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The Greatest Generation's greatest failure

By Lawrence Henry
web posted June 11, 2001

A friend of mine, a World War II Navy vet, used to say, "When I got out of the service, I put an oar over my shoulder and started walking inland. As soon as somebody said, 'What's that?' I stopped and settled down."

My father-in-law flew F4-Us for the Marine Corps in the Solomon Islands. I've read his flight log. He recorded dozens of solo missions, carrying a single bomb, against Japanese positions. For these repeated, stubborn acts of raw courage, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When he came home, he wasted no time getting a law degree and marrying. He spent most of his career settled into a chair inking briefs on natural gas regulation.

It is impossible to imagine him getting up in the morning, lacing on running shoes, and working out.

In "Flags of Our Fathers," (Bantam Books, 2000), James Bradley traces the post-war lives of the Marines who raised the famous flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. His father was one of them. For Bradley, the defining characteristic of his father's post-war life was its reticence. The senior Mr. Bradley virtually never spoke of his wartime experiences.

My own father told a few funny stories about Air Force basic training in Arizona. He never got overseas; he was too young when the war broke out, and it was over before his hitch was up. But we used to go to a local drive-in to eat and watch the small planes take off from a neighboring airport. My Dad still wanted to fly, but he had clearly given up on that dream, even though private flying was not all that expensive or difficult in the 1950s.

Great this generation may have been, and great their achievements, great their valor, their conquests, and the debt we owe them. But it's equally clear that, when they came home, they wanted no more conflict. Just as one extreme image - raising the American flag after the bloody combat on Iwo Jima - defines that generation's achievement, another extreme picture - all too familiar to many of us - defines this generation's post-war career: Dad, boiled on bourbon, face-down in the mashed potatoes after dinner.

These guys were tired. The career military men, and the public, got hammered once again by the Korean War, a scant seven years after World War II ended. By the 1960s, they wanted nothing more to do with much of anything - least of all with spoiled, rebellious kids.

After all, by that point, dealing with the rebellious kids was somebody else's job. That job belonged to the elite class of leaders, the Dwight Eisenhowers, George C. Marshalls, Dean Achesons and Grayson Kirks. That class of people ran the universities, and our vets, busy defending utilities, running the advertising departments of suburban newspapers, being undertakers, making money, expected them to do it. But over and over, this class of administrator, on campuses, in politics, in business, let the greatest generation down.

When I arrived at Columbia University in 1965 and sat down at one freshman orientation assembly, a dean righteously told us, "Look around you. Half of you will not be here after two years." Implying, we were given to understand, that Columbia was so tough that half of us couldn't cut it.

That was already a crock. Once you were in an elite school, you really had to struggle to flunk out. You could game the system with incompletes and "gut" (easy) courses; you could take six years to finish a four-year degree; you could take leaves.

So when the student demonstrations against university policies and administrations, and against the Vietnam War broke out, it shouldn't have surprised anyone that the colleges caved. We only understand now how tragic it was that they did.

Those student demonstrations were a mile wide and an inch deep, back then. They had very few committed leaders. Wholesale expulsions, followed by a refusal to readmit expelled students to any of about 18 top schools - the Ivies, the California state universities, Michigan State, the University of Chicago - would have broken the back of the movement. Thousands of students were lined up on waiting lists to replace the demonstrators. It shouldn't even have amounted to a hiccup.

But the college presidents didn't do it. Not until Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers did we see the kind of guts that was needed back then. Not until Bill Clinton was elected President, having escaped a well-deserved horsewhipping in his youth, did we understand what that failure really cost.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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