Category Archives: America

Book Review: The Greatest Generation

I'm glad I finally pulled this from my reading pile and read it. Time well spent
I’m glad I finally pulled this from my reading pile and read it. Time well spent

Back in 2012, when I was writing The Candy Store Generation, I went looking for books about generational identity. Of course I was familiar with Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. As I did my study, I found that just about everyone had adopted Brokaw’s appellation to that bunch of Americans born between 1900 and 1924. Some extend it all the way to 1939 or so, but Brokaw is clearly talking about those who experienced the Great Depression and led the effort in World War 2, or who fought in it. Yes, many born after 1924 also fought in it, as teenagers. I wouldn’t argue against including them.

As I was studying, I picked up a used copy of TGC, read enough of it to be able to pull some information from it, then set it aside and went back to higher priority stuff on my reading pile. After finishing A Generation of Sociopaths, I decided the more opportune time had come. I found TGC in my reading pile, and went through it in a little more than two weeks.

It’s an excellent book, and its place in the history of America’s story won’t be enhanced or diminished because I review it. The reading is easy, and Brokaw does a good job of weaving short bios of men and women who served in the war into the war story itself. He doesn’t stop there. He tells us something of their lives before and after the war. In some cases  the post-war story was much longer than the description of the war service.

I do have a few criticisms, however. Almost everyone described in the book was an officer. A few began as enlisted men, then were promoted in the ranks. I would have liked to have learned something more about the experiences of the dogfaces in the battle line. Then, the field of journalism is over-represented among the stories. In the part about famous people who served in the war, such as politicians and CEOs, he pulls almost half of them from the ranks of famous journalists. I suppose that’s understandable, given that Brokaw is a journalist. He would of course have more contacts in his own field, and would have an easier time getting those stories, and a greater interest in them. Still, knowing more about a few policemen, construction workers, bus drivers, and factory workers would have been nice.

One the other hand, Brokaw does a nice job of covering issues of racial prejudice, in the country and the military, as well as the limited opportunities for women to serve. He does this in a non-critical way, yet makes it clear he wishes it had been otherwise, and is glad that progress has been made in both areas. I thought this part of the book was very, very well done.

Thinking again about the officers vs enlisted men, or the famous vs the obscure, I offer up my dad as an example. He started out the war as a dogfaced private. Shipped first to England then to North Africa, he wasn’t in the first wave. He was scheduled to be in the invasion of Italy, but was pulled off the LSI in Tunis at the last minute to go work the Stars and Stripes, setting type for them—his pre-war occupation. His service the rest of the war was for his fellow soldiers, getting the news to them, helping them to keep up morale.

A wartime portrait, probably 1944. HIs "Stars & Stripes" insignia shows.
A wartime portrait, probably 1944. HIs “Stars & Stripes” insignia shows.

Dad was closely associates with Bill Mauldin, the cartoonist. For a good amount of time they were in the same S&S office, I think in Italy, but for sure in southern France, and at the end of the war. Mauldin is famous for his Willie & Sam cartoons, of two common privates who found humor in war situations. It’s said that General Patton didn’t like those cartoons, for they showed soldiers who were not our best. Yet, the S&S brass must have realized the soldiers loved them, for the cartoons continued.

My dad played a part in this, as Mauldin often had Dad pose for him. Most likely another soldier was involved as well. I can’t look at a Willie & Sam cartoon and help but wonder, “Did Dad pose for that one? Is that a drawing of Dad?” Dad spoke of Bill often, yet I don’t believe they had contact after the war. After Dad died in 1997, I thought of trying to find Mauldin to let him know, but never did. He died in 2003, the same age as Dad.

I’ve rather gotten off the track here, haven’t I? This is supposed to be about TGC, not my dad. I thought of it because, in the last chapter, Brokaw touches on Mauldin’s work at S&S during the war. That made me think of Dad, and since I was already thinking Brokaw had somewhat shortchanged the enlisted man, made me further think it would have been nice to have had Dad’s story in that, or one of the other 8 million like him.

If you haven’t read TGC, I recommend you do so. It will give you a greater appreciation for those who came before us, and in some cases were our parents. I’m starting to reduce my library, and am being more selective about the books I keep. This one I’m keeping, however. Hopefully Lynda will want to read it. I don’t expect I’ll read it again, but you never know.

Patriotism vs Nationalism

I’m going to write and post this, but it will be far from complete, and I’ll have to follow-up with supplemental posts in due course. I write this during the wave of very vocal public opinion after San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game a week or two ago. Public opinion seems to be against what Kaepernick did, but you can hear voices on the opposite side, ranging from “no big deal” to “he did the right thing.”

For a while now I’ve thought about this. By that I mean long, long before Kaepernick decided to exercise his First Amendment rights with apparent disregard for what impression it would make and effects it could have. Or perhaps he did think them through, though some of his comments since then make me think he didn’t. I’m thinking back to the flap when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama didn’t wear a U.S. flag lapel pin. There was some outrage at the time, but it all blew over; most people won’t remember it without prompting.

My thoughts at the time were that I wasn’t particularly concerned with outward gestures that people define as patriotism. I’m concerned with actual acts of patriotism. I’m concerned with people living their lives as a patriots, not mindlessly participating in rote ceremonies that have become mostly without meaning.

