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 The Greatest Generation? 

June 1, 2004 
I’ve always revered old men. America’s youth-worship has always struck me as silly, and its neglect of old people is everyone’s loss. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.Saner societies realize that the wisdom of their ancient members is precious.

But for that reason, I’m put off by all this raving about World War II veterans as “the greatest generation.” The survivors among them are old now, but during that war they were young. And it’s not as if they had any choice. They did what they were told, like the young men they fought against, with little comprehension of the big picture. Are we to think they all pondered the merits of the war, and independently arrived at the same conclusion? Or did they merely obey the state en masse, just as Japanese and German boys did?

What is really being glorified is not the veteran, but the war itself. It was a war most Americans at the time wanted to stay out of, and rightly so; but Franklin Roosevelt did all he could to involve us anyway, provoking the Germans and Japanese at every opportunity.

Yes, the United States won. It gained a global empire and nuclear weapons, but was unable to control the genie that had been released. The government became far bigger than ever, fantastically different from the modest federation designed by its Founders; militaristic and bureaucratic habits became second nature to Americans, who have lost all sense of proportion about themselves and are baffled and irritated by the inevitable result: anti-Americanism around the world.

It’s not that Americans are especially wicked; it’s just that power has severely damaged their capacity for objectivity about themselves, as witness President Bush’s identification of America with invincible virtue. That attitude is a legacy of the total victory of World War II. It’s what the Greeks called hubris. No wonder people around the world are rejoicing at our failure in Iraq.

[Breaker quote: Great wars and great presidents]Those who call World War II “the good war” love to recall the alliance between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Actually, the two men disliked each other. Roosevelt despised the British Empire; he saw the Soviet Union as America’s postwar partner in ruling the world, and he much preferred Joseph Stalin to Churchill. At the Tehran and Yalta conferences, he enjoyed amusing Stalin by slighting Churchill. For the wary Stalin, Roosevelt was a pleasant surprise, easy to manipulate.

Stalin too emerged from the war — “the Great Patriotic War,” as he dubbed it — with a greatly enlarged empire. Soon he also had nuclear weapons. He never said he had conquered the countries of Eastern Europe; no, they had been “liberated.”

Sound familiar? You have to wonder whether Bush realizes he is echoing Soviet rhetoric when he calls Iraq “liberated” by an American invasion and occupation. Probably not; he lacks Stalin’s mordant irony about power.

Nostalgia for World War II springs from the yearning to be able to utter simplistic propaganda with a straight face. Bush can do it, and he strikes a chord with people who acclaim “moral clarity” and reject what they term “moral equivalence.” War demands this mindset, in which one’s own side represents pure goodness and the enemy pure evil, beyond human sympathy.

In wartime, hatred becomes mandatory; neutrality is impermissible, a cowardly refusal to choose between good and evil. Thoughtful people with humane reservations about the war are apt to find their loyalty suspect, or to be branded as traitors, whose very doubts, if expressed, lend aid and comfort to the enemy. Even the line between the soldier and the civilian may be erased, as when Bush is called “our commander in chief,” when, properly speaking, the president is merely commander in chief of the armed forces. The tendency to make the executive a dictator is also typical of wartime. Why should good be “handcuffed” against evil?

The naive view of the president as dictator is expressed in the common belief that Lincoln “abolished slavery” — as if any president, at any time, might have abolished it with a stroke of the pen. The twin myths of Lincoln and Roosevelt as great wartime presidents serve to exalt the power of the U.S. Government. So does the myth of “the greatest generation.”

My dearest mentor, now in his eighties, missed the war. Long after I’d come to admire him, I learned that he’d been a conscientious objector. Even as a young man, he had done his own thinking and followed his own conscience. But there are no official honors for that.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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