The ‘Greatest Generation’ must live on in us

Author: - July 3, 2009 - Updated: July 3, 2009


As we approach this Fourth of July holiday, I once again remember the book by former NBC newscaster Tom Brokaw, “The Greatest Generation.”

I have to ask myself when did the word greatest become greediest. Some time, I guess, since the early 1950s, when I was born. The robber barons of the early 1900s now look like saints.

Brokaw’s book examines the men and women who whipped the Depression, won World War II and went on to create the post-war economic expansion that has given so much to many of us.

I applaud Brokaw for his writings to recognize my father’s generation, and I hope that our most patriotic holiday would bring wistful memories of those glory years. But I’m nonetheless troubled by the subtle message beneath much of this hero worship — that, somehow, only wartime elevates people to greatness and that World War II was the swan song of American heroism.

A lot of this has to do with 50 years of strife and change in American life. The assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr.; the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iraq War and, now, unfettered corporate greed.

So we look backward, to the veterans who beat Hitler and the Axis powers and who became loving parents, grandparents and heroes to us. All well and good — but not if it stops there.

Today, we need a “new” greatest generation to solve the problems of our economy, health care and global warming, and to have a new sense of faith in this country. In a painting, it’s hard to tell the difference between a rising and a setting sun. Some say there will never be an economic period again like there was from 1950 to 2007. Thus, we are a setting sun.

To change our course, now, more than ever, we need new volunteers to work in our schools, in church and civic organizations and with the charities that are doing the tough work of revitalizing our communities.

We need parents who will run for school boards, join parent-teacher organizations and stay up late with their kids to help them with their homework — efforts that will rebuild our much-maligned public schools and strengthen education.

We need courageous community leaders who will help local governments manage the public’s business without fear of criticism or the expectation of reward.

We need people to help tutor at-risk kids, register new voters, conduct blood drives and to do things as simple as pick up trash in our communities.

If we want inspiration for all of this, we need only look as far as the stories that Tom Brokaw writes and talks about. Stories about young men and women who saw their country was in trouble and answered that call with no expectation of reward and indeed, with the expectation of death itself.

Today, the enemies are not the armies of Japan, Germany or Italy, nor the ravages of the Great Depression — but they are serious enemies, nonetheless.

There is materialism — a lack of individual savings, which teaches our kids to put forth an effort only when they can expect a big reward and to work at jobs not to earn money for college but for cars, CDs, IPods and a host of other useless stuff.

There is anti-government sentiment — which, at one end of the spectrum, gives us a chorus of angry voices on talk radio and TV who think that every action of government is an affront to freedom. Funny enough, these same folks are often the first to laud the greatest generation — a group of people who elected and then partnered with their government to do the things that we salute them for on the Fourth of July.

There is apathy — a force of inertia that keeps us planted in front of the TV, stuck in our homes and devoted only to our own pleasures.

There is still too much violence in our schools and neighborhoods and, of course, in our hearts.

I watch and read a lot about Brokaw’s greatest generation. I see the goodness in their faces, and I hear the truth of their stories. But nowhere do I hear them asking us for praise and remembrance of their lives.

From my own parents and from the wisest of the greatest generation, I hear pleas for us not to forget the nation or the people that they fought so many years ago to save it. It still needs saving. But we live in an era when leaders are more concerned with the exercise of their power than the noble calling of public service. The new generation must have a new commitment to service and contribution beyond political agendas.

We should get to work or risk becoming the “worst” generation. We can once again become known for our greatness, not our greed.

Boulder attorney Jim Martin, a former Republican, served as an at-large member of the University of Colorado Board of Regents from 1993 to 2005.