Growing up with a father, uncles, and cousins who struggled to maintain our California farm during the Depression and then fought in an existential war was a constant immersion in their predominantly tragic view of life. Most were chain smokers, ate and drank too much, drove too fast, avoided doctors, and were often impulsive—as if in their fifties and sixties, they were still prepping for another amphibious assault or day-time run over the Third Reich. Though they viewed human nature with suspicion, they were nonetheless upbeat—their Homeric optimism empowered by an acceptance of a man’s limitations during his brief and often tragic life. Time was short; but heroism was eternal. “Of course you can” was their stock reply to any hint of uncertainty about a decision. The World War II generation had little patience with subtlety, or even the suggestion of indecision—how could it when such things would have gotten them killed at Monte Cassino or stalking a Japanese convoy under the Pacific in a submarine?
One lesson of the war on my father’s generation was that dramatic action was always preferable to incrementalism, even if that meant that the postwar “best and brightest” would sometimes plunge into unwise policies at home or misadventures abroad. Another lesson the World War II generation learned—a lesson now almost forgotten—was that perseverance and its twin courage were the most important of all collective virtues. What was worse than a bad war was losing it. And given their sometimes tragic view of human nature, the Old Breed believed that winning changed a lot of minds, as if the policy itself was not as important as the appreciation that it was working.
In reaction to the stubborn certainty of our fathers, we of the Baby Boomer generation prided ourselves on introspection, questioning authority, and nuance. We certainly saw doubt and uncertainty as virtues rather than vices—but not necessarily because we saw these traits as correctives to the excesses of the GIs. Rather, as one follows the trajectory of my generation, whose members are now in their sixties and seventies, it is difficult not to conclude that we were contemplative and critical mostly because we could be—our mindset being the product of a far safer, more prosperous, and leisured society that did not face the existential challenges of those who bequeathed such bounty to us. Had the veterans of Henry Kaiser’s shipyards been in charge of California’s high-speed rail project, they would have built on time and on budget, rather than endlessly litigating various issues as costs soared in pursuit of a mythical perfection.
The logical conclusion of our cohort’s emphasis on “finding oneself” and discovering an “inner self” is the now iconic ad of a young man in pajamas sipping hot chocolate while contemplating signing up for government health insurance. Such, it seems, is the arrested millennial mindset. The man-child ad is just 70 years removed from the eighteen-year-olds who fought and died on Guadalcanal and above Schweinfurt, but that disconnect now seems like an abyss over centuries. One cannot loiter one’s mornings away when there is a plane to fly or a tank to build. I am not sure that presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were always better men than were presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, but they were certainly bigger in the challenges they faced and the spirit in which they met them.
This New Year’s Eve, let us give a toast to the millions who are no longer with us and the thousands who will soon depart this earth. They gave us a world far better than they inherited.
How painfully ironic, then, that their unappreciative heirs should turn out to be the weak, soft, whiny little pissants they are, with each successive generation more contemptible than the one before it.