The Greatest Generation?
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, October 2001
They tell me I am a l member of the greatest generation. That's
because I saw combat duty as a bombardier in World War II, and
we (I almost said "I") won the war against fascism.
I am told this by Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book called The Greatest
Generation, which is all about us. He is an anchorman for a big
television network, meaning that he is anchored to orthodoxy,
and there is no greater orthodoxy than to ascribe greatness to
That idea is perpetuated by an artillery barrage of books
and films about World War II: Pearl Harbor, Saving Private Ryan,
and the HBO multi-episode story of the 101st Airborne, Band of
Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose's book of the same name. And
Ambrose has just published an exciting history of the valiant
"men and boys" who flew B-24s.
The crews who flew those planes died in great numbers. We
who flew the more graceful-looking B-17s sardonically called those
other planes Bdash2crash4. I wrote from my air base in England
to my friend Joe Perry, who was flying B-24s out of Italy, kidding
him about his big clunk of a plane, but the humor was extinguished
when my last letter to him came back with the notation "Deceased."
Those who saw combat in World War II, whether they lived or
died, are celebrated as heroes. But it seems clear that the degree
of heroism attributed to soldiers varies according to the moral
reputation of the war. The fighters of World War II share a special
glory because that war has always been considered a "good
war," more easily justified (except by those who refuse to
justify any war) than the wars our nation waged against Vietnam
or Korea or Iraq or Panama or Grenada. And so they are "the
What makes them so great? These men-the sailors of Pearl Harbor,
the soldiers of the D-Day invasion, the crews of the bombers and
fighters- risked their lives in war, perhaps because they believed
the war was just, perhaps because they wanted to save a friend,
perhaps because they had some vague idea they were doing this
"for my country." And even if I believe that there is
no such thing as a just war, even if I think that men do not fight
for "our country" but for those who run our country,
the sacrifice of soldiers who believe, even wrongly, that they
are fighting for a good cause is to be acknowledged. But not admired.
I refuse to celebrate them as "the greatest generation"
because in doing so we are celebrating courage and sacrifice in
the cause of war. And we are miseducating the young to believe
that military heroism is the noblest form of heroism, when it
should be remembered only as the tragic accompaniment of horrendous
policies driven by power and profit. Indeed, the current infatuation
with World War II prepares us-innocently on the part of some,
deliberately on the part of others-for more war, more military
adventures, more attempts to emulate the military heroes of the
To decide which is "the greatest generation" involves
a double choice. One is the choice of a particular time period.
The other is the choice of who will represent that time period,
that generation. Neither is decided arbitrarily, but rather on
the basis of one's political philosophy. So there is an ideological
purpose in choosing the generation of World War II, and then in
choosing the warriors of that time to represent "greatness."
I would propose other choices if we are to educate the young
people of our time in the values of peace and justice.
We might take the generation of the American Revolution, another
generation almost universally considered "great." I
would not choose the Founding Fathers to represent it. Washington,
Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Madison have had enough adulation,
and their biographies clog the book review sections of the major
The Founding Fathers did lead the war for independence from
Britain. But they did not do it for the equal right of all to
life, liberty, and equality. Their intention was to set up a new
government that would protect the property of slave owners, land
speculators, merchants, and bondholders. Independence from England
had already been secured in parts of the country by grassroots
rebellion a year before the battles at Lexington and Concord that
initiated hostilities with Britain. (See Ray Raphael's A Peoples
History of the American Revolution, New Press, 2001.) It is one
of the phenomena of modern times that revolutions are not favored
unless they are led by people who are not revolutionaries at heart.
I would rather recognize the greatness of all those who fought
to make sure that the Founding Fathers would not betray the principles
of the Declaration of Independence, to make sure that the dead
and maimed of the Revolutionary War did not make their sacrifices
in vain. And so I would honor the soldiers of the Pennsylvania
and New Jersey lines, who mutinied against George Washington and
Mad Anthony Wayne. They were rebelling against the luxurious treatment
of their gentry officers, and their own mistreatment: 500 lashes
for misconduct, Washington decreed, and execute a few mutinous
leaders to set an example.
Add to the honors list in that great generation the farmers
of western Massachusetts who resisted the taking of their homes
and land for nonpayment of exorbitant taxes. This was the Shays
Rebellion, which put a fright into the Founding Fathers, especially
as it led to uprisings in Maryland, South Carolina, New Jersey,
and Pennsylvania. That rebellion persuaded the Founding Fathers
that a strong central government was needed to maintain law and
order against unruly dissidents, slave rebels, and Indians. These
were the true revolutionaries of the Revolutionary generation.
I submit as additional candidates for "the greatest generation"
those Americans who, in the decades before the Civil War, struggled
against the takeover of Indian and Mexican lands. These were the
Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes, and especially the Seminoles,
who resisted their removal from Florida in eight years of guerrilla
warfare, succumbing finally to a combination of deception and
superior force. And the dissidents of the Mexican War: Seven regiments
deserted on the way to Mexico City. And the Massachusetts volunteers-
that half of them who survived-who booed their commanding officer
at a reception after the war ended.
And what of the abolitionist generation-the leaders of slave
revolts, the conductors of the underground railroad, the speakers
and writers, the likes of David Walker and Harriet Tubman and
Frederick Douglass? It was they who gave honor to the decades
leading up to the Civil War, they who pressured Lincoln and the
Congress into ending slavery.
Why do we use the term "greatest generation" for
participants in war? Why not for those who have opposed war, who
have tried to make us understand that war has never solved fundamental
problems? Should we not honor, instead of parachutists and bomber
pilots, those conscientious objectors who refused to fight or
the radicals and pacifists who opposed the idea that young people
of one nation should kill young people of another nation to serve
the purposes of politicians and financiers?
The generation of the First World War was not made honorable
by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, by General Pershing
and Admiral Dewey. What nobility it had came from the courage
of Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Kate Richard
O'Hare, and the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World,
all of whom were imprisoned for opposing the entrance of the United
States into the slaughterhouse of Europe.
If there is to be a label "the greatest generation,"
let us consider attaching it also to the men and women of the
sixties: the black people who changed the South and educated the
nation, the civilians and soldiers who opposed the war in Vietnam,
the women who put sexual equality on the national agenda, the
homosexuals who declared their humanity in defiance of deep prejudices,
the disabled people who insisted that the government recognize
the discrimination against them.
And I suggest that some future writer-not an anchorman, but
someone unmoored from traditional ways of thinking-may, if the
rebels of Seattle and Genoa persist and grow, recognize the greatness
of this generation, the first of the new century, for launching
a world movement against corporate domination, for asserting human
rights against guns and greed.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.