What I’m Reading: The Greatest Generation

As if our political differences were not enough, the last few months of 2019 have reintroduced inter-generational conflict into the culture wars. This time the insults come with a new menu of pejoratives, including “OK Boomer” and “Karens” in reference to Gen-Xers. Meanwhile, Generation Z begins to find its voice as my own micro-generation, the Xennials, struggles to break free from what we see as the narrow-mindedness of GenX and the Millennials’ over-dependence on technology. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary and are mainly cultural constructs, but they sure do feel real. I still get defensive whenever people call me a Millennial, even though I technically am one.

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As I read Tom Brokaw’s seminal The Greatest Generation, however, I get the sense that just about everyone – including the Greatest Generation folks themselves – understood this cohort to be both above the generational fray and also deserving of their superlative epithet. In effect, that is Brokaw’s thesis – this generation was, quite literally, the greatest. All us whippersnappers should learn something from these folks and try to be less disappointing.

Let’s address that claim in a moment. First, the book itself is extraordinary: it is comprised of dozens of stories from those who served during World War II. From the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy to the women who assisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff in DC, Brokaw casts a wide net and defines the word “service” broadly – and rightfully so. He interviews Japanese internees and African American men and women who served their country despite their nation’s scorn, as well as mechanics, Presidents, and everyone in between. Readers come away with a sense of just how much work, blood, and sacrifice this conflict required. Although the United States was separated from most of the fighting by two vast oceans, Brokaw shows how every nook and cranny of the nation was affected by the conflict. Its urgency was both pervasive and universally compelling, and winning this war was existentially vital to virtually all Americans. It is hard to imagine such a mentality now, but Brokaw manages to convey the mindset through his stories and his brisk prose style.

However, as one might imagine, the book sometimes devolves into hero worship. All of the stories are framed in terms of personal sacrifice, and many of the chapters end with a lament of one sort or another, often about how things in general have changed in the decades since the war. Some complain about “kids these days,” citing how things were “before the war” and what not. Sometimes Brokaw even gets in on the action, asserting at one point that Catholic kids back in the 30s would have been slapped around by their nuns and then by their parents if they had the temerity to complain, but with barely concealed approval. While Brokaw is savvy enough to argue that much of this generation’s good qualities can be attributed to environmental circumstance – namely being raised during an era when good old fashioned family values, Depression-era frugality, and wartime sacrifice were tattooed onto everyones’ conscience – his narrative often circles back to the inherent goodness of the people who served their country during the War. And as a historian I get hives at the mere thought that some special, indefinable quality somehow made anyone born between Armistice Day and Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic superior to all who came before or since. After all, even Greatest Generation Americans were human . . . they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

This criticism should not imply that the “Greatest Generation” was not great, or that its members did not deserve such high praise. After all, I am writing a book that, if I’m being honest about this project, is going to heap a great deal of praise on my WWII-veteran grandfather. Much of that praise, though probably not all of it, will be warranted. But the difference between history and hagiography bears consideration: the former explains, the latter venerates.

Perhaps in some ways the “Greatest Generation” motif is the logical result of our very opposite view of Nazis, who are and who remain (at least for most of us who don’t lead sad lives complaining about girls on the dark web in our mothers’ basements) history’s greatest villains. Certainly no other generation of wartime opponents is more deserving of everlasting contempt than the Nazis. It makes sense, then, that only an incorruptible and selfless Greatest Generation could beat a Third Reich with no moral scruples and a nine-year head start. I don’t believe this means we need to abandon our judgments about Nazis and start saying nice things about them*, but we should remind ourselves that just as there were probably some bad Americans who fought the good fight, there were probably also Germans who made terrible mistakes out of self-preservation and cowardice.

In any case, I don’t believe that this book’s epilogue has been written yet. At some point humanity is going to have to contend with the consequences of climate change, and the longer we all collectively wait, the worse it is going to be for our future selves and our descendants. It already seems increasingly unlikely that my daughter will ever see a glacier south of the Arctic Circle, enjoy a river cruise through the Amazonian rainforest, or visit Manhattan’s Battery Park without scuba gear. She is going to have to deal with some stuff, while all the Boomers and Karens and Oregon Trail-obsessed Xennials decompose in cemeteries that should probably be trees and homes. I don’t envy her, and for that same reason I don’t envy the Greatest Generation. They did what they had to do for their country and for freedom, without complaint, and without expectation of reward, and we will forever be in their debt. Accordingly, at some point climate change will stop being something we “should” act on, and will quickly and inexorably morph into something that requires action and mobilization if we are to survive. I hope that Generation Z and whatever-letter-we’re-up-to-now generation my daughter belongs to rises to the challenge, because folks my age and above sure aren’t. And when they do, I hope some future Tom Brokaw writes a fawning book about them, too.

