Monday, May 26, 2014

Who knew, a quiet, harmless people?

Some years ago, an American
reader of broadcast news
popularised the expression,
the greatest generation, to
identify the youth of select-
ed nations who allied in re-
sistance to Axis aggression
after the fall of Poland. Al-
though always obviously no
more than a marketing ploy
to seduce an audience, the
damage of the expression has
endured, principally in calls
to emulate idealised behaviour
the book extolled, at the ex-
pense of an accurate history.

Taking it easy this afternoon
with my English dog, and hav-
ing channeled the conditioned
inclination to mark Memorial
Day through a lighter, paradox-
ically irresistible narrative
on warfare, I found myself re-
turning to the writings of An-
tony Beevor and Max Hastings,
on that large conflict of the
later 1930s and early 1940s.
Encountering again the reality
of cannibalism in Japanese mil-
itary doctrine in the Pacific 
War in Beevor, I turned to Has-
tings' grim compendium on the
final year of Japan's suppres-
sion, largely at the hands of
the United States.

He remarks, introducing Retri-
bution, on how "inapt" this
"greatest generation" sobri-
quet is: .. human behaviour,
aspirations and fears do not
alter much. It is more approp-
riate to call them, without
jealousy, 'the generation to
which the greatest things hap-

At last we need not flinch at
Uncle Toby's claim, in his 
famous speech to his brother
Shandy in defense of warfare,
which even the Bush regimes
thought to invoke in the abyss
of their cynical belligerencies:

                  For what is war? What is it, but
                  the getting together of quiet and
                  harmless people, with their swords
                  in their hands, to keep the ambiti-
                  ous and the turbulent within bounds?

There is not, we know, such
a thing as a quiet, harmless
people, but we know the works
of those who are not. If then
they are our own, Pogo, who
will write our history?

Antony Beevor
The Second World War
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012©

Max Hastings
The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007©

Laurence Sterne
The Life and Opinions of
  Tristram Shandy



  1. It is disquietening but entirely antcipated to hear one of your generation question that the term 'the greatest generation was earned and that those who participated accomplished something unprecedented. I say 'anticipated' for having observed the generations that have ensued since 1945.

    1. We don't understand disquiet in the same way; seeing anticipation confirmed does not disquiet me. But any concept of participating in a generation is so patently fallacious and dangerous as almost to defy anticipation, except when embedded in the structure of worship, as we see here. That is very close to disquieting.