There was certainly a hint that the previous century was not going to unfold in a particularly propitious manner when World War I, "the war to end all wars" (a phrase famously attributed to American President Woodrow Wilson), proved but an introduction to a second world war that would make the first look more like a skirmish. Add in the fact that the pandemic to end all pandemics, the 1918 "Spanish flu" (that may actually have originated in the United States), killed at least 50 million people on this planet before being forgotten in the catastrophic Great Depression and, until recently, essentially dropped from history.
And that, mind you, is the world that Andrew Bacevich's parents and mine inherited. They -- at least those of them who fought in that second world war -- would later be dubbed "the greatest generation" (a phrase made famous as the title of a 1998 book by journalist Tom Brokaw). At least in my experience and those of my friends, however, the fathers of that era knew better and generally were remarkably silent about that war of theirs and its supposed glories, even as, in my childhood, Hollywood was putting shining versions of it on every movie screen around.
Now, we're two decades into a new century, one in which the U.S. has been fighting a series of wars that won't end (no less end all war) and in which this country has only recently been consumed by a Spanish-flu-like global pandemic whose best (that is, worst) days may still be ahead of it on significant parts of the planet. In that context, TomDispatch regular Bacevich, author of the new book The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, considers what the children of that "greatest" generation (including both him and me) have to look back on 75 years after their parents' war (at least the one in Europe) ended in a triumph that promised an American world beyond compare and has ended up in a nothingness that's sad to behold. Tom
V-E Day Plus 75
From a Moment of Victory to a Time of Pandemic
By Andrew Bacevich
The 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender in May 1945 ought to prompt thoughtful reflection. For Americans, V-E Day, as it was then commonly called, marked the beginning of "our times." The Covid-19 pandemic may signal that our times are now coming to an end.
Tom Engelhardt, editor and proprietor of TomDispatch, was born less than a year prior to V-E Day. I was born less than two years after its counterpart V-J Day, marking the surrender of Imperial Japan in August 1945.
Tom is a New Yorker, born and bred. I was born and raised in the Midwest.
Tom is Jewish, although non-observant. I am a mostly observant Catholic.
Tom is a progressive who as a young man protested against the Vietnam War. I am, so I persist in claiming, a conservative. As a young man, I served in Vietnam.
Yet let me suggest that these various differences matter less than the fact that we both came of age in the shadow of World War II -- or more specifically in a time when the specter of Nazi Germany haunted the American intellectual landscape. Over the years, that haunting would become the underlying rationale for the U.S. exercise of global power, with consequences that undermined the nation's capacity to deal with the menace that it now faces.
Tom and I both belong to what came to be known as the Baby Boom generation (though including him means ever so slightly backing up the official generational start date). As a group, Boomers are generally associated with having had a pampered upbringing before embarking upon a rebellious youth (Tom more than I), and then as adults helping ourselves to more than our fair share of all that life, liberty, and happiness had on offer. Now, preparing to exit the stage, we Boomers are passing on to those who follow us a badly damaged planet and a nation increasingly divided, adrift, and quite literally sick. A Greatest Generation we are not.
How did all this happen? Let me suggest that, to unpack American history during the decades when we Baby Boomers sashayed across the world stage, you have to begin with World War II, or more specifically, with how that war ended and became enshrined in American memory.
Of course, we Boomers never experienced the war directly. Our parents did. Tom's father and both of my parents served in World War II. Yet neither were we Boomers ever truly able to put that war behind us. For better or worse, members of our generation remain the children of V-E Day, when -- so we tell ourselves -- evil was finally vanquished and good prevailed.
For Tom, for me, and for our contemporaries, World War II as history and as metaphor centers specifically on the Nazis and their handiwork: swastikas, mammoth staged rallies, the Gestapo and the SS, the cowardice of surrender at Munich, the lightning offensive campaigns known as blitzkrieg, London burning, the Warsaw Ghetto, slave labor, and, of course, a vast network of death camps leading to the Holocaust, all documented in film, photographs, archives, and eyewitness accounts.
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