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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

54 thoughts on “THE MEMORY HOLE”

  • Steve Holt! says:

    Another factor in the white washed memory of WWII – we won. We beat two formidable enemies. The wars since have had, at best, sloppy, unresolved endings.

  • What Steve said. We won, so we re-wrote the history books and made ourselves into the most gilded version of ourselves we could. Revisionist back-patting. Ed's recent threads about Charles Lindburgh pointed out how very differently things could have gone if a not-insignificant portion of the population had been better at pushing a non-interventionist viewpoint.

  • As to the "we won" thing … I recollect my dad's comment about Navy service on a troop landing ship:

    All I could think was that if we're winning this war, the other side must be even more ass-backwards than us.

  • This is confusing weather and climate. Of course, you get lots of variation in weather, but you also get the overriding pattern of climate. It still snows when the ice caps are melting.

    No one seriously argues that every last American of that generation turned into a saint, a moral paragon of virtue and duty. That can't happen with humans. On the other hand, even before Pearl Harbor, the nation was already moving towards its position at war, and when the crunch came, fought effectively on the right side. Look at the voting patterns and the legislation that was passed after the war. Look at what was actually done. This was the generation that created the American middle class as we knew it. Their children dismantled it. This was the generation that passed the Civil Rights acts and founded the woman's movement. They were continuations of the ideological fight during the war.

    If there was nothing special about this generation, what about the awful people who fought against slavery and secession in the Civil War. That war too was full of profiteering, racism, sexism, anti-Indian genocide, anti-Irish prejudice, political corruption, low level crime and just about every ill and evil one can imagine. Does that diminish their work in saving the union and ending slavery? Does it nullify their achievements in other areas like the land grant universities and the transcontinental railroad? Wasn't the next generation with its full fledged Jim Crow and anti-union monopolies running the country just as good as they?

    George MacDonald Fraser wrote the 'Hollywood History of the World' and he fought in the war. He and his comrades knew that the propaganda laden movies they watched at the time were just that, whitewashing morale boosters. But he said they believed in their fight and would have been insulted to have been shown anything else.

  • Suggesting that conservatives want to go back to "the golden days we have left behind" is a little off the mark, Ed. Why would we want to go back to snaggletooth dentistry, gearshifts on cars, Tony Curtis tonsures or deodorant-free armpits?

    When we say we long for yesterday's ice-cream, we're not talking about the ice-cream per se, we're talking about the flavors we remember. We're talking about people serving us from behind the counter and the smile that, memory tells us, was standard currency. That's not 'incomplete memory', that's the bit that made life a pleasure.

    What will you remember?

  • I'm sure every generation of every political stripe wants to keep all the good things they remember about the past and leave behind all the bad things. How are conservatives unique in that regard, Carrstone?

    What defines liberals and conservatives is the things they want to keep and the things they want to get rid of.

  • Prairie Bear says:

    @Kaleberg: Does that diminish their work in saving the union and ending slavery?

    The Civil War wasn't fought to end slavery. It may have resulted in the end of de jure, chattel slavery, but only barely. Otherwise, we wouldn't have had the Jim Crow era that you reference two sentences later.

    As for our other "good" war: check out Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke or David Swanson's War is a Lie for accounts of how WWII became "inevitable." FDR and Churchill, and to some extent, other Western powers spent a decade or more poking Japan with sharp sticks until they reacted with Pearl Harbor.

    War is absolutely the worst possible way to accomplish things, and in fact the only thing war accomplishes is war.

  • "This was the generation that created the American middle class as we knew it. Their children dismantled it." – they dismantled it rather than share it with brown people.

  • Screw going back and killing baby hitler, I want to go back in time and spike every stupid thing Strauss and Howe ever did by convincing them that their talents lay in creating a pair of clown acts, or possibly working as janitors.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Ed: Thanks for this. I have often thought that the so-called Greatest Generation was nothing but a bunch of people who had the bad luck to be young during a depression followed by a war. They reacted as individuals, in exactly the myriad ways you describe (far better than I could have). Fetishizing a generation is just silly at best, whitewashing of history at worst.

