What made the Greatest Generation great 

Saying thanks before it’s too late

I had the good fortune to share dinner with some members of what’s called the “Greatest Generation” this past Thanksgiving. I’m referring here to my Mom and Dad and my wife’s parents — none of whom have probably ever dreamt of calling themselves the greatest this or that, not because they don’t take pride in things they’ve done, but because their Midwestern modesty forbids it.

As far as I can tell, the idea that they’re members of a greatest generation sits a little uneasily on our folks’ shoulders. This wasn’t their idea. Someone younger thought it up.

The label, of course, refers to the sacrifices made by the generation that fought and ultimately prevailed in the Second World War. That war has come to be called “the Good War” by many people because they recall it as a time of extraordinary national unity and purpose. President George Bush Jr. invoked this when he declared his own war on terror. He said that just as the Second World War defined his parents’ generation, this new conflict would define us. This new war, in other words, was the Baby Boom generation’s chance to achieve greatness.

But while the Second World War had a profound effect on everyone who lived through it, from the soldiers overseas to the women working here at home, it’s not what made the Greatest Generation great. That came once the war was done.
The war, after all, was a kind of unnatural disaster. It was a circumstance beyond anyone’s control. The lives of young people in their late teens and early 20s were forcibly interrupted and, in too many cases, ended. People grew up fast — the war was a terrible test.

But once that test was done, this generation’s real work began. And this is what I found myself being grateful for on Thanksgiving Day.

The outline of the story looks simple: The soldiers came home, married the girls that were waiting for them and this combustible coupling created the enormous demographic bulge known as the Baby Boom. Suddenly, there were more little children running through the picture than anyone had seen before. Thousands upon thousands of new houses were built for these kids to grow up in; new schools were built so they could be educated. And the process of providing these things helped sustain an economy that enabled more people to enter the middle class than ever before.

Naturally, the story is a lot more complicated than this. We Baby Boomers made sure of that. It seems that as soon as we could, we started providing a critique of the world our parents made for us. We didn’t like their politics, their work ethic or the ways they had fun. There was something to what we had to say. Hypocrisy and high-handedness perpetuated gross racial inequality and got us into a war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, our dads went off to work, leaving most of our moms at home with little opportunity to fully use their talents and intelligence. And as far as fun was concerned, well, our folks seemed to be constantly putting things off for some future date instead of living in the moment. Surely there was more to life than that.

A lot of us saw marriages that, we were told, were only holding together “for the sake of the children.” This, we declared, was just wrong.

It may not seem like it, but all of this was a long time ago. We Boomers have been at the controls in this country for quite a while now. It’s clear we’ve done a pretty good job of deconstructing the world our parents tried to build. From public schools to the nuclear family to the very notion of the middle class — we’ve managed to undermine all these things, if not render them completely obsolete. It’s no wonder we’ve gotten ourselves into a war against a noun, terror, instead of an old-fashioned nation-state. To some of us this probably seems like progress.

Like all generations, the Greatest Generation had its faults and flaws, its self-deceptions and hubris. But, looking back, it’s also plain to see it did more for kids than anyone before — or since. Yes, the Greatest Generation rose to an unforeseen challenge in a time of war, but what really made this generation great was its practical insistence on trying to make it possible for its kids to have fuller, richer lives than they had themselves. That so many of us experienced this insistence as stifling, something to rebel against, is what the ancient Greeks would have called tragic.

My family had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. All of us are still around, for one thing. That’s a simple gift — it goes with still being able to say “thank you.”

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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