Curator Zan Popp recommended this book, and Ken Burns’ The War, to set tone for exhibit Call of Duty: Kansans and World War II.
Why? The Greatest Generation tells the stories of veterans and civilians during World War II – real experiences by real people, not necessarily “war heroes” – although some of them certainly were. Tom Brokaw interviewed Kansas senator Bob Dole, Hawaii senator Daniel Inouye, Andy Rooney, and many other people about what happened during the war.
Brokaw calls these people The Greatest Generation. Would we have a similar response if we were attacked again? I don’t know. Americans’ expectations are different now, and we’ve had the experiences of other wars (Korea, VietNam, a very unpopular war, First Gulf War, Iraq war, Afghanistan.)
What interested me about the book was the consistency of people’s experiences. That they did what they had to do, and moved on. The veterans wanted to forget the war experience, even though they consistently said that it had formed them, and changed their lives completely…“But I wouldn’t want to do it again.” Brokaw talks about the connection that the husbands and wives have to each other – how they cherish being together, because they were apart in such a terrifying way, for so long. The divorce rate is much lower with these couples than the rest of the population. The casualty rates of World War II were very high, and everyone knew someone who was in the service. Death was always too close a possibility.
People did what they needed to do – that was their patriotic duty, what it meant to be a citizen. There was national support for the war effort. The United States had been attacked. Not going to war wasn’t an option. This is a different experience from today. The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than ten years – twice as long as World War II – but there is no rationing, no requests to buy war bonds, no scrap drives, no draft. The closest thing my generation had was the attack on World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. For a time, we felt a sense of national unity. We were nice to each other. We made an effort to be supportive. But World War II, that effort went on for 5 years continuously. It’s an amazing story, this story of real people.