Friday, May 21, 2004

At last the armies clashed at one strategic point.

They slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike

With the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze

And their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,

And the sound of struggle rocked the earth.

The Iliad, Book 4

They call it the greatest generation, and maybe it was. One of our best, for sure, ranking right up there with the men and women who wrought the Revolution and the generation of men who fought each other in the War Between the States and afterward rescued the shattered republic from the ashes of victory and the rubble of defeat.

Men have measured themselves by their prowess in battle since the first among us picked up sticks and stones to protect home and hearth, and by that measure, the generation we honor on the Mall is great indeed. But there is more by which we measure the greatest generation. This generation came to maturity as the nation was emerging from depression that imposed a poverty of soul and deprivation of body that succeeding generations can hardly imagine, an era of misery that will always be “the Depression” with the capital D. The generation collected itself, trained itself for war and vanquished evil that faced us across two great oceans — and then organized a peace that for all its frailty has nevertheless kept the world in one piece, if not always in lasting peace.

They’re old now, the boisterous boys of the summers of ‘42, of ‘43 and ‘44 and finally the autumn of ‘45, when the guns at last fell silent and the survivors on the earth imagined that a lasting stillness had at last embraced us all. The lean, young faces that stare back at us from the old black-and-white photographs, so full of hope and innocent anticipation, have turned now to wrinkled leather. These boys of the ‘40s, some now well into their ninth decade, can sometimes barely remember the friends left to sleep in faraway fields, and the sound of musketry and the cries of battle rattle about in half-consciousness as if in a distant dream, “when the sound of struggle rocked the earth.”

These were the boys who became men by learning the hard way how to fight, taking bitter lessons won at Wake Island and Corregidor, at Casablanca and the Kasserine Pass to battlefields with strange and often unpronounceable names that would become legends to join Yorktown and Gettysburg, Argonne Forest and San Juan Hill, Heartbreak Ridge and the Ia Drang Valley as names seared in the nation’s collective memory. New legends would inspire the generations to follow: Anzio, the Cassino, the French beaches given familiar names (Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno and Gold) and tiny islands of the Pacific (Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Okinawa) that hardly seemed big enough to die on but were big enough to swallow great portions of an entire generation, 400,000 dead before the mushroom clouds at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended it all, with 700,000 left to nurse their wounds for decades to come.

From the tenements of Brooklyn and the South Side of Chicago and the drive-ins of Southern California, from Tacoma and Boise and Albuquerque and Savannah, the sultry cotton fields and gin yards of the Mississippi Delta and the cornfields of Iowa and the mills of Maine and the production lines of Detroit, and all the places around, among and in between, the nation called its sons (and daughters), 16 million of them, and molded them into the mightiest machine of war that ever man had fashioned.

There had never been an army quite like it, and there surely will never be anything like it again.

— Wesley Pruden

Editor in chief of The Times

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