  • "Suggesting that conservatives want to go back to "the golden days we have left behind" is a little off the mark" – they wear red hats the say "MAKE AMERICA GREAT *AGAIN*" – It's the AGAIN part.

  • @Sea Tea

    Exactly, I totally agree with you. The sentiment described by Ed is not, as you describe, 'unique' to conservatives. And I didn't say that it was, did I?

    I think you may be confusing me with Ed; he's the one with his bias hanging out for all to see when he says, "authors eager to tell the target audience of aged white men what they want to hear."

    We all get the implication behind 'aged white men', don't we?

  • Paul Fussell's "Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic" does a great job of putting in perspective some of the the folklore surrounding American troops. Fussell was a veteran and saw some shit that doesn't generally make it into WWII movies. He wasn't disparaging anyone; just trying to provide some context of what happens when you send scared 18 year olds off to battle.

  • Americans in large numbers did indeed …

    There were Americans who fought bravely …

    Some rationed, …

    Some worked …

    Some wives ….

    And that brought me up short. Makes it sound like women weren't part of the "Some" you've been talking about.

    If you don't mean it that way, then don't write that way. Or take a good long look at what you do mean. Or stop slagging off all those old Fox watchers who come up somewhat regularly.

  • @mago:

    I'm a fat balding whire man. I wouldn't piss on Cattpuke if he was on fire. What he wants to return to is a time when he thinks he would be in charge. A time when he and his idiotillogical palz would be men of substance and wisdom. He's a fucking poseur.

    I still think his mother's going to find out how he spends his time–while he's supposed to be memorizing, "Atlas Shat"–and cut off his allowance.

  • World War II was, among other things, the greatest economic stimulus package ever for America. And it lead to literal decades of economic prosperity that was largely spread among the rich and the poor (not perfect, but better than anything that happened before). My broke-as-shit grandfather got to join the C.C.C. in the 30's, which primed him for a pretty successful military career (retired as an Army colonel) then went on to a pretty successful business career thanks to military connections.

    So the next time a Republican says "government doesn't create jobs," tell them to kindly go fuck themselves.

    Also, Len Deighton's "Goodbye Mickey Mouse" is a really great novel about U.S. bomber escort pilots in England during the war. A bit on the macho-He-man side of things, but still worth a read.

  • Both Sides Do It says:

    I dunno, the characters in Gravitys Rainbow seem like more fun to hang out with than the ones in Mason & Dixon, Vineland, Crying of Lot 49, or Bleeding Edge

  • Just call me old fashioned but I actually like driving a manual transmission.

    Plus in the US at least it's the best anti-theft device you can get.

  • @Major Kong:

    I concur. My truck has been sitting safely in my driveway for about 4 years now–largely due to two things.

    It has a five-speed transmission and the front, driver's side wheel is in the storage shed out back!

    My next-door neighbor, otoh, had his truck with an automatic, all four wheels–AND oneathem, special new style electronical keys–stolen right off the curb in front of his pitcher window.

    The fact that it was running, with the window rolled down may have had something to do with it!

  • "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."

    At least some of the rich and powerful and children of the rich and powerful served honorably in WWII. I doubt you'd see that today. Most would take the Dick Cheney approach and have "better things to do."

  • Color me unsurprised that selective memory is, um, selective. This psychological effect can be applied to everything and makes the awfulness of our pasts tolerable. The upside, if there is one, is to at least partially dismantle the blinders we share and counteract the jingoistic narratives to which we are subjected every Memorial Day. Does everyone have an uncle or other relative like I do who is fond of forwarding the usual clichés about, for instance, freedom not being free as if on cue?

  • Oh, I admire The Greatest Generation for their endurance of the Depression through "use it up, wear it out, make it do," and their heroism in WWII. But I'll never forget they were the sons-a-bitches who wanted to send me to Vietnam.

  • Major Kong: Another clutchaholic here. Why I bought my little Ford when the (five speed) 2001 325i needed thousands of dollars of EVERYTHING after 230,000 miles. The ST is hella fun to drive on curvy roads, and it fits my bicycle in the back!

