August 9 is my father’s birthday, and I have been thinking about him. He died in 1987 at the age of sixty-one, shattering my illusion that such a life force should live to at least ninety-four, which is what he would be today. I confess how deeply I wish he had lived to meet his great-grandsons; even more, how I wish his great-grandsons could have the opportunity to meet him and size up the one who left such a great legacy of life and service.
Ironically, I just this morning finished Jon Meacham’s book Franklin and Winston. It is a riveting account of the friendship of the two men who saved the world from evil. In the telling of the story, Meacham takes the reader by the hand and leads them through a history lesson of World War II. I could not help but remember my father telling about trying to enlist on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8, 1941, and being told to come back when he was old enough. One year later he joined the Navy.
Having spent the last couple of days in such close proximity to the Greatest Generation, I have been asking myself: what is the difference between then and now, between them and us? When you read the details of the story, you certainly understand that these “heroes were not pure souls,” as Nikos Kazantzakis once said of his own family. There were secrets and intrigues, outsized ambitions and jealousies, the lust for power. No, these were flawed humans, just as has been the case since creation.
Perhaps it was the conspiracy of history rather than some innate quality of the people, but I believe the defining characteristic of the Greatest Generation was their devotion to a cause far greater than themselves. It was Winston Churchill pleading to the British people, in the darkest moments of the Battle of Britain, that history might one day judge this to have been “their finest hour.” It was a farm kid in a foxhole who didn’t understand international politics at all, but did understand loyalty to one’s comrades. It was the sacrifice of mothers and wives and children who mobilized because they believed in the values that were being defended.
We live in a day when the smallest action or inconsequential statement can set Twitter on fire; when we dissect and analyze every word and syllable; when all it takes to divide us is one misguided word or opinion. We inhabit a world in which political or ideological differences can evidently not be forgotten or forgiven. Oh, how I long for a revival of great ideas and ideals, for a vision that makes us seem small, for a task that unites rather than divides us.
So this is my birthday gift to my father: we will keep trying. Above the discord of our times we can still hear the clarion call to something higher; we still believe in the values of courage and sacrifice; we are still committed to those ideals that unite rather than divide. And so we will keep trying. We owe that to you, the Greatest Generation. And we owe it to your great-grandchildren, the next generation.
(reprinted from my book THE LONG VIEW, Abingdon Press)