The Beatification of the Greatest Generation
by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire Magazine, Sept 2001, p.74
One summer night in 1963, a brave combat veteran of World War II named Byron De La Beckwith took aim from a clump of honeysuckle on a dark street in Mississippi and shot another veteran named Medgar Evers in the back as the Evers children came running out of the bedroom to greet their father. Just another tale of the Greatest Generation, albeit not found anywhere in the collected works of Tom Brokaw, a network anchorman who's discovered in himself a native South Dakotan's genius for getting rich off corn products.
The Greatest? Who can really tell? In the area of lasting historical impact, this generation would seem to be pressed hard at the wire by the powered-wig set of the mid 1770s and, for physical courage, by the generation that came of age between 1860 and 1865. However, none of those men were our fathers and grandfathers, and Steven Spielberg hasn't made a blockbuster about the Second Continental Congress yet.
We've been told that we have to do the bragging for these veterans because, the mythology says, they never bragged about their war. (They didn't? How in the name of God did John Wayne ever have a movie career?) Some vague unpaid cultural debt has been conjured out of a kind of sentimental historicity. It's as though there never was a GI Bill. Suddenly, what was nothing less than the creation of the modern American middle class isn't monument enough. These modest men need an immodest granite corral in the middle of the National Mall. And, by the way, the authentic World War II Memorial is now, and always will be, the Iwo Jima statue near Arlington National Cemetery, especially at twilight.
© 2001 Esquire Magazine
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.