The new great generation

Posted: Dec 27, 2004 12:00 AM

"When I first came to fully understand what effect members of the World War II generation had on my life and the world we occupy today, I quickly resolved to tell their stories as a small gesture of personal appreciation."

So writes Tom Brokaw on the first page of his book, "The Greatest Generation." Who among the young today will one day write a similar tribute to the young Americans fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? Who is the scribe to honor those who serve among the treacherous in the smoke and fire in a place where freedom is a stranger, where peril lurks for civilization?

The front pages and the television screens are awash with the evidence of the danger to American troops, posed by evil men who thrive in a hideous culture of death, and yet they persist in the sure knowledge that that they are defending the culture of life.

I've had the humbling honor to meet and talk to several of these splendid young men - men who suffered grievous wounds in places far from home, who traded limbs for pain from splintered metal that often resides still in their bodies. Yet they believe their sacrifice was right, and worth it. They are volunteers all, harboring no illusions about the threats and dangers they left behind. They believe - as I do - that their fight was in behalf of a more secure world for all children.

They sound a lot like the surviving soldiers of World War II, men moving now into the shade of their ninth decade, who become the boys of summer once more when they talk of their war now receding swiftly into a distant past. They're proud of how they did what they had to do. Like all men who have marched to the sound of the guns, they are marked by the grace of modesty. "No, no," one of them told Corinna Lothar, in her moving account in The Washington Times of a visit with veterans returning to the field of the Battle of the Bulge in December of 60 years ago, "the guys who didn't come home are the real heroes."

When I look into the faces of our young veterans, I see the same faces staring back at me from the photographs in Tom Brokaw's book, men caught up in the turmoil bequeathed to their generation, willing to do whatever it takes to make the world a better place. They evoke the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: "This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

No war is ever the same and comparisons come with the organizing principles of hindsight, but the glue that binds the perceptions of our veterans of yesterday and today and places them on a roll call of honor is their appreciation for the freedom that burns in American hearts and lights the torch for others to enjoy.

It's impossible to speculate with any confidence how the prospects for democracy in the Middle East will play out, but it's not difficult to see the appreciation and the courage of those Afghan men and women who got up before dawn to walk for miles to line up to elect a new leader. Iraq is more opaque, but Saddam Hussein is gone, his torture chambers emptied, and mass graves stand as mute testimony of the cruelty he inflicted on the innocents.

In neither country were our troops greeted with the roses and kisses that greeted American soldiers when they marched through the streets of liberated Paris. The menace in the Middle East thrives within covens of suicide bombers and covert terrorists who slither through back streets and darkened alleys. But soldiers who have served there have seen the joy reflected in the faces of women who now are free of their tormentors, in the smiles on the faces of children who freely bounce soccer balls with them.

What runs through the personal portraits in the "The Greatest Generation" is the way men and women accepted responsibility for doing their duty without anger or self-pity. There was a job to be done, and they did it.

"The World War II years will forever be testimony to America's collective and individual resistance to tyranny," writes Tom Brokaw. Common values impart common strengths. The dissent that dominated the land in the 1930s evaporated after Pearl Harbor. We thought that might happen again in the days following September 11, but it didn't. Too bad for all of us.

Outrage seeks to place blame and politics divides. But if we and our allies succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will look back yet with pride in this new generation that answered the call of duty, honor, country. They deserve our gratitude now.