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Rolling Back the Years, or Blame It on Brokaw

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 Times editorial 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.

 

How else to read Brokaw’s insistence on “the need to reinstate the concept of common welfare in America, so that the nation doesn’t squander the legacy of this remarkable generation by becoming a collection of well-defined, narrowly cast special-interest fiefdoms, each concerned only with its own place in the mosaic,” but as an attack on multiculturalism? How to read his misplaced pining for “those simpler times, [just after the New Deal!], when much of social welfare was a matter of good-hearted people,” except as an endorsement of Bush père’s Thousand Points of Light? What else to make of all the praise for the G.G.’s “strong commitment to family values and community,” their fervent patriotism (“a sentiment not much in fashion anymore”), and the repeated claim that “Faith in God was not a casual part of the lives of the World War II generation”? This is the Republican social platform served up warm and steaming.

Sure, Brokaw allows that the G.G. “weren’t perfect. They made mistakes.” They shouldn’t have put all those Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, for instance. And, he admits, “They allowed McCarthyism and racism to go unchallenged for too long,” as if such phenomena came from outside, like bad weather or a roach problem, rather than being something the G.G. themselves did.

The G.G. myth, though, is in large part a myth of racial unity, a dream of a time when (white) men could be men, undisturbed by racial difference or sexual ambiguity. Brokaw profiles a few women and two African-Americans, but such tokenism is roughly the equivalent of director Michael Bay’s sidebar portrayal of Dorie Miller, the Cuba Gooding Jr. character in Pearl Harbor. World War II, of course, was our last war with a completely segregated military, which makes it uniquely suitable for fantasies of white-male battlefield bonding, the real subject of most of the recent films, and of that strange sexless soap opera Band of Brothers. (Of course, behind the battlefield brotherhood, there’s always a woman back home — which is, by implication, where she should be.)

If the mythical melting pot of the trenches today hides a longing for a whiter and simpler world, in the ’40s it went a long way toward defining whiteness. The war era was in fact one of enormous racial division domestically. In 1943 alone, the Zoot Suit Riots — in which white soldiers and sailors beat Mexican-Americans on the streets and in their homes as police looked on — hit L.A., and race riots killed dozens in Detroit, where white workers attacked the blacks they thought were threatening their jobs. To most Americans, the war was about revenge against the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (sound familiar?), and, as the historian John Dower has shown, was, on both sides, openly and explicitly envisioned as a race war.

in late october, reigning G.G. ideologist Stephen Ambrose penned an essay on the unity of the war years, portraying Navajo, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans all forgetting their gripes and joining up. “Their country had been attacked. They would go to war.” This sort of willful amnesia invites us to skip over half a century’s struggles and failures, the most symbolically powerful of which is still Vietnam (which haunts the current martial discourse with every mention of the word quagmire). It lets us imagine a nation united and strong, fighting for freedom: “In the Second World War, we learned there is no isolation from evil,” Bush told the U.N. last month. “That evil has returned, and [our] cause is renewed.”

The struggles to define the contours of the “civilization” we are defending are thus deftly papered over. This era, like the prewar 1930s, has been marked more by division than by unity, both in the U.S. and in the West at large. Witness last year’s election, the riots in Cincinnati (or in northern England, for that matter), and the street battles in city after city between police and what was a growing movement to contest the monolithic vision of civilization now being preached with such rhetorical fervor.

 

By default, the official vision of civilization becomes that of the president, and of the mythical G.G. whose values he tirelessly espouses. (The day before Thanksgiving found him carving turkey for members of the 101st Airborne Division, the band of brothers unit.) “Freedom” then has more to do with such abstractions as “our way of life” than with any specific freedoms, as the USA-PATRIOT Act and Bush’s recent plans to reinvent the Star Chamber make all too clear. In his U.N. speech, the president beamed, “We have a chance to write the story of our times.” The line was far more candid than he probably realized. For, as the spinning of the Greatest Generation myth shows, the real power in history lies in what story gets told, and in who gets to tell it.


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