Who Replaces the Greatest Generation?

The death of Charles Durning on Christmas Eve, right after Dan Inouye’s, set me to thinking about the Greatest Generation of World War Two vets that’s fast disappearing–last time I checked, 1,500 a day.

And now we have George H.W. Bush, Avenger pilot, in intensive care.

What a profound resource they’ve been for this country! And what an inspiration. 

Take Durning’s case. He was one of the first glider troops to land on D-Day; his glider overshot its LZ and he had to fight his way back, alone, to the beach to avoid getting captured. Then, nine days later, he stepped on a German mine and received severe wounds to both legs, his chest, his right hand, and his face. When the wounds healed, back he went to his unit–just in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, where he was captured but managed to escape before the Germans shot him.

Like many of those who fought in World War Two, Durning never said much about what he’d done and endured: this wasn’t a generation that would care much for Facebook. The Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts said it for him. 

And the courage, dedication, and sheer guts of the 12 million Americans who wore uniforms was also matched by those who stayed home. In researching my book, Freedom’s Forge, I discovered what a national reservoir of talent and creativity the war production effort tapped into in order to make those 280,000 planes, 86,000 tanks, 8,800 warships, and all the rest. Workers, executives, engineers, drivers, women, African-Americans — 20 million strong. 

I learned they also paid a price. In 1942–the year of Midway and Coral Sea, as well as Guadalcanal, Operation Torch, and the battle of the Atlantic–the number of Americans killed or injured in war-related industries outnumbered those killed and wounded in uniform by a factor of 20 to one.

They weren’t just workers. There were 189 senior executives at General Motors who died on the job during the war: from heart attacks, strokes, stress-related diseases, or men who just burned themselves out trying to keep the war materiel flowing out of GM plants. 

It was a generation built on character. They had undergone the hardship of the Depression, and were undergirded by a religious faith that wasn’t yet afraid to speak its name. They believed the rewards of success had to be earned, not ladled out in order to build self-esteem. They weren’t very politically correct, but they saw the world with a moral clarity that their baby boomer offspring (including me) blurred in order to appear more sophisticated–a major cultural loss.

Will there be another generation to replace them?

  1. Illiniguy

    Yet they raised and enabled the most demanding, narcissistic and whiny generation of children the world has ever seen. I’m of the belief that it’s because of what they endured that this happened.

    My bet is that my grandchildren’s generation will become that next “greatest” generation, because they’re going to suffer the horrible privations that the boomers will have imposed upon them.

  2. Douglas

    I revered my grandfather… a vet of the 101st who fought the Battle of the Bulge. But the more I look at our country, so many of our dependencies and ills can be laid at the feet of a generation that surrendered their liberties for New Deal promises. Are they really the “greatest generation”, after all?

  3. Guruforhire

    What are the WW1 guys, second class heros?  “Over the top” was a d-day every day.

  4. Shane McGuire

    I was going to make a similar statement as Illiniguy did in his first paragraph. The greatest generation wasn’t the greatest generation at all. If we’re pegging who the greatest generation in American history was to major wars then a couple of scuffles in the 1770s and 1860s come to mind.

    The WWII vets did some remarkable things in service to our country, but by and large that ended in the ’40s. Their most lasting legacy is the welfare state and a secularized America.

    If we’re asking who the next generation will be that will raise a bunch of malcontents who go off to college and learn little more than to despise their predecessors, well, the greatest generation is now. We are who we’ve been waiting for.

  5. Shane McGuire

    Wow! Ricochet is the home of those who reject the premise. It’s like we’re a bunch of Newt Gingriches.

  6. Guruforhire

    The domestic sins of the greatest generation is legion.

    Douglas: I revered my grandfather… a vet of the 101st who fought the Battle of the Bulge. But the more I look at our country, so many of our dependencies and ills can be laid at the feet of a generation that surrendered their liberties for New Deal promises. Are they really the “greatest generation”, after all? · 3 minutes ago

  7. tabula rasa

    I’m the son of one of the greatest generation.  This is him sitting on his tank somewhere in France.  He was badly wounded in October 1944.  He never complained, never brought attention to himself, and was quietly proud that he had served.Scan-89-Copy.jpg

    I’d like to think my brother and I share some of his attributes, but I will always feel he was a better man than me. He was raised in a culture of duty, hard work, self-reliance, and l0ve of God.  (Of course, not every member of that generation was “great”).  The cultural traits that created the greatest generation are not gone, but they are in retreat.

    Times help make the man, or the generation.  Our task, in the absence of a world war to slap us in the face, is to fight the lonelier battle for cultural attributes, person by person, family by family.

    I can’t fix the broader culture by myself.  I have a lot to say about the culture of my family.

  8. Nick Stuart

    I would take the bet that if the need arose today, we would rise to the occasion. After another 10 or 20 years of the theraputic welfare state, I’m not so sure.

  9. tabula rasa
    Douglas: I revered my grandfather… a vet of the 101st who fought the Battle of the Bulge. But the more I look at our country, so many of our dependencies and ills can be laid at the feet of a generation that surrendered their liberties for New Deal promises. Are they really the “greatest generation”, after all? · 9 minutes ago

    Of course, we have the advantage of historical perspective:  we know what the New Deal wrought upon America.  They were walking down unknown paths–later generations don’t have that excuse.

    And not everyone of that generation bought into the New Deal. My father, for example, could say a few good things about FDR as commander-in-chief; but he utterly detested the collectivist, big government policies of the New Deal from day one.

