Brokaw, The Greatest Generation
|The millennium approaches and with it an apparent desire on
the part of some to look back over the 20th century and place it on an historical scale.
Tom Brokaw, the NBC nightly news anchor, chooses to evaluate the century through the eyes
of the generation born in and around 1920, raised during the Depression, and brought into
adulthood during WWII. These Americans he calls the greatest generation. Peter
Jennings and Todd Brewster in The Century take a wider view and chronicle the
centurys events and achievements in a lavishly and profusely illustrated volume
designed to complement the TV series which recently ran on ABC network stations. Both
books allow some insight into how well known commentators understand the history they have
watched and reported.
Brokaw calls The Greatest Generation a small gesture of personal appreciation. Brokaw tells us that he conceived the idea for his book on his 1994 trip to Normandy to report the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion. Talking with veterans of June 6, 1944, he realized how many of the veterans, most in their sixties and seventies, retained vivid memories of what had happened to them and their comrades on that day. His book, therefore, collects oral histories of men and women, some well-known, most ordinary citizens, who, he says, belong to the greatest generation any society has produced. Some
|sentences later Brokaw characterizes the WWII
generation as one that by and large, made no demands of homage from those who
followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its
sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of
their formative years when they were participants in and witnesses to sacrifices of the
Service, sacrifice, and heroics: these are Brokaws touchstones for the greatest generation, these and his frequent references to its work ethic and can-do optimism. The individual stories display these qualities in abundance; the tellers can hardly be criticized for their response to what they were called upon to do. Enmeshed within a huge and horrible war machine they hardly had a choice. Their stories as Brokaw relates them highlight luck and survival, obstaclessometimes horrible wounds and disfigurementovercome, and determination to construct a life, free insofar as possible, from the terrors of their early adulthood.
Collectively, however, the stories create a different impression. Brokaw, writing in the May/June 1999 issue of Modern Maturity (whose audience certainly comprises large numbers of the generation he praises), asserts that the children of the WWII generation, by and large, have never known really hard times. The American economy has been expanding since the war ended and that, in turn, has given birth to a long run of instant gratification in American society. This assertion interprets hard times solely in terms of the nightly Dow-Jones average and implies that the post-war generation, having never known really hard times, somehow doesnt quite measure up to the standard of service, sacrifice, and heroics set by its parents.
Brokaws gesture of personal appreciation is not history but hagiography and, as such, his beatification of the WWII generation rests on two troublesome and troubling premises. The first holds that becoming fully adult requires forging in the fire, real or symbolic, of conflict and battle. Those who have survived the battlefield know whats required for becoming a man. Hindsight may cause one to attribute his survival to accomplished and heroic action, but as so many of Brokaws individual voices testify, survival on the modern battlefield is purely a matter of luck. Still, cumulatively, Brokaws portraits suggest that tempering in the fiery furnace produces more courageous, more determined, more complete humans.
Curiously, this view popped up a few years ago in an inverted way when Christopher Buckley argued in an Esquire article that those men of the post WWII generationthose born 1940 and after in Brokaws generational tableswho hadnt served in Vietnam in the late 60s and 70s a decade later felt something missing in their lives, a sense that they hadnt shared their generations formative experience. Columnist Bob Greene picked up the theme and stated outright that a feeling of guilt and of being less worthy had come over many of those who hadnt answered the call to serve in Indochina. Such feelings perhaps underlie the antipathy felt by many in the WWII generation toward President Clinton in his capacity as commander-in-chief. One need not belabor the point that such trial by fire theories of human development and historical causality, while they might have been appropriate for a long past heroic age, serve only to make our fin de siecle more dangerous.
Peter Jennings and Todd Brewsters The Century (which should be titled the American century) represents an ambitious attempt to chronicle the 20th centurys social, political, scientific, economic, military, and intellectual history. As such the book, and I suspect the TV series it complements, will segue from subject to subject, from a consideration of the labor reform movement to a consideration of the publics fascination with science. Lavishly illustrated and employing numerous sidebars to supplement the narrative, The Century betrays its origins in television production values where images dominate. The Century presents history as kaleidoscope.
Their chapter on the 1960s typifies the approach. Saying that no decade in the twentieth century more determinably describes our era than does the sixties, Jennings and Brewster claim that the cascade of events contained between the years 1961 and 1969 and the social metamorphosis that arrived with them. . . put this decade in stark relief to what came before and after it. Nothing can challenge the status of the Second World War as the centurys most dynamic event, but while it is harder to measure its impact, the sixties were nearly as transforming, if only for the sheer quantity of conventions overturned, battles joined, and ideas put forth. Though these sweeping assertions ring true, one suspects their truth owes considerably to the gripping television pictures the decade produced.
The narrative proceeds from John Kennedys confrontation with Castros Cuba through the Civil Rights movement to the Dallas assassination. These events, the authors claim, produced youth that witnessed a senseless adult world against which they developed a counterculture. Millions of young people were beginning to regard themselves as a class separate from mainstream society. They had been told since childhood that their generation was different, that they were the inheritors of the free world that the previous generation had fought to create, that they would grow up in prosperity with the best humanity could provide them, that they, too, would become great. Now they were about to turn that idea on its head. The generations clash again.
Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and Vietnam fueled the despair the youth culture expressed toward the American government, or so Jennings and Brewster would have it. Yet, like the youth they chronicle, they dont quite know what to make of the tumultuous events and end this pivotal chapter with Neil Armstrongs 1969 moonwalk. At home, they say, no matter where you stood, the sixties looked messy and unreadable. From the moon, however, the planet projected a picture of harmony, an essentially beautiful orb, ordered and still. Such are the wonders of the zoom lens.
Reading The Century and remembering the images emphasizes that we have indeed
lived in interesting times. Still, one looks in these books for some sense of
connectedness, some sense that those who came before neednt be considered saints
compared to those who followed, that the generations are as much parallel and continuous
as opposed. The reader should perhaps bring to these books a certain wariness toward
permitting celebrity TV anchors to organize our history for us. Making connections among
the welter of images they televise for us nightly isnt exactly their strong suit.
Dan Rather, to offer a recent example, reported on early Mays tornadoes in Oklahoma
and finished his account by observing that the storm damage went beyond any scale of
destruction. Had he, I wondered, been attending to his newscasts for the previous
month with their nightly reports of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia and Serbian ethnic
cleansing in Kosovo? What scale of destruction measured this human suffering? And on what
scale of destruction do we place the two adolescent boys, members of a new countercultural
generation, who scourged their Colorado high school? The twentieth century is over but its
legacy of human destruction and generational conflict remains with us as a new generation
and century come. The millennium approaches.