Are We Growing Up?

Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers returned from World War II to almost universal approval, parades, honors and public adulation. They were called America’s Greatest Generation. The general most identified with this war was elected President by a huge margin.

Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers returned from Vietnam to a very mixed reaction, a good deal of public scorn, and honor largely only among each other. They were called America’s Lost Generation. Nobody seemed to want to identify with this war, but among those that were publicly associated there was one President who resigned in disgrace, and one future unsuccessful presidential candidate whose Congressional testimony discussed participating in numerous war crimes.

Now we have Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and Enduring Freedom.

Well, the approval is back, and the honors are back. The adulation isn’t there much anymore, but if you talk to a WWII vet, they never understood the adulation anyway. They just went and did a job, did the best they could, and came home. That’s what our soldiers are doing now. There aren’t many big victories (there were, but only for about two weeks), at least none that get reported, but neither are there defeats, or worse, victories that get reported as defeats. It’s a workmanlike effort, a job that needs doing, so we do it.

It’s almost like we’ve grown up as a country.

You can see this very well in the movies. WWII era movies are bloodless, heroic fairy tales. They aren’t really about the war in any real sense. The war is a backdrop for John Wayne to make speeches. Not that these movies are bad, immoral, or fattening. They aren’t. But they do very well reflect the ethos of the time, that the war was a good thing, a noble cause, and those that fought in it were to be honored and admired.

Fast forward to the 70s and 80s, and you get movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, which seem to have as their central character the war itself. The actors are merely foils for the war, powerless to resist its insanity, maimed and disfigured physically and emotionally by the senselessness of it. This, too, reflects an ethos and a public perception. It also reflects the contempt of many for the men that fought in Vietnam, though I should say there are many places and many people that rejected this contempt and held the fighting men in great esteem despite an avalanche of negative press. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the hopelessness of these movies was born out of a similar public hopelessness, and a rejection of the WWII sanitization of the war.

Today we have something very different. On our airport concourses, we have people applauding our soldiers as they return home. We have entire neighborhoods ablaze in yellow ribbons. We have bands and tributes again, as we once did.

And yet, am I the only one that feels there might be something different about it all? We have heroic war movies again, like before, but Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, while inspiring, in no way gloss over the horror that war brings to those that endure it. And yet, they still do inspire, not in spite of the horror, but in an odd way because of it.

I offer yesterday’s church service as an example, that perhaps can illustrate what I mean. We had several addresses by former soldiers and the spouses of current ones. All said essentially the same thing, that they were proud of the service they rendered and were glad for the opportunity to serve their country. And all said something like this: “this is incredibly hard. It is extremely dangerous, and we don’t take for granted that we’ll be coming home. War is an awful thing, but there are things that are more awful, and ingratitude and cowardice are two of those things.”

What I hear from the tributes and paeans of praise for our troops in this day and age is an almost adult understanding of the true meaning of the sacrifice being made on our behalf. Oh, there’s still bravado and bombast in some quarters, as there is whining and self-pity, hopelessness and defeatism. But by and large, the majority of the country seems to have harnessed itself to the idea that there are noble deeds being done by ordinary men and women every day, and that those deeds should make us grateful that there are such men and women to do them.

America is home to not one great generation, but many. The first, perhaps, we took a bit for granted. The second we unfairly judged. This one, now, this one we see more clearly. They are heroes. Not Olympian heroes, without flaw or pain, but true heroes in the truest sense, men and women of extraordinary character and resolve, who make sacrifices on our behalf not out of necessity, as the previous generations did, but out of gratitude and a sense of duty. These are volunteers, not draftees. Is there any way to entirely comprehend the miracle of that?

We have grown up, as a people, and that is hopeful. I doubt we can ever appreciate in any completeness the miracle we witness every day. We benefit from it now in obvious ways, but we will reap the rewards of it for generations to come. This is an investment that will pay huge dividends for those that made it, and for the rest of us that are their comrades, if not in arms, then at least in spirit.

It is perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve seen in my 40 years on this earth.

Happy Independence Week.

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