A week after the attack on the World Trade Center, I met a young New York City fireman in a restaurant near St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had just participated in a memorial service for his fellow firefighters who were killed in their heroic rescue efforts. He was obviously dazed as we talked about the terrible toll this catastrophe was taking on so many families. When I said good-bye, he grabbed my hand, and his expression took on a tone of utter determination as he said, “Mr. Brokaw, watch my generation now, just watch us.” It was for me another reminder of how much this generation had learned from the recent wave of interest in the World War II generation.
All the books, movies, and television accounts of that time have prompted many young people to wonder, What about my generation? Are we doing enough? They were the questions I encountered from my own children and others after I wrote The Greatest Generation . I detected a longing for the authentic tests of character their parents or grandparents had endured.
My response was always the same. I’d say to young people, “Members of the greatest generation think you’re doing just fine. They’re in awe of your education, your mastery of the new technologies, your ability to make so much money.” And then I would add, laughingly, “Of course they also say they had so little and they wanted you to have so much, they spoiled you a little.”
No one wants to go back to the Great Depression or a world war to test the character of a new generation, but in this new reality of a war on terrorism and the changes it will bring to American life, there are lessons from the earlier national experiences. First, we’re now all on common ground. The innocent victims in the hijacked airliners, in the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon were representative of the American family. They were working class and wealthy class, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, white, black, and brown. This was not an attack on just the sites that were hit. This was an attack on the fabric of the nation.
Next, the response to the attack will require common sacrifices. Some of the freedoms we’ve taken for granted will be curtailed, especially the freedom to travel without restrictions. The full range of economic consequences is yet to be realized, but it is clear the bubble we’ve been living in has burst. There will be more unemployment, a distressed stock market, and a reordering of national priorities in Washington, D.C.
Who knows, maybe all this national unity we’re experiencing will have a lasting effect. Perhaps there will be a turning away from the cheap confrontation and insult we see reflected in so much of our popular culture, from movies to talk shows to music.
The World War II generation made a distinctive stamp on the world, well beyond military victory. They returned from their war to become deeply involved in the public arena, whether in Washington or in their communities. As John F. Kennedy said when he was inaugurated as President, “The torch has been passed to a new generation….” Now the torch has been lit again, and it is being passed in much different circumstances. There has in recent years been a turning away from the public arena. The U.S. military seems to occupy a separate place in American life. We are the global superpower militarily and economically, yet there has been little appetite for international news.
A younger generation will be confronting these realities in a new context as a result of what President George W. Bush called “the first war of the twenty-first century.” It’s still America the beautiful, but now it is also America the vulnerable, and it will take another great generation to bind up the wounds. How that can be achieved is not yet clear. But on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it was not clear how the United States would do in the war it was entering. In the end, it performed magnificently, not only leading the way to military victory over two formidable foes but also rebuilding those enemies when the war was over.
The determination, courage, and vision of the World War II generation is a priceless legacy to this generation as it begins its own test of worthiness.