Written for Memorial Day, 2013
In a time when most people feel disconnected from the nation's wars and those who fight them, there's something missing on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. To begin restoring a celebration of public service most exemplified by those who put their lives on the line for this nation, I have an unusual proposal.
We have to free ourselves of the "Greatest Generation"--not the extraordinary generation that came of age in the 1930's and 40's, but the expression itself and the mindset it implies. Though I admire the book by that name, to call any past generation the greatest is contrary to what politicians repeatedly tell us, and what we all want to believe: that America's best days still lie ahead.
Furthermore, though one generation paid the ultimate price in battle, it wasn't just one generation that survived the Great Depression and won World War II. As with any great movement to overcome adversity, all generations from that era pitched in. There were grandparents helping out at home while the parents were on the front lines or in the factories. There were scientists in mid-career who stepped out of academia to develop better weaponry. There were kids who pitched in while living with scarcity and the uncertainty of when or if a parent would return from overseas.
Deprivation during the Great Depression taught Americans to make do with less, to help each other out, and fostered a sense of shared destiny. It made people more resourceful and ready to sacrifice when the war came along. They postponed their personal goals--career, marriage, family--and many sacrificed their lives, for a cause bigger than themselves, bigger than this nation, to determine if this world would be worth living in.
The nation achieved true greatness not through a particular generation but through a particular forging together of spirit, resourcefulness, government and economy, all in collaboration with allied nations around the world. The result, though not perfect, was equal to the challenge.
Most of us, by contrast, have lived through a long stretch of relative prosperity. We've been told to serve ourselves and the economy by shopping, and to be suspicious of government and global concerns. The keys to victory in WWII were everything that's now politically unpalatable: collective effort and personal sacrifice, strong government action, aggressive investment in new technologies. In our time, the Greatest Generation stands more as a shrine than an inspiration, a trophy on the shelf, to be given a solemn nod in political speeches--a sort of "glad we don't have to do that anymore."
To make matters worse, we are largely ignoring the one struggle that we, as individuals and collectively, could really make a difference in. What curious homage we pay to those who sacrificed for our country, as we cling to a status quo that speeds the loss of so much of our fertile land, precious shorelines and natural splendor to deepening droughts and rising sea levels.
If anything, our current challenge will require something far greater than the "Greatest". As seas rise and weather grows more extreme, we have no evil dictator to rally against. Guns will not protect us from climate change. Machines, vital for defeating fascism and long our ticket to extraordinary comfort and mobility, are liabilities in their current, fossil fuel-dependent form, as they exhale climate-changing gases through their exhaust pipes and chimneys. Because the enemy is not on some distant front but embedded in our lifestyles, we face a far more difficult task, emotionally and politically.
Those who defend the status quo, a "return to normal" after Hurricane Sandy, are not doing the American lifestyle and our futures any favors. "Normal" is what got us into this mess. Normal, by incrementally destabilizing the climate and the oceans, will in time make normal impossible.
While the meaning of Memorial Day parades and holding the flag high endures, the most meaningful way to show we value past sacrifice is by taking up the challenge of the future, rather than letting it wash over us. Though many get depressed by talk of climate change, as a force to oppose it has many convenient aspects. No one need die in the effort. Alternative energies are plentiful, and can be tapped with existing technologies. The human capacity to adapt to and overcome adversity--celebrated in the aftermath of catastrophes--can also be used to collective avert them. Tapping our own resourcefulness, we'll get better at squeezing fossil fuels out of the economy and our own lifestyles as we go along.
If we focus ourselves, our towns, states, nation and the world, on meeting the challenge of radicalized climate, will other problems languish? WWII showed that a massive, concerted effort to confront the central threat to civilization's future can bring progress in dealing with other problems as well. America came out of the war with a stronger, transformed economy. Women and minorities made gains. We can make progress on many problems by solving the biggest of them all.
If we act, we won't need our grandchildren to call us the greatest. The satisfaction of sparing their world, and ours, will be enough. We will know, and will have proven, that in a nation that both celebrates its past and believes in its future, the Greatest are always yet to come.