  • I drove one manual-drive car or another from 1980 – 2010, when several years of 40-mile commutes in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic turned my left knee into a bag of broken glass. I agree that a stick shift is a great theft deterrent.

    @Brutus; the owner of my company not only sends the glurge about the military, but his signature line reminds us in the signature line of every email that "the only people willing to die for you is the US military and Jesus Christ". Since I'm not a man, my military career "doesn't count" (direct quote).

    As for the women left behind during WWII; not only were they raising the children and keeping house and yard and cooking and cleaning and growing the War Gardens, they were also working fulltime for the war effort (e.g. Rosie the Riveter). The bitter irony; after holding down the homefront while simultaneously supplying the warfront, the men returned home and women were told they were too stupid to work and needed to return to the home.

  • Katy – I dated a submarine officer for a couple of years. As you well know, subs go out for 3-6 month tours. During that time, the wives had to take care of EVERYTHING. Then, officer daddy husband would come home and just assume his "rightful" position as BOSS OF EVERYTHING and there would be trauma in the home as wife and kids tried to adjust. Finally, after a couple of months roles would be "more properly aligned" and peace would reign in the home until the next deployment. At which time wife was, once again, left in charge of everything. Rinse, repeat.

    As bad as it was for the women, I can't even imagine how fucked-up that was for the kids. I didn't stay around long enough to see.

  • My next door neighbor is NG. He's out in Kansas for a month, learning how to drive something or other (having done my share of "learning" in the miltary it tends to be waaaaaaaaaaaay slow for most folks.

    While he's away his wife is working 3 different p/t EMT jobs for various ambulance companies, working crazy hours and being home with the kids–about 2-3 hours per day, max. Her mom and her two MIL's do so me job-sharing on the kidaloos front. There are a couple of dogs to deal with and it's all very stressful.

    I offer to help and I'm told that it's all good–obviously bullshit, but I can't make somebody accept assistance. I have been in the house when other people were there complaining about the wife dumping her kids on them and telling each other that they weren't going to be available…

    The mom and the dad are both good people, but I think they have a terrible life because of the whole man/woman/child thing. Oh, her IL's are all bornagains. You will know they are christians by their lies.

  • @April; my dad was a sub-rider, the nuclear subs (the Torsk and Parche being two that I can remember). Long story short, we expected him to be gone about 9 months out of every year on a variety of short and long deployments. At various family days, we got to go aboard the subs, and I give you all kinds of credit for being able to live that life. My dad's advice to me was if I was going to join the service, don't join the Navy.

    You're right; when the homecomings happened, there was always a lot of adjustment to be made from everyone. It's not easy. Just another reason I hate the self-righteous who simultaneously bleat "Support the troops!" and "I don't want MY tax money supporting those freeloaders!"

  • @Demo; in your last sentence, I started singing, "You will know they are christians by their love, by their love" (did you learn that in CCD like I did?) and then was brought up short. I like your version better.

    Also, I can't imagine how hard it is now for military families. When I was growing up in the 1960s through early 1980s, the world economy was such that most of my father's overseas tours (which was pretty much all of them until 1982), we and all the families around us had some combination of any or all: maid/housekeeper/cook/yardboy. In Japan in the 1960s, it was cheaper to have someone come to your house and measure you for clothing than it was to buy them in the BX. In Guam and the Azores it was common for young local women to be live-in nannies/housekeepers to earn money to take into their marriages. Living in base housing meant no rent or electric bills, and this was in the days before the internet or cable tv or cellphones. We weren't rich, but we were getting by okay.

    My mother was an outlier for the time, marrying at 25 with a college degree. I remember being 15, 16 and going to the BX and seeing girls my age married to enlisted men with a kid or two in their shopping cart. Their husbands always drove a Camaro and they always seemed to have a house full of really tacky furniture.

    I joined up, met, dated, and eventually married another military person, but we had a lot of friends with one non-military spouse, and usually both had to work. For a lot of the time (not sure if this is true anymore) there was a daycare on the base that watched the children for a reasonable cost.

