Part of my recent self-education has been a protracted study of World War 2. My interest is to understand better the American nation and people during that event. And to better cast the season of my birth and early life in history. I’m a baby boomer, born to parents who were part of the Greatest Generation. Tom Brokaw coined that term, crowning that group of contemporaries with a well-deserved superlative. Their living through the Great Depression then fighting the War was their achievement.
Though as I’ve listened and studied, they would scarcely call themselves special. They only did what had to be done, living as they had to and fighting as the conflict demanded. I think their winning that war against enemies that were clearly evil also defines a resiliency and persistent determination. One that Americans can and should look to as a model forever.
The inward focus of the post-Depression created a policy and practice of isolationism that allowed the foes that arose to declare America soft and cowardly. That was a grave, fatal mistake by those regimes. But it emboldened them to attack.
So the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both sprung from unbridled and arrogant nationalism in both of those countries. It is of interest that they would have eventually even fought each other if they had been victorious enough. Both had devotion to leadership that rose to the level of worship of evil. They were both brutal and inhumane towards other nations and people.
Once America was awakened from its slumber, fighting that war was an easy call. It was a matter of survival. And that isolated country would turn into a war machine that turned out, among other things, a combat-ready B-24 bomber every 63 minutes at the Ford Motors Willow Run manufacturing plant alone. That’s faster than they could be shot down. The unity of the nation during the war is what won the war, though at great cost of life and material.
Since that time 70+ years ago, conflict has not ceased. The involvement of America in war has been more or less constant. The reason for that involvement has often been stated as “American interests” which is a vague enough term to encompass everything from culture to finance to political clout.
Now that isn’t necessarily bad. And war is not something done lightly; people kill and die. But it is of interest to me that the hawks and doves have fought internal wars of words about our fighting here or there.
To me, there are some guidelines to be learned from the Greatest Generation:
- Isolation is dangerous. A posture that presents America as an uninvolved, non-combative country just waiting to be conquered by those who are more fierce or determined creates war.
- Ignoring evil, aggressive regimes only ensures that you will fight them when the stakes and costs are much higher. This doesn’t cast America as the world’s nation police. But it does draw a line of what can be tolerated. I would posit that the ISIS regime is not one to be tolerated for example.
- A clear “good cause” is necessary for a “just war”. America was fighting those who gassed Jews and massacred Chinese. The relative knowledge the nation had of the ongoing Holocaust can be debated. But that the Nazis and Japanese were capable and bent upon such brutality was easy to see. The hell of war turned those Americans fighting it into brutal warriors as well. And be it known – It is absolutely possible that America can turn into the racist, genocidal aggressor without functioning checks and balances in our governmental decision points.
- Unity of good will is vital. I was going to write “unity of love” but I don’t want to overstate the case. Basically, as I look at those who fought the war, I am struck about their lack of internal polarity. For sure, blacks were still treated poorly. We must both be honest about that and that we have come a long way (and have further to go). Out of fear, American Japanese citizens were shamefully put in camps. But at large America was a nation that fought as a family. I’m sure Germany and Japan to an extent had that trait too. In fact, even more so. But at its base, theirs was a unity of fear.
- War is horrible but sometimes a horrible necessity. There is nothing romantic about war. It is human conflict at its most destructive. And these days as always, those who suffer the most are not soldiers. The application of the term “just war” to various conflicts can be debated and disputed ad nauseum, but fighting WW2 was necessary.
I have grown to love my parents’ generation. I hope my children do the same. They were America at its finest.
There’s a lot more to be written and considered from this historical perspective. And a lot more polarity in the air these days. What kind of posture that strikes internationally will be known a aggressors look upon America in its current state and act upon their observations. For it is no paranoid assertion to declare that such aggressors do exist. And they are not afraid to attack and destroy everything we call good.