Yes, they're now known as the "greatest generation," while the generation that followed them is sometimes referred to as the "silent" one. In my own limited experience, however, those World War II vets, the ones I knew anyway, were remarkably silent about their wartime lives. My dad was one of them. Yes, he got angry at me when I went in on a half share of a used Volkswagen Beetle with a college friend. (It was German!) Yes, he refused to go to the single Japanese restaurant then in our neighborhood in New York City. (He had been operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma, fighting the Japanese!) Yes, he got mad if my mother or I went into the little grocery store on our block and bought anything. (They had, he insisted, been profiteers during the war!) But the war itself, his personal war, wasn't a matter of open pride or stories told to his son. It was largely missing in action. Though he certainly sat through World War II movies with me when I was a boy, he never commented on them. (Since he said nothing, I assumed that the Hollywood heroics were the real thing.) As for that duffle bag in his closet with old documents, his mess kit, his dog tags, and other war memorabilia, he almost never opened it. Like many in that war generation, I suspect, he considered his experience (and himself) anything but "the greatest."
The recent D-Day celebrations -- and today's piece about them by TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, whose new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, will be a must-read when it's published in January -- brought all this back to me so many decades after my father's death. But I must admit that another set of thoughts came to mind as well. After all, one of this country's most prominent former generals, David Petraeus, has called the still-spreading war on terror a "generational struggle." At this moment, when some of the first babies born after the 9/11 attacks may already be heading for Afghanistan and our other war zones as 17-year-old members of the all-volunteer armed forces, one thing is certain: decades from now we won't be celebrating the (briefly) triumphant invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 or the entry of American forces into Baghdad in April 2003 with moving ceremonies attended by global leaders of (almost) every sort.
We're a couple of generations into Washington's latest wars and yet it's hard to imagine what monikers those generations might someday be given. Obviously not "the greatest" -- not when so many years of war have, unlike in World War II, produced not a single bona fide victory. Of course, it's not up to me, but one that comes to my mind might be "the forgotten generation," because most of the time the wars they've fought in are largely forgotten or ignored here, even as they continue. In some sense, they might as well not have happened, never-ending as they are, and yet, of course, they've helped unsettle the planet, created refugees by the millions (reinforcing the populist right in Europe and this country), and spread terror groups far and wide. Or perhaps the post-9/11 volunteers among them should be called "the missing generation" since, at least in this country, their wars, and so their experiences remain essentially missing in action even as they continue. While you read Bacevich's latest post on D-Day and the misuse of history give a thought to those still unnamed generations of soldiers and wonder why their wars never end. Tom
The Art of Shaping Memory
Knowing Whom to Remember and How to Forget
By Andrew J. Bacevich
How best to describe the recently completed allied commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of France? Two words come immediately to mind: heartfelt and poignant. The aged D-Day veterans gathering for what was probably the last time richly deserved every bit of praise bestowed on them. Yet one particular refrain that has become commonplace in this age of Donald Trump was absent from the proceedings. I'm referring to "fake news." In a curious collaboration, Trump and the media, their normal relationship one of mutual loathing, combined forces to falsify the history of World War II. Allow me to explain.
In a stirring presentation, Donald Trump -- amazingly -- rose to the occasion and captured the spirit of the moment, one of gratitude, respect, even awe. Ever so briefly, the president sounded presidential. In place of his usual taunts and insults, he managed a fair imitation of Ronald Reagan's legendary "Boys of Pointe Du Hoc" speech of 1984. "We are gathered here on Freedom's Altar," Trump began -- not exactly his standard introductory gambit.- Advertisement -
Then, in a rare display of generosity toward people who were neither Republicans nor members of his immediate family, Trump acknowledged the contributions of those who had fought alongside the G.I.s at Normandy, singling out Brits, Canadians, Poles, Norwegians, Australians, and members of the French resistance for favorable mention. He related moving stories of great heroism and paid tribute to the dwindling number of D-Day veterans present. And as previous presidents had done on similar occasions marking D-Day anniversaries, he placed the events of that day in a reassuringly familiar historical context:
"The blood that they spilled, the tears that they shed, the lives that they gave, the sacrifice that they made, did not just win a battle. It did not just win a war. Those who fought here won a future for our nation. They won the survival of our civilization. And they showed us the way to love, cherish, and defend our way of life for many centuries to come."
Nor was that all. "Today, as we stand together upon this sacred Earth," Trump concluded,
"We pledge that our nations will forever be strong and united. We will forever be together. Our people will forever be bold. Our hearts will forever be loyal. And our children, and their children, will forever and always be free."
Strong and united, together, bold, loyal, and free... forever.
It was, in its way, an astonishing performance, all the more so because it was entirely out of character. It was as if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had published a book of sonnets or National Security Advisor John Bolton had performed a serviceable rendition of "Nessun dorma" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- wonderful in its way, but given the source startling as well.- Advertisement -
Selective Remembering and Convenient Forgetting
If the purpose of Trump's speech was to make his listeners feel good, he delivered. Yet in doing so, he also relieved them of any responsibility for thinking too deeply about the event being commemorated.
Now, let me just say that I hold no brief for Josef Stalin or the Soviet Union, or Marxism-Leninism. Yet you don't need to be an apologist for Communism to acknowledge that the Normandy invasion would never have succeeded had it not been for the efforts of Marshal Stalin's Red Army. For three full years before the first wave of G.I.s splashed ashore at Omaha Beach, Russian troops had been waging a titanic struggle along a vast front in their own devastated land against the cream of the German military machine.