The Greatest Generation On Saturday, November 7th, Loran Bennett Mitchell was laid to rest in a small cemetery in rural Washington County, Indiana. He had died on November 3rd. You probably didn’t notice. It wasn’t in the news, except for the small blurbs in the Salem Leader and Scott County Journal. You probably didn’t notice, but I did. He was my grandpa.
A veteran and a farmer, my grandpa was not all that different from others of his era. He had an abundance of what used to be common sense, common courtesy, and common decency, traits that are now all too uncommon. He was a man whose word was his bond. A man who worked hard and laughed loudly, who didn’t speak often but when he did speak—people listened.
My grandpa was a part of what Tom Brokaw described as “The Greatest Generation”, one of those who grew up through the Great Depression, and fought and won the Second World War. In his 1998 book, Brokaw wrote "this is the greatest generation any society has produced." He argued that the soldiers fought not for fame or recognition, but because it was the right thing to do.
Not everyone agrees with Brokaw’s assessment. In fact, Leonard Steinhorn wrote a book entitled, “The Greater Generation” in which he expresses his belief that the Baby Boom generation (of which he is a part) was superior. As evidence, he writes "Historians looking back will probably say that Baby Boomers turned Greatest Generation morality on its head.” And while it is hard to disagree with that statement, I’m not sure it supports his premise.
Paul Duke, writing an article in The Virginia Quarterly Review entitled “The Greatest Generation?” quoted NYU professor Mark Miller who said that WWII veterans themselves "were not inclined to deem themselves the greatest beings ever to walk the face of the planet", and Duke concurred writing, “Indeed, American veterans have never really trumpeted their heroism.” And while they were using this fact to show that the ‘Greatest Generation’ wasn’t so great, I think it supports Brokaw’s claim—not theirs. In fact, it is precisely the point. Heroes do not need to ‘trumpet their heroism’. Great people do not need to boast of their greatness. Unfortunately, we live in a time when what people say about themselves has become more newsworthy than what they have actually done—with some being famous simply for being famous.
My grandpa never spoke of being a hero. In fact, he rarely (if ever) spoke about the war at all. But that doesn’t change history. My grandpa, and so many others like him, was in fact, a hero. I was reminded of this at his gravesite. He was given a military burial: a 21 gun salute, one trumpeter playing Taps in the cemetery and another answering from a nearby hillside, and the American flag that had draped the coffin presented to my uncle, grandpa’s oldest son ‘on behalf of a grateful nation’. As I walked over to the men from the local VFW post who had participated in the ceremony, I thanked them for their service both to our country and to my grandpa. Without exception, every single man corrected me. They were there, they all said, to thank my grandpa for his service to them and to our country, without which theirs would not have mattered. To a man they said, “He is the hero.”
As my wife and I thought about grandpa’s life, and the sacrifices he and countless others made that so often get taken for granted by people our age who grew up in the security and relative peace of the 70’s and 80’s, we wondered aloud: would today’s generation of people have the same resolve? Would the young men and women of today have the same sacrificial attitude that put the well being of others ahead of their own? Would they do the right thing, simply because it was the right thing? My wife (who, as you may remember is almost never wrong) suggested that if the situation arose, this generation would rise to the challenge. I, however, am not so sure. When I assess the current cultural temperature and the state of our public educational system and its multi-cultural tendencies, I fear that there would no longer be the corporate will needed to call evil by its name and take the necessary measures to confront and defeat it. I fear that so many people are tuned in to Wii FM (what’s in it for me?) that no one would answer the call. I pray we don’t have to find out.
But there are glimmers of hope, small evidences of recognition from younger generations. During the funeral service, which was held at the small country church my grandpa attended, the minister made a passing reference to the pew in the back corner of the church where my grandpa always sat. After the service, as we were filing out of the church to go to the cemetery, our soon to be eight-year-old son grabbed my hand and said, “Dad, there’s something I need to do before we leave the church.” Curious, I asked what he needed to do. He simply repeated, “There’s something I need to do before we leave the church.” I let him go, and then watched as he made his way to the back of the church, to the pew in the corner where he had just learned his great-grandpa used to sit. He stood in front of it, lingering, taking everything in as he ran his hand over the smooth wood. For a moment, I saw in his eyes a glimpse of the eternal, a recognition of the reality that something significant was different about the world. There was one less hero.
To all those of ‘the greatest generation’: thanks for your example and sacrifice. And to my grandpa: Good-bye. We’re going to miss you.
Chuck Souder is on staff at Shelby Christian Church. If you have questions or comments for Chuck, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org