The mission of the Greatest Generation
Most Americans have one or more family members who fought in one of the great wars of the 20th century. My father was part of the Marine force that pushed the Japanese off Guadalcanal in 1942-43 during some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific Theater. After the war, he served in the Reserves from which he finally retired in the 1960s as a Brigadier General.
On my mother’s side, her father fought in the European theater during WWI, and her brother was a member of the U.S. Navy.
Family connections like these make Memorial Day bittersweet for millions of Americans. Until his death in 2016 (at the age of 99), I called my father on Memorial Day to thank him for what he had done for his family and nation. Some of the best people I have had the privilege of knowing were of his generation. I grew up admiring their dedication, commonsense approach to problems and bravery under fire. The world their children and grandchildren would inherit upon their deaths was important to them. They were determined to pass on a world in which their descendants could continue to enjoy the fruits of liberty and the beauty of creation.
While under their guidance, I learned in middle school American history courses, high school civic classes and from the values my father and mother and their generation displayed in their daily lives that America is a nation that values truth-telling in its leaders (George Washington being the prime example). It was no coincidence to them that Hitler rose to power by repeatedly lying to the German people. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, encouraged the Fuhrer to lie on a regular basis. Goebbels supposedly said this about the advantages of telling the Big Lie: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth becomes the greatest enemy of the state.“
Reading that quote, I shudder to think what my father might have said about the nation he risked his life for, when so many of its leaders lie, misrepresent and deceive the people on a regular basis.
From my father’s generation, I also learned the importance of being free to follow one’s intellectual curiosity. Because of his sacrifice, I and my siblings enjoy the freedom to read and study as we are led, even if those in power would rather keep us in the dark. But I weep to think that so few today bother to inform themselves about what is happening to their nation and the world.
Growing up, I also learned that because of the Constitution I am free to believe or not in a supernatural being; free to choose Theism, Deism (like many of the Founding Fathers), pantheism or atheism. It saddens me, and I think it would have saddened my father and grandfather, that millions of my fellow countrypersons today insist that there is only one correct understanding of God and shun, persecute and sometimes make war against those who want nothing more than to be left alone to worship God as they understand God.
As early as the first grade, I learned to sing the National Anthem. With my classmates, I gave off-key thanks that America is a place of great natural beauty, a land, as we sang, of “spacious skies, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties.” My father loved the beauty and abundance of America’s streams and fields. Weekends often found him hunting quail and doves in the Louisiana woods or casting for bass on its streams and lakes. But I wonder what the Greatest Generation would think if they knew that America had become one of the world’s most prolific polluters of carbon dioxide and poisonous gases that threaten to destroy the beauty they loved.
This Memorial Day, between hot dogs loaded with onions and hamburgers loaded with mustard and pickles, let us take time away from the backyard grills to remember and think about those who fought and died for us. And let us remember that they deserve to be remembered not just for fighting and dying but for defending and preserving the freedoms and values which brought this nation into being and without which it would “not long endure.” And, finally, in their memory, let us pledge ourselves anew to protect those freedoms and values with the same dedication and fervor they brought to their mission as the Greatest Generation.
Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopalian priest who lives in Washington.