    Now? Even living on base, it's nearly impossible to make ends meet on one salary, and I'm pretty sure nobody can afford the household help my mother's generation had. So it's all on the women's shoulders to do it all while the husband is TDY.

  • Mike Furlan says:

    History is pretty much written like a drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post because the light is better there. But, even the unrepresentative sample that we have of the world of the "greatest generation" can only be excused by wide spread lead poisoning, or something else equally as debilitating.

    The kids today, are the greatest generation.

  • John Fremont says:

    @Matt – Another book similar to Fussel's was written by James Jones, author of the The Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity.The book was titled WWII and it was series of essays on combat artists and their work during World War 2. One chapter had a few paragraphs about how the newspapers resumed their normal coverage after about 6 months from the Pearl Harborn attack. Contrary to what my fellow veterans rant on Facebook, a lot of military operations and heroics didn't make front page news in WW2 either. Heck, many of these campaigns were never covered until after the war.

  • Well paid socialist says:

    @Major Kong, re: "Just call me old fashioned but I actually like driving a manual transmission."

    You've talked about flying for a cargo airline, do you also fly recreationally? It boggles my mind that when my car can fuel inject the appropriate amount of gas into the cylinders that there isn't an engine management system for a Cessna that can do the same…

  • @Well paid

    I have flown light singles and twins in the past, but I don't any more. Mostly because I don't like playing "you bet your license". If I screw up and get a violation while flying a light aircraft, they can suspend my ATP as well.

    You are right that Cessnas are still flying around on basically 1940s technology.

  • @Well paid

    I just did a little research. Apparently Lycoming now makes a light aircraft engine with a FADEC (Fully Automatic Digital Engine Controller).

    It's called the iE2 engine.

    Took them long enough. Jet engines have had those in one form or another since the late 1970s early 1980s.

  • @ Major Kong:

    I don't fly, 'less I gotta. I can't do science, 'cuz no math abilities–and I mean none, above simple arithmetic–but I love it, anyway.

    So, flying always makes me a bit nervous due to it's complexity and reliance on synergistic functionality of hundreds to thousands of different processes occurring simultaneously.

    Then I watched "City in the Sky" on PBS–now I'm convinced it IS magic that keeps efverything in the air! {;>)

  • Very interesting read. My parents are of this generation (dad is 90, mom is 80). When I asked my father about his military service during WWII he told me he enlisted in the Navy so he wouldn't get drafted into the Army. Period. No heroic sense of patriotism – just fear of the front lines and the shit jobs that came with being drafted. My mother fondly remembers the 50s, but always will add the caveat, "unless, of course, you were black." My point being that there are many people of that generation who know what a load of horse shit that "Greatest" moniker really is.

  • schmitt trigger says:

    @Katydid: "I'm pretty sure nobody can afford the household help my mother's generation had."

    There is a way……employ an undocumented alien.

    Which BTW, Trumpeteers want to end that, because the bad hombres and bad mujeres are taking these jobs away from real 'mericans.

  • @Schmitt; to be fair, I'm positive my parents were paying a pittance to their household help back in the day, but it was in other countries so employing Americans wasn't even an option. Let's be honest, though, they had the help because they could exploit the local people.

  • "Which BTW, Trumpeteers want to end that, because the bad hombres and bad mujeres are taking these jobs away from real 'mericans."

    I missed the "/s" tag.

    Trump hired something like 90 U.S.ians to work at Marm-A-Lardo resort v 500 Rumanians. I'm sure that he didn't actually DO anything, except make it known that he'd prefer people who can't complain without being sent back home.

  • @Major Kong,

    I understand you are based in Columbus. If you fly for one of the three cargo airlines at LCK, you are carrying my cargo in your freighters (work exports for a very large freight forwarder there).

  • @ Major Kong:

    I think my buddy's son is flying a KC-10. I can't remember if that's "fly-by-wire" or older technology. The planes been around a long time with a pretty good safety record but it's basically a flying fuel tank.

