Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation

Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, March 30, 2012. A link to the essay on the page appears below.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will live in our memories as the soldier accused of leaving his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan before dawn on March 11 and killing 17 Afghan civilians. The act is being called unthinkable, but we don’t know what the suspect was thinking at the time.

Five years earlier, this was what Bales was thinking, as he recalled a 2007 battle against Shiite militia in Najaf, Iraq, during his second tour there: “The cool part about this was, World War II-style, you dug in. You’re taking a shovel and digging as fast as you can. I’ve never been more proud to be part of this unit than that day.”

The remarks are telling because with them Bales identifies himself with the Greatest Generation more than he does with his unit. I know the feeling, and so do a lot of you who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan or any of those skirmishes like Kosovo that are thoughtlessly brushed aside. No matter where you went to serve your country, you were held to a standard established between Dec. 7, 1941, and August 1945, the dates that bracket WWII.

The Greatest Generation began its life as the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 bestseller about the men and women who endured the Great Depression, fought in WWII and came home to a grateful and admiring America. Now it’s embedded in our language, a term as common as it is inaccurate. Apply “greatest” to the generation that returned triumphant from WWII and every generation after it lives in its shadow.

I remember walking in the 1950s to the Ritz theater on Villard Ave. in Milwaukee to see John Wayne in “Flying Leathernecks.” After that, I wanted only to fly for the Navy. By 1966, I was flying in Vietnam. Careful what you wish for. In the ’70s, I was interviewed about Vietnam and was asked, “Is there anything you want?”

I replied, “I want to kiss a nurse in Times Square.” The reporter was too young to know that I was talking about the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on Aug. 14, 1945 – V-J Day. That reporter may not have known, but some of you will and perhaps, then, will see my point.

Brokaw was wrong. Our greatest generation might turn out to have been the one that gave its young men and women to fights in Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War or the troubles in between them all. It might be the one that is giving its best now to our questionable interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might be one we’ll never know.

We cannot continue to hold our brave people to a standard that cannot be achieved. There is a different standard now, one that we have refused to accept because we have been looking back at one that died in 1945. Winning will no longer mean what it meant then. The nurse has left Times Square.

Think of the people we have sent to war since 1945 and the ones who didn’t come back right and the ones who didn’t come back at all. Thank them. Call them the greatest. Call them that until someone else steps up, fills their boots and makes us as proud as they have.

Think, too, of Sgt. Bales and how he may have landed lucky side up in another place and time.


Link to the “Sgt. Bales and the Greatest Generation” in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

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