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BY Paul Witte
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw. (Random House, New York, 1998, 412 pages, $24.95)
The Greatest Generation is about the cohort of men and women who were profoundly affected by World War II — those, as the author suggests, who were born around 1920.
The author, NBC news commentator and analyst Tom Brokaw, writes from the perspective of a 58-year-old journalist from a small town in South Dakota. He is neither a baby-boomer nor is he part of the generation he is writing about. This middle ground enables him to speak to both generations, the first needing to be convinced of the worth of the values of the “greatest generation;” the second needing to hear those values — their own values — affirmed in an age when commitment to principles and to family, loyalty, responsibility, and integrity are downplayed.
Brokaw writes what he calls a “family portrait” of persons he's met along the way as a journalist. He portrays ordinary citizens like those he grew up with in small town U.S.A., and famous ones like those he met through his years as a national journalist. For the most part, however, what impresses one in reading this assembly of personal stories is how familiar the people seem, whether their names are well-known or not.
Here are 47 portraits of single men, single women, and couples, whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans, all touched by the violence and discipline imposed by the war. The course of each life is like a river passing through mountainous terrain, diverted and deepened before rushing into the wide-open, fertile plain that was the postwar era.
Most of the portraits are of persons who more than survived the war. They learned lessons that have lasted a lifetime. Sometimes those lifetimes were long and prosperous. Other people, who died in the war, nevertheless left a rich legacy to their spouses and children after them.
After recounting each person's wartime episode of bold action in battle or heroic endurance against great odds, Brokaw frequently sums up by pointing out that they still think their sacrifices were worth it. Despite the horrors of the war, the profound injuries inflicted, the suffering and devastation burned into the consciousness (and unconsciousness) of the combatants, they are all able to describe how much their characters were forged and their perspectives on life sharpened by what they experienced.
Bob Bush is one such veteran. He owes his success in business, he says, to “the rigorous schedule pursued by so many World War II veterans. In the service, soldiers had learned the importance of identifying an objective and pursuing it until the mission was accomplished.” Furthermore, “these were children of the Depression, with fresh memories of deprivation.” They weren't about to miss the chance to make money after the war.
Doing business, however, was not the only thing the World War II generation set out to do after returning home. The lessons they learned fit them for public service, politics, family life, and social activism, creating a generation unequaled in success and the quality of character.
These men and women of the Great Generation, living examples of integrity, stand in stark contrast to succeeding generations. Brokaw extols those values formed in dark days of economic depression and world war, now placed on a mountaintop for all to see. Americans of younger generations have to admit that, indeed, this older generation has something going for it.
Brokaw has penned a best seller. More than that he has done a great job of proclaiming many of the values found in the Gospel: faithfulness to family and community, service to one's fellow human being; openness and fairness to all people. Though Brokaw does not pay a great deal of attention to religion, still he always points out the role of faith in seeing people through crises. For example, he chooses to highlight the lives of public servants like Joe Foss of South Dakota and Mark Hatfield of Oregon on the basis of their religious convictions.
The book seldom mentions current names on the political scene, but Brokaw's choices do not seem random. The reader can't help conclude that he is drawing a contrast with the behavior of public figures today. However, there is no moralizing or preaching for Brokaw. He lets the life of each person tell the story. In the end, this is the story of “Every Man,” and for that reason many are reading it.
Another plus about this book is the way it documents historic battles, setting real lives in the midst of documented history, bringing home the fact that the war was not the domain of military strategists and spies alone.
This is the kind of book that's contagious — you want to tell others about it. In this day of ready access to images of violence and self-indulgence, it is refreshing to read about lives full of honor and justice.
Paul Witte writes from Ypsilanti, Michigan.