  • @demo

    KC-10 is basically a DC-10-30, which is 1970s technology.

    My company still flies them as an MD-10 (DC-10 with an MD-11 two-person cockpit grafted on). Flight controls are hydraulic.

    We like them because they hold a lot of stuff. Freighters often "bulk out" (fill up available space) before they "gross out" (hit max takeoff weight). Our A300s and 767s often leave freight behind because they run out of room even though they could carry the extra weight.

    Basically a good airplane, although the landing gear is a weak point. There have been several instances over the years of the main gear collapsing on a firm landing.

  • @ Major Kong:

    I just googled the KC-10 for max weight (a bit shy of 300 tons) I don't imagine you'd ever want to have to land one with a a full load of JP-4 or whatever they're burning these days.

  • William Watkins says:

    As a country we have become more self absorbed, less self aware.
    Always in cycles, never a fun ride.
    “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”— Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani, as quoted in the Talmudic tractate Berakhot (55b.)

  • Katy – "….exploit the local people." Ok, well, about that….I have a housecleaner (Ayi) who comes twice a week. I pay her more than any other expat I know pays their Ayi. but, let's be honest, it's still a pittance to me. (About 15 bucks for 4hours X 2 days). But to her, it's a paying job. A well-paying job. In fact, when I first got here and realized how little it would cost I wanted to pay more but was told BY CHINESE STAFF that that would be unacceptable. (I also give a spring bonus of another whole 15 bucks!)

    What I'm saying is, I'm not sure it's fair to say we're "exploiting the local people" if we're paying going (or above going) wages.

    Western talent is SO desired here, that we can make big bucks. And not just in education – western engineers make my nice salary look like couch change.

    I don't know what the ethical answer is to these disparities, but I don't think we're exploiting people. And if we are, isn't that up to the Chinese government (or other local body) to fix it?

  • You know what's exploiting people? American companies bringing over H1B visa people and paying them LESS than they would have to pay for an American to do the job.

    As an American I get paid more than a Chinese person – for the same job – both in the US and in China. There is something wrong with that.

  • Hi, April; I didn't mean to imply that you might be exploiting your own Ayi. Apologies if you took it that way.

    About a decade ago, there was a book called The Nanny Diaries that spawned a movie. In the book (I never saw the movie), we meet the college-going 20-year-old heroine who lucks into a job working as a nanny for a wealthy Upper East Side family. The book resonated with me in that the nanny observes that the nanny job of her and her nanny compantriots was to work long hours for little pay in concert with the maid and other household staff to make sure that women who didn't work, keep house, or raise their own children have an easy, stress-free life.

    When I was growing up a military brat outside the continental USA, that was also the life of the military spouse because household help was ridiculously cheap. Caveat; unlike the women in the book/movie, military spouses were often the only parent because the active-duty spouses were away on TDY.

    When I did my military duty, there were a number of marriages where both spouses were active duty (and I was jealous of those days when my stay-at-home mother had a mamasan to get the kids up, get them dressed and fed, and take care of them all day while she and the other wives went out or stayed in and watched soap operas).

    However, in your situation, I agree you're giving someone employment and paying her well, which equates to no explotation unless you're really horribly messy.

    I agree that bringing people to the USA and paying them less for doing the same job an American would do is exploitation at best and slavery at worst–sometimes the company holds the worker's passport and visa, so they can't leave even if they want.

  • No, Katy, I didn't really take your comment personally. Just wanted to point out that maybe sometimes using the local help isn't exploitation. I know in some countries expats are REQUIRED to hire home help as part of their visa approval.

  • "As an American I get paid more than a Chinese person – for the same job – both in the US and in China. There is something wrong with that."

    I could come over there and help with that. I can guarantee that there is no skill I own that would be worth them paying me for, never mind paying me MORE than one of their own people! {;>)

  • Hey DC – Do you know that there are actual paying positions for white, Western males to just stand around and be a white, Western male? Not sure if one can make a living, but I know several people who have earned a nice amount of dosh in their spare time doing just that…

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