Celebrating the Old Breed
Updated: May 21, 2020
I always enjoy reading Victor Davis Hanson's essays. His training and broad knowledge of American and world history, combined with the wisdom of age, makes his writing very appealing to me. His approach is so refreshing compared to the shallow, adolescent-like perspectives embraced by many modern historians. As soon as I finish the two books I'm reading now, I want to order Professor Hanson's latest work, The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.
The book was released in September of 2017, but I just recently became aware of it by reading one of Hanson's essays from 2017: "A New Year's Toast To The Old Breed." (I'll link to this piece at the end of this post.)
We celebrate American history here at Battles & Bones--proudly celebrate it. We don't deny America's sins and imperfections but, approaches to American history are now defined in how one views the founding of the United States of America: with hostility and disdain or with affinity and appreciation. Count Battles & Bones among the latter.
I believe Dr. Hanson shares that perspective, affinity and appreciation. "A New Year's Toast To The Old Breed" is a perfect expression of that perspective. One of the things that struck me about Hanson's piece is that the traits of "the Old Breed" he describes in the essay fit my WWII grandfather to a T. After my grandfather's father died suddenly in a construction accident, he left home at fourteen to work and help support the family. He was eventually
accepted into VPI (Virginia Tech), where he played football. He then served in the U.S. Army in Egypt as a sergeant. After the war, he was a master machinist and DuPont for over forty years. He had faults. He drank too much and he was a heavy smoker. But he was a good provider, a hard worker and he loves his country. He was also tough. Old school tough and he taught me many things which I cherish to this day. This is the old breed Hanson writes about.
Hanson kicks off his piece by mentioning E.B. Sledge, author of With The Old Breed, which I'm currently listening to on Youtube. Sledge's book, a NYT bestseller, is considered a must read by most WWII historians. An interesting sidebar--Sledge (a native Southerner) admired, and received inspiration from, Robert E. Lee. And both his grandfathers had been Confederate officers during the WBTS.
After lamenting the fact that the Greatest Generation is quickly passing on to their rewards, Hanson quickly gets to the nut of his essay:
"More worrisome, however, is that the collective ethos of the World War II generation is fading. It may not have been fully absorbed by the Baby Boomer generation and has not been fully passed on to today’s young adults, the so-called Millennials. While U.S. soldiers proved heroic and lethal in Afghanistan and Iraq, their sacrifices were never commensurately appreciated by the larger culture."
Indeed. One need only look around to realize this "collective ethos" is endangered and scarce in many ways. Some of the forces that have diminished this ethos are the results of technological and societal advances, as Hanson points out:
"Certainly, what was learned through poverty and mayhem by those Americans born in the 1920s became invaluable in the decades following the war. The World War II cohort was a can-do generation who believed that they did not need to be perfect to be good enough."
But other forces are philosophical and ideological, not technological. Hanson hits on something that further exposes much of what going on today in the study of American history. You might call it the "Ignorant Teenager Syndrome":
"As an ignorant teenager, I once asked my father whether the war had been worth it. After all, I smugly pointed out, the 'victory' had ensured the postwar empowerment and global ascendance of the Soviet Union. My father had been a combat veteran during the war, flying nearly 40 missions over Japan as the central fire control gunner in a B-29. He replied in an instant, 'You win the battle in front of you and then just go on to the next. . . . Such a spirit, which defined his generation, is the antithesis of the therapeutic culture that is the legacy of my generation of Baby Boomers."
Therapeutic culture. Sadly, true. From safe spaces to warning labels, our culture seems to want to protect young people from everything. While the intentions may be good, the same cannot always be said of the results. And I include my generation in that assessment--baby boomers. Hanson continues:
"The logical conclusion of our cohort’s emphasis on 'finding oneself' and discovering an 'inner self' is the now iconic ad of a young man in pajamas sipping hot chocolate while contemplating signing up for government health insurance. Such, it seems, is the arrested millennial mindset. The man-child ad is just 70 years removed from the eighteen-year-olds who fought and died on Guadalcanal and above Schweinfurt, but that disconnect now seems like an abyss over centuries. One cannot loiter one’s mornings away when there is a plane to fly or a tank to build. I am not sure that presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were always better men than were presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, but they were certainly bigger in the challenges they faced and the spirit in which they met them."
The current societal "emphasis" to which Hanson refers has also infected the study of American history and compounded the problem of the disappearing "old school" ethos lived out by our fathers and grandfathers. The new perspective looks with disdain upon prior generations' accomplishments because of their real and perceived "moral failings." It is the fruits of the mindset of the "ignorant teenager" with which Hanson charges himself in critiquing his own father's service in WWII. This mindset lacks the depth of experience and wisdom that comes only with age and the kinds of struggles experienced by the Old Breed.
Cheers to the Old Breed.