"For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history."
-- President Ronald Reagan,
on the 40th anniversary of D-Day at
Pointe du Hoc, France, June 6, 1984
World War II was unmistakably a war against tyranny, yet in this skeptical era, we can't resist second-guessing ourselves.
We wonder if the honor we give the Greatest Generation -- Tom Brokaw's phrase has stuck -- is rooted in nostalgia and a yearning for simpler times, for wars we didn't argue about, for blind certainty.
Fortunately for the surviving veterans gathering here this weekend for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, this critique is wrong on all counts. The times were not simple. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal aroused great opposition. The generation that fought "the good war" came out of the Great Depression, not a time of clarity or triumph. American participation in World War II was contested until the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
And realism, not blind certainty, characterized those who went off to fight. World War I gave armed combat a very bad name. Grand dreams of making the world safe for democracy through military force didn't make much sense when the triumph of the allies in 1918 was followed so quickly by the rise of totalitarian states.
Yes, I'll admit to a deep and abiding prejudice in the matter of the Greatest Generation. My dad signed up shortly after Pearl Harbor and stayed in the Army until after the war ended. My godfather, a baker by trade, joined and cooked for the troops who advanced across Europe. Bert Yaffe, a neighborhood friend who informally enlisted as my second father after my dad died in the 1960s, was a Marine tank commander. He fought on Guam, Bougainville and Iwo Jima. Bert is in his mid-eighties, still looks like a Marine and still has shrapnel in him.
All this can fairly be seen as sentimentality. What's not sentimental is what the war generation accomplished after it came home. It was first in war and first in peace.
In his essential book "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam gives the Greatest Generation another name. He calls it "the long civic generation." Its members were a remarkable collection of democratic citizens.
Members of the generation born in the 1920s, Putnam writes, "belong to almost twice as many civic associations as do members of the generation of their grandchildren born in the late 1960s." The grandparents, he says, "are more than twice as likely to trust other people as the grandchildren are."
They vote at "nearly double the rate of the most recent cohorts." They are "nearly twice as interested in politics" and "nearly twice as likely to attend church regularly." They are "twice as likely to work on a community project" and -- I both love and worry about this one -- "are the last rabid newshounds: they are almost three times as likely to read a daily newspaper."
Of course they were civic, because they lived in a time when public action was seen to have worked -- to overcome the Depression and win the war. There was a draft, yet much was accomplished during World War II not by compulsion but by the voluntary efforts of communities that saw their own interests as inextricably linked to a larger interest.
Putnam tells the story of what happened when the war effort faced a severe rubber shortage. President Roosevelt asked the public to turn in "old tires, old rubber raincoats, old garden hose(s), rubber shoes, bathing caps, gloves -- whatever you have that is made of rubber." The result? "Literally millions of Americans responded to the president's appeal," Putnam writes, "and in less than four weeks roughly 400,000 tons of scrap rubber -- six pounds for every man, woman and child in the country (or at the front) -- were collected."
The long civic generation, as Reagan said, "stood and fought against tyranny." It also stood and fought for democracy and for service at home. Our newest monument pays tribute to valor in war. It should also be seen as honoring responsibility and community in times of peace.