If I’m alive to see it, I promise I won’t argue, and will quietly go back to dying of dysentery in Oregon Trail for the 10-millionth time. Meanwhile, if anyone today is looking for an instructive or inspirational example of what an entire generation is capable of when they collectively put their minds towards doing something, this book will do the trick.

*The Autobahn, a Nazi Germany invention, is the only thing I can think of . . . but it is significant enough that I immediately thought of it. Since I enjoy driving fast when trying to cross vast stretches of nowhere, I admit to my shame that I am thankful for this one silver lining.

What I’m Reading: The Battle of Leyte Gulf

At some point I had to start going through relevant military and academic histories of World War II, and although I still have a stack of Pearl Harbor books to review I wanted a change of pace this week. But a change of pace is not always a respite, and The Battle of Leyte Gulf: The Last Fleet Action is the perfect example of a book my graduate adviser would tell me to “read instrumentally.” In other words, get what you need and then get out.

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This is not to say that H. P. Willmott’s authoritative and exhaustive account of the largest naval battle in world history is not worth checking out if you are interested in the intricacies of the various actions that made up the larger battle, the decision-making process of both the Japanese and American admiralties, or the overall effect that these actions had on the prosecution of the war. This is nothing if not competent, well-researched monograph.

But the larger problem here – and I admit that I have spoiled myself thus far with my reading list for this project, which is due both to my non-expertise in this subject and the wealth of fantastic, infectiously readable books about World War II – is that this book’s thesis and chronology is so intricately crafted that it is difficult to follow the overall narrative. In short, it is very dense. From what I gather, the Battle of Leyte Gulf represented the best possible long-odds outcomes for the Japanese Navy, which after the Battle of the Philippine Sea had only 80 or so fleet ships left and a menu of even worse strategic options for defending itself. The Japanese chose to engage the Americans in a decisive battle for the Philippines, believing it offered the best chance at stemming America’s advances in the west-central Pacific, whereas the Americans had both strategic and historical reasons (i.e., McArthur’s promise to “return”) for targeting the archipelago.

The conquest of the Philippines was rapid enough to make the Battle of Leyte Gulf seem less dramatic when compared to Midway, Guadalcanal, and Operation Overlord in France. Yet Willmott makes a convincing case for why the battle was more important than usually realized. For one, it was the last major fleet action, featuring the last direct exchange between battleships AND the last direct engagement between aircraft carriers. In many ways it was the last major naval battle, period. Secondly, the direct consequence of the battle was the destruction of Japan’s ability to escort merchant and service vessels, which became sitting ducks in the months ahead. This helped the United States strangle Japanese supply lines, which, had it not been for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may well have starved out the Japanese people before any planned invasion of the home islands. Finally, the limited but successful use of kamikaze pilots flying their fuel-laden planes into American ships created a tactical silver lining after the battle, which led to the Japanese employing far more kamikaze sorties during later battles, including Okinawa.

In any case, I am still reading this book – instrumentally, of course – and while it is an excellent reference point for my chapter on Leyte Gulf (which Elmer did participate in, as the USS Mink shot down at least two kamikaze planes), it isn’t something I plan on taking to the beach. But like I said, that does not make it any less valuable . . . if you want an intricate, detailed account of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, this is the book for you.

What I’m Reading: Tin Cans and Greyhounds

Frankly, I’m glad that Clint Johnson hopped off the Word Processor and immediately emailed his editor the second his narrative reached V-J Day, because otherwise I would not have had the benefit of this book for my own research. Published last February, this comprehensive and technical history of the destroyer during World War I and II, Tin Cans and Greyhounds: The Destroyers that Won Two World Wars, covers in exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail the story of this type of ship.

Destroyers were the true jacks of all trades during the World Wars. Originally designed during the 19th century by the British Navy, they evolved over the next several decades in response to changing technology, growing battleship displacements, and the exigencies of war. Airplanes and submarines both spurred additional destroyer development. Even though the United States Navy spent hardly any money during the 20s or early 30s building or developing new destroyers, they were adept and resourceful when repurposing much of the retired WWI destroyer fleet.

Johnson’s narrative from the destroyer’s origins through the late 1930s is a sweeping, fascinating story of the destroyer’s shifting popularity and ever-evolving utility. He does a fantastic job of not only discussing American destroyers, but explaining how their development mirrored that of similar-sized ships in rival navies. We learn, for instance, that while British sailors appreciated the dozens of ships transferred from America’s aging destroyer fleet to the Royal Navy in 1940, they would have preferred sleeping in their customary hammocks as opposed to the Americans’ bunk beds.

