Free world salutes ‘the greatest generation’

The last survivor: Reg Charles, 96, the only living member of the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge, yesterday

Do we need to relearn the importance of resolve, courage and sacrifice? The Queen described the heroes of D-Day as “my generation” — the “resilient” old men and women who saved the world.

“When I attended the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, some thought it might be the last such event. But the wartime generation, my generation, is resilient, and I am delighted to be with you in Portsmouth today.

Seventy-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of young soldiers, sailors and airmen left these shores in the cause of freedom. In a broadcast to the nation at that time, my father, King George VI, said: ‘What is demanded from us all is something more than courage and endurance; we need a revival of spirit, a new unconquerable resolve...’ That is exactly what those brave men brought to the battle, as the fate of the world depended on their success.

Many of them would never return, and the heroism, courage and sacrifice of those who lost their lives will never be forgotten. It is with humility and pleasure, on behalf of the entire country — indeed the whole free world — that I say to you all, thank you.”

With these 163 words yesterday the Queen paid tribute to what is often called “the greatest generation”: the men and women who came of age during World War Two and played a part in the struggle against fascism.

The phrase was coined by the American news anchor Tom Brokaw who wrote a book of the same title in 1998 after being deeply moved at the D-Day 40th anniversary celebrations four years earlier.

In the book, Brokaw argued that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the “right thing to do”.

“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced,” he said.

The phrase stuck. This morning, it is the main headline on the Metro newspaper, over a photograph of a group of veterans, many leaning on sticks, standing on stage at the D-Day commemoration in Portsmouth yesterday, in front of a backdrop of soldiers going into battle in Normandy, 75 years ago.

Today, it will be repeated many times as millions follow the 75th anniversary of D-Day by watching, or taking part in, the remembrance ceremony at Bayeux War Cemetery at 11am, followed by the veterans’ parade and service in Arromanches, France, soon after.

It was “a can-do generation who believed that they did not need to be perfect to be good enough”, writes the journalist Victor Hanson, reflecting on his father, an air force gunner during the war.

“Miscalculations and follies were not blame-gamed or endlessly litigated, but were instead seen as tragic setbacks on the otherwise inevitable trajectory to victory.”

“Perseverance and its twin, courage, were the most important of all collective virtues,” he concludes.

“Such a spirit […] is the antithesis of the therapeutic culture that is the legacy of my generation, and I believe it explains everything from the spectacular economic growth of the 1960s to the audacity of landing a man on the moon.”

Not so great?

There is, however, a different point of view. For example, the American novelist John Horne Burns has described the bigotry of Allied soldiers in Italy during the last months of the war. He describes watching a white officer, miffed that a black female singer in town had taken “his” place at a bar, utterly humiliate a black soldier in the troupe. His soldiers are, en masse, coarse, self-pitying, exploitative, inarticulate, dishonest, stupid.

Of course, human nature is flawed, comes the response, and war is ugly. But these veterans had a Homeric optimism empowered by an acceptance of a man’s limitations during his brief and often tragic life. Time was short, but heroism was eternal.

You Decide

  1. Could it ever be good to be cowardly?
  2. Does society need to toughen up?

Activities

  1. Imagine you were about to be dropped by parachute into enemy territory at dead of night. Write a last letter to your best friend.
  2. Write a short poem for Reg Charles, the old soldier in our photograph.

Some People Say...

“It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is.”

Tim O’Brien, writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that resilience is an idea with origins in engineering and psychology, though its uses in the field of ecology and sustainability are more current. The concept of ecological resilience describes something's ability to absorb and recover from stress. People can be resilient, say to an illness or to loss like a death in the family. Communities can be resilient, say to a hurricane or to a spike in the cost of food and fuel. In any case, a system is considered resilient if it can recover without changing into something fundamentally different.
What do we not know?
We don’t know what really makes people resilient. Could it be chiefly flexibility, for example? in social organisations, including among bats, non-human primates, and tribal human societies, flexibility has been shown to create resilience. Yet, there are cases where flexibility can reduce resilience as well. Small scale commercial fishermen often choose not to diversify but to fish for just one species that they sell to a single, large processor because it makes them more resilient to fluctuations in market prices for fish.

Word Watch

King George VI
Known publicly as Albert until his accession, and "Bertie" among his family and close friends, King George VI reigned from 11 December 1936 until his death on 6 February 1952. He was the last Emperor of India and the first Head of the Commonwealth.
Arromanches
It was part of the Gold Beach landing area and was taken by the British 50th Division on D-Day. Arromanches became one of two assembly points for the Mulberry artificial harbours, temporary jetties of prefabricated concrete supports, steel spans, and floating piers that were towed across the channel in sections and aligned perpendicularly to the beach.
John Horne Burns
For a while in the 1940s John Horne Burns was widely considered one of the most promising American novelists, and his best-selling war story, The Gallery, impressed Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller. Then — after not one, but three failed novels — he committed suicide at age of 36.

Subjects

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