By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On September 11, as the words “Pearl Harbor” rolled off the tongue of anchor after anchor, it was hard not to detect an element of wishful thinking. The analogy was in fact fairly slim: four hijackings by then-unknown foes in a time of relative peace versus an orchestrated military assault by a belligerent power with the world at war. But, as Tom Brokaw reminded us, however inaccurately, in his 10 p.m. broadcast, “Pearl Harbor, of course, triggered World War II, one of the epic events in the history of mankind. This is not expected to do just that, but it will change this country in . . . in so many ways.” Not to worry, Brokaw concluded the broadcast, “We’ll all be tested by all of this, and we’ll have continuing coverage.”
It wasn’t yet clear what exactly those changes and tests would mean, but a peek back at Brokaw’s best-seller The Greatest Generation might have shed some light on just what fantasies were pulsing behind the anchor’s furrowed brow. “While Pearl Harbor was the explosion that triggered five [sic] long years of death, injury and separation,” Brokaw wrote in 1998, “it also gave Americans everywhere common cause.”
TV commentators were almost immediately able to spot silver linings in the cloud of smoke and ash still hiding thousands of bodies in lower Manhattan. As early as the 12th, Senator John McCain and former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton both compared the city’s fallen firefighters to Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” (hereafter G.G.), those who came of age during the Depression and the war and emerged “mature beyond their years, tempered by what they had been through, disciplined by their military training and sacrifices.” The New York Timeseditorial page soon chimed in, referring to “younger Americans [who] have yearned to prove that they are as patriotic and as capable of self-sacrifice as” the G.G. and declaring that the “awful week of death and destruction that has just ended might be the invitation to create a great new generation and a finer United States.” By mid-October, it was official: In a letter addressed to “the Next Greatest Generation,” Abercrombie & Fitch announced that it was canceling the racy holiday issue of its quarterly “magalog” out of deference to the N.G.G.’s newborn sense of gravity.
America, obviously, had a ready-made myth into which the very real tragedy of September 11 could be slipped, a myth evidenced not only in Brokaw’s mawkish oeuvre, but in the comfortable conservatism of Bush speechwriters and in the full range of World War II nostalgia that has wound its way across America’s TV and movie screens. The ultimate contours of that mythic vision are visible in the very first scene of Saving Private Ryan, in which a washed-out American flag cuts to a perfect blond nuclear family trolling after Grandpa in a graveyard strewn with crosses.
Nostalgia for an idealized past carries with it an implicit critique of the present, which has lately been quite explicit. On Nightline, David Halberstam transposed the new spirit of sacrifice against the “binge of self-absorption and entertainment and celebrity” in which America has been engaged for the last decade. Elsewhere, Brokaw primly declared, “There is no question that we have been making whoopee in this country, and that is coming to an end.”
Were the critique limited to the media’s affection for O.J.-Monica-Condit scandal-mongering and the triumph of Nike in the pantheon of American values, it would be hard to complain. But behind the sepia-toned nostalgia for the war years, one finds a longing to pretend the 1960s never happened, to turn back the clock to a simpler time before Vietnam poked holes in the perceived infallibility of American Empire, before the civil rights movement and feminism ruined everything, back when family, work, God and country formed the four corners of American life.
The G.G. myth, of course, was one of the basic crutches of the Bush campaign’s attempt to differentiate itself from Clinton’s Baby Boomer decadence. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Bush spoke of “a generation of Americans who stormed beaches, liberated concentration camps and delivered us from evil. Some never came home. Those who did put their medals in drawers, went to work and built, on a heroic scale, highways and universities, suburbs and factories, great cities and grand alliances, the strong foundations of an American century. Now the question comes to the sons and daughters of this achievement, ‘What is asked of us?’” Bush went on to promise that this generation too has its “own appointment with greatness.” Eerily, he swore, “It won’t be long now.”
Just a year later, his date with destiny arrived, pundits were praising his newfound sense of purpose as Bush somberly pledged, “This generation will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future.” Last week he was still at it — aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise on the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he told current sailors and World War II veterans alike that they had been “commissioned by history to face freedom’s enemies.” But the G.G. was already a potent conservative myth when Bush’s speechwriters picked it up; recall Ronald Reagan’s revisionist memory of being there to help liberate the death camps. By 1998, the year that saw the release of both Saving Private Ryan and Brokaw’s first ä G.G. book, the war was no longer an extremely complicated event that Americans could remember in complicated ways. It had been transmuted into a compact, unsubtle code for conservative ideals.