Overall, Johnson’s thesis is that destroyers were integral, and perhaps even indispensable, to Allied Naval victories during both World Wars. In particular, the old “battleships versus aircraft carriers” debate that roiled the Navy intelligentsia throughout the 1940s may have missed a key point: that without a healthy number of destroyers to protect and assist the battleships, carriers, and the supply chain, the superiority of one over the other would be entirely moot. This claim is both grandiose and tautological – it is absurd to claim that these destroyers won both World Wars, but it is equally implausible to deny or rather ignore their obvious importance, particularly when so many people across the world could have claimed to have moved the sequence of events a certain way at precisely the right moment. Yet perhaps that kind of rhetorical (if not exactly historical) claim is necessary to highlight the destroyer class’s many important contributions to both war efforts, which this book does in spades. After all, books claiming that “X won World War II” are a cottage industry these days. How else can you get someone to buy one?

While I agree with Johnson’s argument, the second half of his book oscillates between the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, which creates a disjointed narrative. Moreover, his chapter division along these lines – Pacific Theater, 1942; Atlantic Theater, 1942; Pacific Theater, 1943; and so on – seems unnatural and arbitrary. I sympathize with the plight of the narratively-focused historian who has to break down what would otherwise be a very long chapter into shorter yet intelligible units . . . I dealt with this problem myself when organizing my horse stealing book, and it took me a while to figure out an outline that broke apart while also bringing together the story I wanted to tell. But it does not seem like the author (or his editors) put much thought into this. Which is a shame, because I want the story of the destroyer to be an actual story, not a CV of its successes and failures. And that last point hints at my other concern with this book, which is that the World War II chapters fail to bring the author’s many stories and pieces of information together into a cohesive whole. These chapters lack a narrative strand, and instead seem to move from one story to another without so much as a segue.

Organizational concerns aside, this is a very well-researched book, and it is a necessary volume for students of World War II, Naval history, and anyone who has ever enjoyed one of Tom Clancy’s technical novels about various kinds of military weapons (anyone remember Armored Cav?). It also plugs a gaping hole in the hull of naval scholarship by providing a much-needed historical reference and overview of the chronically understudied and widely misunderstood destroyer. I personally found it useful as well, and will likely cite it often.

What I’m Reading: Brothers Down

One thing I’d like to start doing in this space is to spend some time writing about the books I am using in my research. While admittedly my research interest in my Grandpa’s Letters project is a bit less academically trenchant than my work on horse thieves, it does give me the opportunity to read some great books about World War II, the Navy, and the wider world he inhabited.

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona by [Borneman, Walter R.]

Brothers Down: Pearl Harbor and the Fate of the Many Brothers Aboard the USS Arizona is historian Walter R. Borneman’s most recent book, having come out earlier this year. It is the tale of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona, as told from the perspective of the thirty-eight pairs (and in some cases trios) of brothers who served together on that ill-fated ship. Of those thirty-eight sets, only one pair of brothers both survived, and only twelve other men among the others avoided death that day.

But while only a few members of the Arizona’s complement survived – most of whom happened to have spent the night elsewhere, thus avoiding the ship’s fate altogether that morning – their stories live on. Borneman interviewed the survivors and their families, as well as the families of the deceased, many of whom shared their letters and other mementos and stories of their departed fathers, brothers, and uncles. The author did a remarkable job not only collecting all of these different stories, but of also weaving them together throughout the book. It’s a master class on historiographical resourcefulness: it is much easier to go to an archive than it is to hunt down families whose loved ones died the better part of a century ago under sudden, violent, and tragic circumstances.

Organizationally the book is divided into three parts: the history of the Arizona and its crew before the attack, the attack itself, and the days and years following December 7th. Borneman revels in details throughout this narrative: explaining who these men were, where they grew up, the kinds of trouble they got into as kids, the reasons why they joined the Navy during peacetime, etc. Some of their stories were not unlike Grandpa’s – they sent money home each month and wrote as often as they could. But grandpa’s story diverged when he was assigned to a ship that, for the most part, survived the day relatively unscathed. Anyway, these stories give names and life to the list of names on the wall at the Arizona Memorial.

The book was a quick read, at least for me. It would have been quicker if not for some filler towards the middle – Borneman takes pains to describe the college football games being played on December 6th and the hot songs of the day, apropos of nothing. However, for the most part the story is well-written, accessible, and at certain points action-driven. The last two chapters of the book were especially poignant, and one many wish to have a box of tissues or a handkerchief available.

This was a valuable first book to read on the subject of Pearl Harbor. Borneman is a more than capable historian, and this entry will serve as a touchstone for me going forward. But more importantly, it is a fantastic model for how to research and write the stories of World War II servicemen. It is sensitive, contemplative, thorough in its chasing down of narrative strands and family leads, and exquisitely well-written. His use of the brother pairings was an excellent choice, both in terms of creating a broad yet narrow set of subjects for the book (the Arizona’s compliment was over 1,500, which is a lot of individual stories) while also facilitating its research (pairs of brothers mean multiple families to consult, which creates larger pools of historical information as family members tell stories about their uncles as well as their fathers or grandfathers). His approach works very well.

Overall, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona, or well-crafted history book in general.

Do you have any books you’d like to recommend? Have you read this one? Share your thoughts in a comment!