THE MEMORY HOLE

Posted in Rants on May 30th, 2017 by Ed

The only way I can rationalize Kenneth Rose's Myth and the Greatest Generation (2007) being anything less than a best-seller and a national conversation starter is lack of promotion by the publisher and the absence of a Big Name Author with a well developed Personal Brand on the title page. Written as a detailed and informative rebuttal to the "Greatest Generation" series from Tom Brokaw and its numerous imitators, it proceeds from the simple premise that the generation born shortly before the Great Depression and which came of age during World War II was not notably different from other generations except for how we choose to remember them (and they choose to remember themselves).

The myths of a virtuous, civic-minded generation defined by sacrifice and the greater good is partly accurate, of course, as Americans in large numbers did indeed make great sacrifices for their country and to fight fascism during the 1940s. However, our cultural narrative of WWII chooses to overlook all the less glamorous aspects of life during that time that reveal the WWII generation to be no different than others. There were Americans who fought bravely, and others who dodged the draft enthusiastically. Some rationed, and others fed a billion-dollar black market in rationed goods. Some worked until they dropped to support war production at home, while others malingered and went idle. Some wives endured the emotional battle of maintaining a marriage during wartime, and others ran off with someone else and sent "Dear John" letters to the front. Some soldiers fought in a way that reflected well on their country and values, while others shot surrendering prisoners. Women and African-Americans filled the void in the economy left by sixteen million (mostly white, mostly men) people enlisted or drafted; some workplaces used this as a springboard toward a new conception of the labor force, while others met them with half-wages, discrimination, and other forms of ill treatment at every turn. Many American businesses gamely redirected themselves toward war production, while others rapaciously profiteered off of the war effort in ways that would make the Mafia blush with shame.

In other words, they weren't good, nor were they bad. They were just normal. We make the decision, conscious or otherwise, to remember them in a certain way. We associate "Draft Dodging" with Vietnam but ignore the millions of men who went to another country or used wealth and connections to secure employment deemed essential to the war effort to avoid having to fight. We ignore that, for example, when the Korean War draft began, my grandfather and millions of other WWII veterans quickly arranged to conceive children to make themselves exempt from being re-enlisted. Does that make them bad people? No. It makes them normal. If World War II conditions were re-created today we would see the same mix of reactions. Some people would make sacrifices and others would take advantage of opportunities available to them.

Part of the problem with our false memory is a conscious effort to market to a demographic with spending money over the past two decades. Starting in the late 1980s a tsunami of WWII history-propaganda overtook Hollywood and (especially) the publishing industry. Go to a large chain bookstore (if you can still find one) and go to the History section – half of the space is devoted to World War II and its era. Every conceivable aspect of it has been covered to death, usually in uncritical terms by authors eager to tell the target audience of aged white men what they want to hear. There is nothing new about this. There will always be attempts to cash in on selective nostalgia.

The other problem, and the one we more often ignore, is that memory is a poor guide on any subject, especially across decades. The fundamental fallacy of yearning for things to go back to The Way They Used to Be is that the way we remember Things Being is guaranteed to be selective and distorted. Have you ever visited a house you used to live in, a school you used to attend, a neighborhood from your past, your old favorite bar, and so on? Invariably the reaction we have is one of surprise when we discover that over time we have distorted little things about it. Sure, the house is where we remember it being, but was it really this small? Were those trees there in 1980, or are they new? Really? I could have sworn they were farther away.

Social conditions are not exempt from this phenomenon. Memory is incomplete even under the best circumstances. The way modern American politics bathes itself in sloppy rhetoric about the golden days we have left behind is the worst kind of indulgence in fantasy. Not only are we intentionally omitting some of the parts we choose not to remember, but even to the extent that we think we are remembering it faithfully we are fooling ourselves. A hypothetical journey in a time machine would reveal that our sunny memories of the 1950s or whatever time period we consider to be immediately Before the Fall have been edited substantially over time. We remember things being better than they were because we want to and because we can't remember things any other way.