When It Was Good ...

A friend cornered me and posed a challenge: "Listen," he said, "I'd like to see somebody try to tell the truth about this 'Greatest Generation' before it's too late."

I'll take the dare.

By "the truth," my friend meant a more expansive picture of America's World War II generation than the one-dimensional nostalgia produced these days by pop culture.

Americans of the World War II generation are entering the last years of their lives and dying off, and a grateful nation is paying tribute to them in books, movies and magazines. They are glorified as the last Americans to sacrifice for this country, perhaps the last to pull together for the common good.

Along the way, though, we shouldn't forget that this generation also went on to perpetuate racism and segregation. We should remind ourselves that this was America's original full-entitlement generation, and then the generation to lead a backlash against entitlements for others. This is the generation that uprooted and dispersed itself around America after the war, turning its back on old family ties and redefining U.S. goals in terms of me-first, only to grow bitter when their children followed suit.

This is the generation that thwarted the aspirations of career women, taking them out of their wartime work shirts and putting them back in aprons and girdles. In the exuberant boom of the 1950s, this was a self-absorbed generation that gave little thought to preserving its open spaces, its clean air or pristine waters. Only a single significant national park was added to our registry in the 1950s, in the Virgin Islands.

I mean no disrespect for the deeds and the great sacrifices of this generation during war. I look at my own family. My mother lost her three brothers, two of them in bombers over Germany. My father entered the war early as a pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew off carriers for the U.S. Navy during the whole of the Pacific campaign. He was recalled to the Navy to fight in Korea and was disabled in the crash of his jet. War consumed 10 years of his life and led to his premature death.

I'm still a sucker for the glory of World War II. I went to Honolulu to hear taps played over the Arizona on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I spent $200 that night buying drinks for old men whose feats brought me to tears. I have studied the brave history of that conflict. I've had the high honor to meet, awe-struck, some of its heroes.

But I also have seen the other side of this generation. Experts say that friction between generations is a normal pattern. But I know only the conflict between the generation of our World War II parents and us, their baby boomer children.

Veterans of World War II sent 8.8 million of us to a misguided war in Vietnam, but they were fainthearted and they failed to define a purpose that would rally the nation, as the nation had rallied for them. Later, I was blocked at the door of the VFW along with untold scores of others because these veterans of World War II didn't like our haircuts or our music or the alienation they bequeathed us.

Why bother revisiting these events? Because this craze for the "Greatest Generation" has us looking backward for our values, as if somehow the best of America was exemplified by the past. It isn't.

The contemporary idealization of black and Asian soldiers who fought in that war is a product of today's generation. Minorities back then were not treated so kindly by their fellow Americans. They had the door slammed in their faces, or worse. Across this land of the free, the "Greatest Generation" wrote into the covenants of the housing they built with GI-Bill money: whites only.

The World War II generation has taken its full measure of Social Security and built itself the system of Medicare, but it was not foresighted enough to bequeath its children the same. As they have grown older, these men and women of mid-20th-century America have displayed less and less of the selflessness of their wartime image. During their working years, they built great roads, schools and water projects, but in their retirement they voted against social investments of all kinds. They left cities in disrepair. At the end of their productive years, they pioneered a two-tier wage system so that sacrifice would be borne by younger workers.

The "Greatest Generation" is fading now. So as we celebrate them, yes, let's offer them a heartfelt salute. We owe them our freedom. But we also owe ourselves a reminder: We can do them better.

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