The Worst Generation

Over at Slate, Matt Yglesias has fun with a poll published in The Economist that asked people what decade they would choose to live in.

Matt's main point is that the 90s were an objectively great decade. Perhaps. But his paragraph about the 40s is right on:

People rate it [the 90s] only very slightly higher than the 1940s. Some salient facts about the 1940s: There was a big war. One participant in that war had an active policy of targeting enemy civilian population centers for wholesale destruction as a battlefield tactic. Initially they did this with large-scale bombing raids designed to set as many houses ablaze as possible. Eventually they developed nuclear weapons in order to massacre enemy civilians in a more pilot-intensive way. The country in question was allied with a vicious dictator whose political strategies included mass rape, large-scale civilian deportations, and the occasional deliberate engineering of famine conditions. And those were the good guys! We're all very happy they won!

Here's the thing: America has never acknowledged the horribleness of the 1940s. The so-called "greatest generation" came home from war and promptly refused to talk about it. This behavior, lauded as stoic perseverance, had tragic consequences.

War, for the average American, remained a glorious John Wayne fantasy and it was this delusion that made "containment" sound reasonable. A national commitment to a deliberate strategy of low-grade bloodshed in countries around the globe that one one had ever heard of is absurd on its face. It was only possible because "the greatest generation" fell down on the job when it came to explaining the realities of war.

Thanks to the silence of The Worst Generation, we were at war in Korea before all the dead had been returned from Germany and the Pacific.

Eisenhower--who had actual experience with war--kept things fairly sane for a span after Truman. But after him, the Worst Generation helped elect the warmongers Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan. Our only other WWII Vet President, Bush 41, proved the rule by knowing where to stop in Iraq. But then the Worst Generation elected one last president before they died: W. And he was the worst warmonger of them all. All those cold warriors vastly overrated the threat to Americans actually posed by the Soviets, but at least there was a threat to overrate. There was no similar excuse for W's Deadly Adventure in Iraq. Thanks Worst Generation.