“Civil War soldiers were accustomed to using words like duty, honor, cause, and country. The GIs didn’t like to talk about country or flag and were embarrassed by patriotic bombast. They were all American boys, separated by eighty years only—but that separation included World War I. The Great War changed the language. It made patriotic words sound hollow, unacceptable, ridiculous, especially for the next set of young Americans sent to Europe to fight over the same battlefields their fathers had fought over.”
Stephen Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers, page 14
This passage from historian Stephen Ambrose delivers a cultural context in a few sentences that subsequent decades of history confirmed. The generation that fought World War II was raised not only in the economic privation of the Great Depression of the 1930s, but also deeply absorbed the skeptical, even jaded and cynical, perspectives offered by the Great War generation about what any war might accomplish. The works of novelists like Hemingway, Remarque, and Dos Passos, the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, paintings done by Paul Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson, and films such as All Quiet on the Western Front—only to name a few—all had an impact with their artistic portrayals of the futility of war. They shaped not only how the WWII generation viewed and responded to the approach of World War II, but shaped that generation’s behavior and reactions both within the war and beyond it.
But when members of the WWII generation fought the war it had to fight, and did what had to be done to defeat the Axis powers, they emerged with a collective attitude certainly more tinged by tragedy than triumph. Perhaps that was a direct consequence of having witnessed the most massive losses in life, physical destruction, and collapse of civilized customs that had ever taken place. Or perhaps it was also the consequence of having achieved only a partial victory, with a decades-long Cold War flowing from the end of hostilities in 1945.
I am old enough to remember President Ronald Reagan’s commemoration at the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy, and how World War II veterans began to speak of their experiences after that recognition—and how historians such as Stephen Ambrose brought their voices into public as never before. Now, as the World War II generation passes from our daily presence, I like to remember what those men and women hoped for when they were young: that the peace of the world would not perish. But I respect even more their resolution that there are some things more important than peace.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.