Don’t get me wrong: I always respect our flag, and think about what it stands for every time I’m involved in a ceremony. Heck, I remember a time at URI, gotta be 44 years ago at least, because I  was living on campus. It was a very cold winter day. I was dressed in my surplus U.S. Navy bridge coat, the one I had my brother get when Cranston High School East declared them surplus, having bought true warm-up jackets for the football team. It was a heavy, heavy coat, but it sure kept me warm. It was late in the day and I was heading across the quadrangle, in the direction away from the dorms (so maybe I was going to an evening class or exam). Wherever the flag pole was on the quad (seems like maybe it was a flagpole close to Bliss Hall), they were striking the colors for the evening. I don’t remember who was doing it; I don’t think it was a formal ceremony, just someone taking the flag down. I stopped, took off my red and black hunter’s hat, and stood at attention with my hand over my heart, until the flag was down and folded and being carried away to overnight storage. I doubt too many people ever did that in the URI quad.

So the flag is important to me, and that wasn’t a meaningless gesture on my part. But, I have to say, that respect for the flag is not patriotism. It’s nationalism. What’s the difference, you wonder? My desk dictionary has a slight variation in the definition of the two. Patriotism is listed as a synonym for nationalism, but not the other way around. Nationalism includes this alternate definition: excessive, narrow, or jingoistic patriotism. Oh, that’s not nice. The definition it give for patriotism is: love and loyal or zealous support of one’s own country. Yeah, I like that.

So is standing for and singing the national anthem, with your hand over your heart—or if you can’t sing just being quiet and respectful—an act of patriotism, or of nationalism? If it’s done for show, or because you’re supposed to do it, or merely because people are expecting you to do it, then it’s at best nationalism, and at worse mindlessness. The best you can say about it is it can be an example to others, and perhaps encourage others to learn to respect and love their country.

So what is patriotism? In a previous post I mentioned that my dad was a patriot, and I gave reasons why I thought he was. However, I’m going to hold off on completing these thoughts. I want to take time to properly develop them. Perhaps it will be my next post, or even one or two after that.

The Flattery Continues

Well, that short piece (real short piece, had to be under 50 words) I wrote back in 2004 for American Profile magazine continues to have legs. I wrote about this before. Yesterday, on a whim I decided to check for it again, so I searched for the phrases “ethics before law” and “law before gain”.

On the former I got over 4,500 Google hits. However, these reduced to just three pages upon clicking through them. The latter had 567 hits, which reduced to seven unique ones upon clicking through. A good number of these were to my quote, or rather to my quote unattributed.

One of those is a discussion on a Yahoo message board (second reply, discussed more several posts down, and the bad language is not my fault). Interesting that this was quoted in a discussion on Islam and whether Moslems can be good citizens.

So the flattery continues, sort of. I seem to have crafted a good phrase. I thought it was good at the time of writing; the legs prove it is.

Now, to be a successful, published writer, I just have to duplicate the quality of this a few tens of thousands of times. Piece of cake.

Musing on America

Seventeen years ago I was on my last overseas trip (the ones to Mexico in 1996 and Canada in 1997 not counting as overseas). I spent about 30 hours in the Bahrain airport, writing for my visa into post-war Kuwait to come through. It finally did, and I arrived in Kuwait July 4, 1991, where I joined my wife. She had been there about six weeks as a Red Cross nurse, and was about to leave for home. We overlapped three days, I think.

At that time I had spent five of the previous nine years living out of the country: from 1981-83 in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and then from 1988 to 1990 in Kuwait. I remember my first flight back into America, in September 1981, when I came to fetch the family and bring them to Saudi for our life there. Charles was 2 years 8 months old, and Sara a mere 5 months. I flew on Pan Am, which to me was a symbol of America. Upon touch down at JFK airport, many on the plane broke out in cheers and clapping. Home again, to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Several times since then Lynda and I have commented on how reckless and foolish we were, as young parents, to take our children to the Persian Gulf region while the Iran-Iraq war was on. We saw few effects of it while in Saudi, but it was still on when we began expatriate life in Kuwait years later. Several times we saw smoking ships being brought to land somewhere to the south, close enough to see what it was but far enough away to not know what type of ship, or if they were putting into a Kuwaiti or Saudi port. I suspect the Saudi ports were over the horizon, and that they must have been foreign vessels–probably Iraqi–putting into Kuwait ports for repairs. My first month in Kuwait four terrorist bombs were set off, though always in a place that seemed to be to damage a business, not kill people.

In those five years, I had six homecomings to America, plus the one in the trip after the war, so seven overall. I’ve been to Canada twice, and Mexico once, so in all I have returned to America ten times in my life. Each time was an exhilarating feeling. Home again, to a nation where peace prevails and sanity rules. Home again, to where economic opportunity is bounded only by the effort you put in and the amount the government takes out. Home again, to safety and security. Usually to cheers, always to relief.

The world has changed in those years since the long trips for oversees residency, not for business or tourism. I had the opportunity to be in about twenty-five or thirty other countries. I love this country most of all. Yet, as I’ve said in an editorial, I see the United States as a fragile experiment, a mere 232 years after declaring independence, 217 after finding a workable form of government. We have outlasted some nations, but many others through history lasted longer. The experiment is still fragile. Forces foreign and domestic want to change us from being the nation we were formed to be. I won’t list the changes, and not all readers would agree with the specifics.

Has America passed its zenith? Are we now on the decline? This would take many posts to write about, which I won’t do at this time–too much writing to do otherwise. If we have passed our zenith, I hope it is momentary, and that another score of years will find us on the ascendancy again. As I said in the closing line of a tribute poem to Ronald Reagan, “Long live your shining city on a hill.”