The Greatest Generation

Today is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The day that the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in an effort to liberate mainland Europe from the grip of tyranny. No matter how grandiose you try to make that sound it doesn’t do it justice. It’s hard for most people to comprehend the almost insurmountable odds those men faced and it’s equally hard for most people to understand the sacrifices that entire generation made in the name of freedom. What is sad to me is how that sacrifice seems to be lost on so many people.

On more than one occasion in the past two months, I have had interactions with people who would be considered millennials or younger who seem to be oblivious to the greatest generation. Example: twice now I have attempted to show someone in that age vicinity the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, the scene showing the invasion of Normandy, and it absolutely did not hold their interest. In both cases I was completely shocked. I wanted to grab them and shake them, screaming at the top of my lungs “DON’T YOU CARE???? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?? LOOK AT THEIR SACRIFICE!!!!” But all I could do was stand by horrified, thinking I had somehow let down both their generation and the greatest generation at the same time.

Before I go any further, I want to stress this is not a knock on millennials or any of the younger generation. They catch a lot of flack, and not all of it is warranted. Let’s face it, the Boomers and Generation X were the ones who raised them, so many of their perceived shortcomings owe at least a little thanks to that. Or, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius in the masterpiece that is the film Gladiator, their faults as children are our failures as parents.

The problem is that it is ancient history to them. The remaining veterans of that era who are trotted out on D-Day, Veterans day and other occasions to serve as the feel good props for everyone to say they remember have no relationship to them. At best they are their great-grandparents or great-great-uncles and aunts. That’s the best case scenario. In most cases they may be farther removed than that, if they have any relationship at all. The harsh reality is these are simply old people to whom they have no connection. The events of World War II may as well be Peloponnesian War, it is that distant to them.

That is a hard pill to swallow for those of us to whom these people are our grandparents and parents. We have direct relationships with the people involved. When I see the stunning visuals of Saving Private Ryan or the brilliant Band of Brothers, I am imagining my grandfathers and great-uncles. When I hear about the sacrifices of the people back home I think about my grandmothers and the remaining family members who were not over there but lived through it. I think about them because these are people I knew and know. I have direct relationships upon which to draw with the people who lived these events. Most millennials and younger, sadly, do not.

Another perhaps even harder pill to swallow is that these children grew up in a time of war that was vastly different from other wars and as a result they are a bit desensitized. The casualties of D-Day alone are almost the same number as the total for the entirety of the Iraq war, so the size and scope of World War II is lost on them. To them, war is no big deal. They lack the frame of reference that we have. They don’t understand the brutal, ruthless tyranny that we were fighting against because they are now being bombarded with the idea that Donald Trump is some kind of dictator.

Despite my usual proclivities, I am not trying to make this a political post. What I am simply trying to do is shed light on the differences between how we grew up and how they did. It is a drastically different world today than when the people of the greatest generation lived. Let’s face it, it is even drastically different from when I grew up. These worlds are night and day. They are as different as Mercury and Pluto. They simply are not the same.

Even the moniker “the greatest generation” only works to drive a wedge between that generation and this one. When they hear us say that our grandparents were the greatest generation, oftentimes today’s youth take it as an insult. It comes across to them as though we are proclaiming “you’ll never be as good as they were.” Rather than taking it as something to live up to, to be a person worthy of their sacrifice, it has the unintended effect of further alienating an already estranged generation. For a generation constantly bashed on social and traditional media by their forebears it does nothing to encourage, only discourage.

Still though, it’s a shame. It’s a shame because what those people did was unlike anything in the history of the world. I don’t say that to be hyperbolic. People went on rations, they worked in factories to make the equipment, they spent what little money they did have to buy bonds to fund the war effort. Women who had never worked outside the home, and had no desire to, went to work to keep everything going. Audie Murphy, who became one of the great legends of the war, was 5’5″ and weighed 112 pounds when he joined the Army and he had to talk his sister into helping him lie about his age just so he could enlist. He wasn’t alone either, many other young men did similar things just to step up and serve their country in the name of freedom.

Because that’s what this is all about: freedom. The reason we praise them so much and call them the greatest generation is because they willingly made sacrifices that caused themselves extreme hardships and even death just to stop brutal tyrants from conquering the world. From Normandy to the Pacific, from Africa to Russia, these brave souls threw themselves willingly into harms way so that the tide of tyranny could be stopped. What’s more, they knew that many of them would die but they did it anyway.

This is why we make such a big deal about them. Because they made sacrifices that most of us can’t even comprehend just to ensure freedom. Because they laid down their lives willingly in order to change the tide of history. Because they fought to give us the very freedoms the we all take for granted every day. This is why we call them the greatest generation, because they sacrificed themselves so that we wouldn’t have to.

We would all do well to remember and honor that rather than simply paying it lip service as it seems we so often do. Because it isn’t the younger generation’s fault that they don’t understand these things, its ours. We haven’t lived it for them and we haven’t shown it to them. We can’t hold them to a standard that we fail to meet ourselves. We don’t get to parade the men and women of that time in front of their faces while admonishing them for living in the world we created with what that era gave us. It isn’t fair to them and it isn’t fair to the greatest generation.

So take the time this D-Day to reflect on those sacrifices. Examine yourselves and see if you’re adhering to the standards they set or hiding behind them. Then, make adjustments accordingly. I know I’m going to.

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