These days, I often think of my grandfather, whom died not two months ago at the age of 97. I think of how quiet he was, and how ironic that the former English teacher was a man of action but very few words. I think of how he served in World War II, and how I was well into adulthood before I ever heard one of his war stories.
I think of how scared he must have been. An Erie kid, raised in the shadow of Hammermill with ten siblings and no father, shipped off to Europe with thousands of others to do humanity a giant favor – a favor they gladly paid without much of a second thought. I think of how my 22-year old mind would have processed the immortal words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, were I in that position:
“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is will trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s D-Day message to the Allied Expeditionary Force.
My grandfather and everyone fighting with him were the very best of us – few would disagree with that. So when he died, a piece of me broke knowing that as the “Greatest Generation” leaves this Earth, what’s left behind is by definition less great.
You know what’s weird, though? We don’t seem to agree on what, specifically, made that generation great. We mostly agree that the World War II generation is the North Star from which we’ve strayed off course, but what’s the road map that gets us from here to there?
Is it greater tolerance for the type of industrial accident that killed my great grandfather? God, I hope not. Men worked hard in those days and took risks because they had to. Under pressure to produce the goods needed to climb out of the Great Depression and defeat the Nazi war machine, yes, we cut some corners. But away from battle, many of the labor protections we take for granted today were hard won by the same Greatest Generation we rightly venerate for going to war. Union membership itself was way up in those days compared to today, so I don’t see relaxing these protections as a great shortcut on the road to greatness.
Was it the racism? Hell no. There was heavy racism in those days, to be sure. Explicit, enforceable-by-law racism. We made the Black members of our Greatest Generation wait another entire generation to enjoy the civil rights my grandfather knew his entire life. And as sure as I stood on the shoulders of my grandfather to reach whatever modest heights I’ve reached in my life, the accumulation of hardships endured by our Black friends didn’t simply disappear in a poof when the Civil Rights Act was passed. The laws are finally fair, but the discrepancy in outcomes understandably remains.
Let’s not overthink this: the Greatest Generation is so named because they saw a giant injustice in the world, and they didn’t lie to themselves thinking there was some magic shortcut to fix it. They stood up for the oppressed, and sacrificed whatever necessary to kick the shit out of evil. It didn’t matter that it was hard, or expensive, or that we weren’t going to be repaid.
When it was all over, the Greatest Generation led the world in creating a whole bunch of alliances to make sure their grandsons and granddaughters would never have to fight that war again. NATO, the UN, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization were all instituted coming out of WWII.
Now, we have a decision to make. We need to decide which road will take us back to greatness.
When MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked then-candidate Donald Trump about Vladimir Putin’s habit of killing journalists and political opponents, Trump responded, “He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country. I think our country does a lot of killing, also.” The Greatest Generation wouldn’t accept that.
When the late Senator John McCain – whom could have leveraged his father’s status into an early release from a Vietnamese POW camp, but earned hero status by refusing to be singled out due to his lineage – criticized Trump’s policies, Trump responded personally: “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” The Greatest Generation surely wouldn’t accept that kind of crap from someone who wiggled out of serving.
When the Saudis killed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – Trump dismissed his own CIA’s conclusion and stood with the Saudi leader. The world gasped.
When China sent millions of Uighur Muslims off to modern day concentration camps – Trump said China was correct to do so. The atrocities continue.
When Kim Jung-Un, the North Korean dictator and worst human rights abuser in the world – refused to stop committing atrocities – Trump said they fell in love! The North Korean people continue to suffer.
When the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds helped us prosecute the war against ISIS – Trump abandoned them to be slaughtered. They won’t forget.
When Ukraine needed American firepower to fend off a Russian invasion – Trump conditioned it upon a fake investigation into his political opponent. Corrupt leaders everywhere know the U.S. doesn’t care.
Every time something like this happens, I reflect on my grandfather’s life and I think, “Dammit, we used to be the good guys. We used to stand up to evil, and beat the hell out of it until it surrendered.” Now, we’re joining hands with it and professing our love.
President Trump has said NATO is “obsolete,” threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, and pulled out of the UN human rights council – chipping away at all of the alliances that have prevented World War III for 75 years now.
President Trump rode into office with promises to build, but he has instead torn down, undermined, and corroded. America today seems less American – but we can choose a different road. We don’t need to jump out of a ship onto foreign shores like my grandfather. All we need to do is vote. We can be the good guys again.