Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book review --- The Greatest Generation; by Tom Brokaw

I finally got around to reading The Greatest Generation, after having it sit on my bookshelf for 9 years and follow me through 4 different countries. It wasn’t that I was trying to avoid it, it just seemed that I always had a better book at hand. I knew it would be a good book, but it was also seemed to be one of those Oprah book clubs selections that everyone read because it was more popular than good. Not the type of book I usually choose, but the subject matter was more important than the hype.

I was also interested in the book because Tom Brokaw was raised in South Dakota, where I have lived and visited since I was a teenager. He spent the early years of his life 50 miles from where I used to live, and is a Midwesterner born and bred, who also came from a family with a military /wartime background. Very similar, if somewhat different to me. Reading about places I’ve been to and know well always interests me.

Brokaw breaks the book into eight sections, aptly titled Ordinary People, Heroes, Famous People, for example. He starts with Ordinary People, and takes his through his early life, with his family and people he knew growing up. This was the part of the book I enjoyed the most, as it was just about Ordinary People. The kind of people I knew and grew up with. These people truly were the Greatest Generation.

Many of the later sections deal with more famous people Brokaw came to know during his career as a correspondent, although to be fair, they were the Greatest Generation before they became famous. Although there were a few interesting stories, I didn’t really learn all that much new about the famous people that I didn’t already know about. Brokaw provides some more in-depth knowledge of these people, but nothing groundbreaking.

This is where my egotism from my military background comes into play, as I wasn’t very impressed with the section on the Home Front. Yes, I know the military needs equipment and support, but equating those who didn’t fight with those who did doesn’t really work for me. They were important, and they did important things. But turning screws on an assembly line doesn’t carry the same weight as carrying a rifle. This section doesn’t belong in a book like this.

The section that does, and the best section of the book, is Shame, where Brokaw profiles those who were discriminated against and not allowed to be part of this Greatest Generation as a full member. He doesn’t go into a rant about what happened, nor do those people in the book. They state what happened to them, that it wasn’t right, and that they carried on with their lives the best they can. People who fought for freedom for people of other countries that they were denied themselves. That’s always worth reading about.

I can tell you from personal experience that there are three things any soldier wants: hot food, mail and to have their families taken care of. Love, Marriage and Commitment is an excellent section that details what it was like to be the spouse of a soldier serving overseas. I’m always on the side of the soldier, but the families never get enough credit for what they bring to the military, and to the soldiers. In today’s world, this section is a great read for anyone who knows a military family.

Where the book loses me, and starts to drag, is in the Famous People section. This becomes more of a roll call of celebrities and politicians that Brokaw has a personal relationship with. That makes sense, obviously, as it was easier to find and write about people he knows than to go out and recruit strangers. It doesn’t make this a bad thing, it just give more illumination to people who have the light shining on them for years. Skipping this section and finding more Ordinary People would have been much better, to my opinion, and made this more a book of common people who made the generation than rehashing great people who have who were part of the generation.

Brokaw is at his best when common people tell their stories and provide us new insight to this time and place. A lot of this is common knowledge years later, as it finally began to become an open story after Saving Private Ryan and this book. We’re all familiar with the story now, but 12 years ago, the general public didn’t know this side of World War II. Brokaw helped get the word out, and even though the book lags at times and becomes a walk of fame, he gets the point across about what these people did, and thing issues they dealt with. The chapters on Joe Foss, Daniel Inouye, Nau Takasugi, and Art Buchwald and his family and friends from back home make it worth the read.

The luster has passed on this book, and sadly, the entire “Greatest Generation” phenomena. It shouldn’t, however, as these people are leaving every day, and way to soon, there will be none left. The theme of this book might be passé, but the stories aren’t. Pick the book up. Read it. Remember it. It’s important.

*** Note --- I’ve never tried to review a book before (not that anyone cares all that much), and looking back over this, I guess it’s more of a review of my opinion of the book than an actual review of the book itself. Oh well, that’s how we do things.

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