Civil Liberties

Strange Daze

Baby boomers fixate on "national purpose."


Who could have predicted that 1998 would be the year that the baby boomers finally made peace with their parents? The now-middle-aged "younger generation" that once embraced "The Times They Are A-Changin'" as an anthem is now singing a very different tune regarding its elders.

The combative scorn embodied in Bob Dylan's declaration of generational conflict is gone. The boomers, now parents (or grandparents) themselves, are no longer interested in lyrics such as, "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land/ and don't criticize what you can't understand/Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command…."

Derision for those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II has been replaced with gushing admiration and respect. But the lessons that leading-edge boomers are drawing from their elders, anointed "the greatest generation" by Tom Brokaw in a new book with that title, are less about paying tribute to those who came before and more about asserting a new form of generational privilege over those who come after.

Given that the Vietnam War had been one of the major sources of generational friction, it is particularly ironic that the movie Saving Private Ryan has been a prime factor in narrowing the generation gap. Through unrelenting, ultrarealistic battle sequences, that film helped create a newfound appreciation for the almost casual heroism of American combatants during World War II. Another of the year's most-anticipated releases, Terrence Malick's Guadalcanal drama The Thin Red Line, is likely to deepen those feelings in a generation that derided John Wayne as a camp icon. For the first time, it seems, boomers who came of age in the 1960s are able to recognize in their parents something worth emulating.

However long overdue the boomers' gratitude and empathy may be, there remains something characteristically self-absorbed about it. In an interview with film critic Roger Ebert, Saving Private Ryan director Steven Spielberg referred to World War II as the "key–the turning point of the whole century….It was as simple as this: The century either was going to produce the baby boomers or it was not going to produce the baby boomers. World War II allowed my generation to exist."

There is something similarly disquieting about how the boomers are discussing the experience of "the greatest generation." During World War II, Tom Brokaw wrote recently in Newsweek, "ordinary people found common cause, made extraordinary sacrifices and never whined or whimpered. Their offspring, the baby boomers, seem to have forgotten the example of their parents. We should be reflecting more on what we can learn from the men and women who…were called to duty at home and abroad….We must restore the World War II generation's sense of national purpose, not merely of individual needs."

Though seemingly innocuous, Brokaw's call for a renewed "national purpose" is unsettling, and not simply because it is implicitly militaristic ("The one time we got together," he quotes Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii as saying, "was during World War II. We stood as one, we clenched our fists as one"). During a period that Brokaw grants has "no overarching national crisis," exactly who will be called upon to make what "extraordinary sacrifices" without complaint? The burdens of such inevitably fall on the young and, for those of us who were born at the tail end of the baby boom or later, it is hard not to suspect that the next "national crisis" will inevitably involve sacrificing ever-greater portions of our wages to fund a Social Security system that will be depleted long before we retire. The Me Generation's shift to the We Generation is timed so as to inspire maximum cynicism.

There is something exceedingly naive in Brokaw's invocation of "national purpose" as an unalloyed good. It's a phrase that lends itself most readily to coercive social agendas, protectionist economic programs, xenophobic immigration policies, and other divisive strategies; indeed, World War II itself was essentially fought to defeat the various "national purposes" of the Axis powers. The paradoxical truth about America is that by granting individuals maximum latitude to determine how to live their own lives, it offers a measure of refuge from being forced to serve someone else's "national purpose."

It is passing strange that the boomers–who rejected so strongly and defiantly their own parents' designs for them–should now be clamoring for a revived "national purpose" of which they are likely to be beneficiaries. And it seems very much out of keeping with the lesson that the World War II generation may actually have drawn from its experience.

As I read Brokaw's Newsweek column, my thoughts turned to my father, who died a year and a half ago. He was precisely the sort Brokaw seeks to honor: Born in 1923, he grew up in poverty that was stark even for Depression-era America; he participated in the Normandy invasion and the other major campaigns in Western Europe, and was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded in Germany.

I never heard him rhapsodize about his youth, and I never heard him pledge fealty to an abstract "national purpose." If anything, he was relieved that none of his children was sacrificed to such a beast. That's not to say his life was dedicated "merely" to satisfying his own "individual needs." He was a devoted parent, a charitable neighbor, a responsible employee. But when he died, his dresser was covered with pictures of his family–and his war medals were buried deep in a drawer.