The other day, well Memorial Day to be precise, I was sitting in my best friend’s house watching “Band of Brothers” while both of us were ardently pretending we hadn’t fogged up our glasses trying not to cry. As soon as the St. Crispin’s Day speech the mini-series is named for began, I choked up, but we both lost it as the then elderly (now deceased) Major Dick Winters stated:
“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said ‘Grandpa were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No…but I served in a company of heroes.’”
There he sat at the then ripe age of 83 with what was left of Easy Company telling their tales of training in the 101st Airborne Division, landing in Normandy, through France and the Netherlands, the Battle of the Bulge, into Berchtesgaden, and scaling Hitler’s legendary Eagle’s Nest, before finally getting word that the war in Europe was over. It was an illustrious career and war record, and yet with the greatest of humility he saw nothing special in his service.
It’s a tale echoed throughout Major Winter’s generation, coined by Tom Brokaw as “The Greatest Generation,” for their sacrifice and subsequent silence of their heroic achievements. As Brokaw opens his book of the same title, he discusses his two trips to Normandy on the 40th and 50th anniversaries of D-Day. He remembers telling his wife to ask these men, “Where were you that day?” and to be prepared for unbelievable stories. Hearing these veterans speak of D-Day, this impossibly brutal and shockingly successful (almost despite itself) invasion of Nazi Occupied France, inspired him to give them the credit they deserve.
His book, in many ways is a love letter and a history of a generation. In his introduction, Brokaw writes:
“Some of the names and faces you’ll recognize immediately. Others are more like your neighbors, the older couple who always fly the flag on the Fourth of July and Veterans Day and spend their vacation with friends they’ve had for fifty years at a reunion of his military outfit. They seem to have everything they need, but they still count their pennies as if the bottom may drop out tomorrow. Most of all, they love each other, love life and love their country, and they are not ashamed to say that.”
It’s perhaps a glorified and simplistic view of a generation. Not everyone landed in Normandy 70 years ago, not all women were back home and working for the war effort, and some missed out on having to serve. But their great unifier was the world around them, their peers and family members dying by the thousands, and reading the newspaper every day as Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific fell deeper into darkness of the Axis Powers. They underwent rationing and propaganda campaigns, and were instilled with a deep seated fear of any form of government outside of democracy. They loathed communism and ignored social issues because defense and freedom were the only thing that mattered, because in their eyes it could wipe out not only their way of life, but the lives of everyone they knew. Of course their children rebelled and the revolution of the 60s occurred to combat the rigidity of their parents; they were born into the world that had been saved, and raised under the oppression of the increasingly warm Cold War. But to the Greatest Generation that came from parents who lived through World War I in which an entire generation died en masse, and who were born amidst the Great Depression themselves, sacrifice and duty were of the utmost importance. I’m sure it was a stifling way to live for the Baby Boomers, but it cannot be forgotten that without them, the world as we know it, for all its warts, would not be the one we live in today.
I don’t know if Brokaw is right, that these men and women were the greatest generation or if he is just as in awe of their accomplishments as the rest of us should be. Did they do more for us than the generation of the Founding Fathers? Was their bravery more finely honed than those who lived through the Civil War? I’m not sure, but I am positive they’re the finest among us in recent history, and it’s not war that did it. Since then we’ve had the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, and for most of those instances, those engagements tore apart our society instead of uniting it. The Greatest Generation was the last time society as a whole came together under one cause and every man, woman, and child sacrificed for it, and that, more than the war or the glory, is what should live on. The knowledge that humanity can and will stand together to fight against unspeakable evil.
Today, on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we’re saying goodbye to the Greatest Generation. Every day nearly 555 World War II veterans die and barely one million are left alive. Now in their 90′s, it’s unlikely that they will see another anniversary, or will ever make another trip back to remember and mourn with their fellow soldiers. And with them, every day we lose a bit more of their history, their memories, their heroics, and their quiet sacrifice. It means that my children will never be sitting in a restaurant next to a table of old men casually discussing their shared experiences. They won’t be like me, who found out after his death that my outrageous and frankly absurd grandfather not only served in the War, but saw action in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific theaters, and was on three separate ships that sank. There won’t be that moment of incredulity that I very nearly didn’t exist. They’ll never walk through Washington, DC on a summer’s day and see very old men and women supporting each other as they make their way through the World War II Memorial or Arlington Cemetery and reminiscing of the heroics and horrors they encountered. And that saddens me, greatly. All lives must end, but so must they be remembered. I fear that in a few short years, those who fought and lived through World War II will be nothing more than history: A fact in a book, documentary on cable, a memorial in a nation’s capital; never forgotten, but so easily out of mind.
I hope that their indomitable spirit lives on and that if future generations are ever tasked with so great a cause as they were, that they will channel it and be inspired by it. That instead of partisan politics and fractious debates we learn that there are some instances when the price of inaction is too great, a lesson their generation learned whole heartedly as appeasement failed and Hitler’s evil spread. The moral though, is it doesn’t matter if it’s war or human rights that we fight for, as long as we remember what they lived by: that we must always, always fight for what is right, and must never, ever surrender.