so many young, American men and women lived, while many of what would have been Europe’s greatest generation had not fared so well.[1]

                But having the most power and worshiping our own victory places America in a tricky position, post-war. None of the veterans interviewed regret their service, and they are all proud to have served their country, for doing their duty, and for helping to protect American freedom. But in the wake of nuclear bombings and later the brutality of the Vietnam War, Americans today have trouble grappling with the idea that military service in World War II was entirely noble. The idea of a Greatest Generation implies not only that there are causes worth dying for, such as the idea of America, but that there are causes worth killing for, sometimes millions of people.

                The duty we as contemporary Americans face now is in how we remember this generation as some of the last remaining members of it leave us forever. It is dangerous to understand some wars as “good” and others as “bad.” It is equally as dangerous to be so nostalgic for a time that, seventy years later, has been so glamorized and romanticized that even those that were there now look back on it with rose-colored glasses. All wars include violence, despair, and acts against humanity, facts that soldiers who signed up for Vietnam thinking they were headed for a righteous cause and sense of glory, learned too late. We cannot silence the horrible parts of the Greatest Generation’s experiences by turning military service into martyrdom, or we risk placing too much importance on ideals and not enough on the reality of war.

                For many veterans and for many of their children’s generation, calling them The Greatest Generation is, more than anything else, a means of coping with that reality. The reality that World War II was so terrible, so destructive, so chaotic and all-consuming and horrifying, that believing that what they were fighting for and what so many people had died for had to be worth it was the only thing that could possibly make it make sense. That mentality continued when they came home, as they were fed again and again the idea that they had sacrificed so that America could be great, and that made them great as well. Now, with some distance, younger generations can look back and see how getting individual soldiers to believe they were fighting for greatness was more important than actually making the country great. The Greatest Generation was cheated out of a peaceful youth because of a war they were forced to swallow and forget, coming back to a country that had thrived in the war machine and found it easier to distract from and cover up the trauma they had just experienced, than deal with it in any real way. We owe it to that generation as well as all the ones that came after to remember that war always takes more than it can ever leave behind.

[1] Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever: Second Edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 132. 

Debunking the Myth