Perhaps the “Greatest Generation” still lives on today
A quite afternoon on Boone Lake was interrupted by an unmistakable sound, the roar of four huge radial engines clawing an ancient bird of war through the air. As I looked up into a clear blue sky, I saw the awe-inspiring sight of a gleaming silver B29 Superfortress turning on final approach into Tri-Cities Airport. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see hundreds of bombers form up on their way to attack Japan or Germany during World War II.
It is a fitting image, because June 6th marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day (the invasion of France). We call those who fought then, “the Greatest Generation.” An entire nation went to war to make our world safe for democracy and protect our way of life. I wonder what those soldiers boarding planes and landing craft would make of our world today. Do we meet their expectations? I also wonder what they would think of the generations today.
We have led charmed lives by comparison. Sure, we had stagflation of the 1970’s and more recently the Great Recession of 2008, but these were nothing like the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Our wars, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, were not the total mobilization of the Second World War. In reality, only limited numbers of those alive today have faced the deprivations and hardships of economic destitution and combat.
However on reflection, I believe that the sacrifices of today’s generations are much underrated. We hear commentary about Millennials being pampered and entitled. I have had such thoughts myself on occasion. Yet, I wonder, and this is difficult to articulate without seeming to disparage the efforts of those who went before, whether it was somehow “easier” back then.
It appears to me that there is a substantive difference in those who go off to war when an entire world is in conflict and those who voluntarily go off in ones and twos to do their country’s bidding. There is something noble about returning to a grateful nation that collectively recognizes your sacrifices and praises your efforts. You are not just part of the brotherhood of those who served, but component of a national commitment in which you were the tip of the spear. The nation was the shaft upon which the sharp edge was attached, all were a part of the whole.
What about those who served in Vietnam? Soldiers who made the same sacrifices as their forefathers, but came home to an ungrateful nation who spat out horrible epithets and shunned their losses. Many volunteered for that duty because they believed in our country and the leaders who told them it was a earnest cause. Do they not warrant equal praise? It is the actions of these men and women that mark their worth, not the popularity of the conflict.
The attack on the world trade center was not unlike the sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor in its effect in galvanizing our nation. There was rightful retribution in the initial response against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet as that conflict and the war in Iraq dragged on, a schism grew between the warriors and the nation they swore to protect. We lost interest in wars that drag on without seeming end. Both countries today are failed states, embroiled in tribal conflict without a clear victory in sight. Yet, we ask our soldiers to fight on.
How should we view those who serve in such places today, risking their lives while the rest of society booms along? We go on family vacations and agonize over who will win “America’s Got Talent.” They get shot at on some God-forsaken rock outcropping in the Hindu Kush by people they are trying to help. They come home to a populace that “thanks them for their service,” yet understands precious little about what that means.
This quotation from CS Lewis gives some insight into their military experience. “All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it separates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil-every evil except dishonor and final perdition…”
The statement General Eisenhower gave to the troops embarking on the Great Crusade in Europe in 1944 seems even more applicable to today’s warriors, “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.”
The difference is in the outcome we expect. On that day, he said, “We will accept nothing less than full Victory!” The bravery and determination of our service members is not at issue, it is the lack of fortitude on the part of our political leadership that weighs heavily. Do we even know what “victory” looks like? Or, will we slip away quietly into the night as we have on too many occasions over the past fifty years, seeking, as we did in Vietnam, our own “peace with honor” that leaves our veterans wondering what their sacrifices mean?
I believe that our servicemen and women today do us proud. It may not be an entire generation, but there is a significant number who represent every bit as much courage and devotion to duty as any other generation has shown. It is also possible that their actions are even more noble because they have to keep the faith, even when it seems to flag at home.
They can rightfully say that they did their duty. And, we should be damned grateful that there are still men and women willing to stand watch in the night so that we can sleep well and enjoy the freedoms they have bought at so high a price.