    No generation is perfect.  On balance, the people of that generation were producers as opposed to takers.

  10. EJHill

    You’ve been Brokawed.

    How about a generation that created a country when no colony had ever broken from the parent country in the history of the world and against greater odds than a more generous God would allow?

    How about a generation that went to war with itself to preserve that country?

    Or the generation that pushed that country from one end of the continent to the other?

    The WWII generation is the second inheritor of the Woodrow Wilson generation, the enslavers of man to the state. They took the creations of their fathers’ generation, i.e., the social welfare state and expanded it beyond all expectations and created the entitled, whiny population of modern America.

    Individual people may be great, generations are not.

  11. Illiniguy
    Nick Stuart: I would take the bet that if the need arose today, we would rise to the occasion. After another 10 or 20 years of the theraputic welfare state, I’m not so sure. · 10 minutes ago

    The need HAS arisen; I can’t see us rising to the occasion.

  12. JimGoneWild

    I think we will see the Vets from Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa step up someday. They are still young, finding their place in the world and raising brand new families.

    We talk of the silent majority and those who are too busying working and raising a family to stay current on politics, well there are young people who are too busy for skate boards and Xboxes. They’re under the radar, don’t  get the press, bad or otherwise, that the Gen-X’ers or Y’s get. They are there, you just have to look.

  13. Valiuth
    tabula rasa

    No generation is perfect.  On balance, the people of that generation were producers as opposed to takers. · 1 minute ago

    Producers eh? The first generation to milk SS without paying much into it? I think if production is to be the key measure the Baby Boomers produced quite a lot. All those collage educated Boomers have given us the modern economy and all of its luxuries and benefits. My generation is now one of the most productive in terms of raw out put. 

    While it is good to remember the deeds of our grandfathers and honor them I hardly think the WWII generation is such a thing apart. Their fathers and grandfathers did many great things too and build a nation of industry and commerce capable of waging a war such as WWII. 

    My generation and the one to follow will surely have their own accomplishments (I hope).  Though I would personally prefer to avoid having our metal tested in such a conflagration as a World War.

    WWII had to be fought, but it was not a great thing. It was ruinous and costly. Far better if it had never happened and our grandfathers never proven great. 

  14. Valiuth

    One question also I have, as a member of Ricochet whose grandfather fought in WWII, but not for the Allied forces. He was part of the Romanian Army and fought on the Axis side to which Romania was allied to at the time. His largest engagement was at Stalingrad where Romanian forces where stationed outside the city. He thus was not ensnared in the siege, but forced to retreat across all of Ukraine. Is he too part of the Greatest Generation? Or is that title reserved for Americans only? 

  15. Joseph Paquette

    There is a saying, that you’re not really Jewish till your grandchildren are Jewish.  In other words, your legacy is what defines you. 

    I think the same admonition applys to the ‘greatest’ generation.  For the most part, they failed to pass on the attributes that made them the ‘greatest’ generation to the next and next generations.   

    So maybe they aren’t the ‘greatest’ generation, but their parents were. 

  16. Indaba
    EJHill: You’ve been Brokawed.

    How about a generation that created a country when no colony had ever broken from the parent country in the history of the world and against greater odds than a more generous God would allow?

    How about a generation that went to war with itself to preserve that country?

    Individual people may be great, generations are not. · 24 minutes ago

    Edited 17 minutes ago

    Rhodesia broke from Britain too (UDI) and were making their way through war when Kissenger flew in for one day and told the Rhodesian government to change to democracy. That democracy spawned Bob Mugabe who has been democratically re-elected since. Perhaps there is more to letting countries fight their own wars of independence?

    America does have a fascinating history with great heroes.

    George Bush was a terrific leader yet I did not know much about his heroic ways until after his retirement. where the heck were Time and Newsweek? Why do they not celebrate their great leaders? What is with their pulling down of their leaders?

    I do see terrific Americans who run businesses but they are mostly from flyover country. Two worlds and codes of conduct  in one country.

  17. Douglas
    Guruforhire: What are the WW1 guys?

    Tragic victims, canon fodder in an imperial pissing match they never should have been sent to, sacrifices for Woodrow Wilson’s political intriguing. 

  18. genferei
    EJHill:  Individual people may be great, generations are not.

    And even more: individuals may do great things, but being just ‘great’ – what can that mean? It’s like being ‘the world’s foremost authority‘. 

    So: a large number of individuals showed great courage and sacrifice making the world safe for democracy (and communism, as it turned out, although that wasn’t the goal of most of them). Similarly, a large number of individuals wrote cheques to themselves to be backed by the next generation (although that’s not why most of them voted the way they did). Sometimes – often – these individuals were the same.

  19. Nick Stuart
    Illiniguy

    Nick Stuart: I would take the bet that if the need arose today, we would rise to the occasion. After another 10 or 20 years of the theraputic welfare state, I’m not so sure. · 10 minutes ago

    The need HAS arisen; I can’t see us rising to the occasion. · 32 minutes ago

    Just because I’d take the bet doesn’t mean I think the odds are even, something more like 6:5 against (trying to be optimistic here).

    It’s a big maybe. The next few years are going to show whether we can persevere through President Obama’s second term and effectively influence our culture to resist the slide into something resembling socialist Europe (or worse).

    We may also have events that test us thrust upon us.

  20. Shane McGuire

    I’d like to know what Mr. Herman thinks of the response in the comments?

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