Like a Brokaw Record: The Most Banal Generalizations

Article excerpt

The Greatest Generation Tom Brokaw

Random House /4I2 pages / $24.95

Once upon a time, the human race was divided into writers and talkers, a sensible arrangement that, like so many other sensible arrangements, America has completely demolished. Having no real grasp of either literary style or brilliant conversation, we assume that introspective writers can yak it up on television, and expect the soundbitten to turn subtle and reflective on paper the moment they are alone with their thoughts.

Tom Brokaw, NBC's boyish basso profundo of the video prompter, has anchored a book. A tribute to the Americans who fought World War II, The Greatest Generation is a collection of the wartime experiences of obscure people, famous people, and some big fish in little ponds, chiefly those dappling Brokaw's native South Dakota and Upper Midwest.

Unless you have just returned from a Tibetan retreat you are already familiar with its contents because Brokaw has been telling stories from it, quoting himself in almost word-for-word approximations of the text, on every talk show that will have him-which is to say, all of them. The stories are quite effective in spoken form, but to meet them in print is to know with Socratic certainty that unexamined words are not worth reading.

His inviolable subject goes a long way toward saving Private Brokaw from critical reviews, but in truth The Greatest Generation is an overwritten, underanalyzed, frequently obtuse, unintentionally funny, cliche-ridden narrative about common men of uncommon valor winning hearts and minds amid the chilling effect of the cancer of racism.

His explanation of why he was inspired to write it churns with the urgent superlatives and drumbeat repetitions of a Special Report. World War II was "the greatest war the world has seen," brought forth "the greatest national mobilization of resources and spirit the country had ever known," was fought by "the greatest generation any society has ever produced," indeed, by "the greatest generation any society could hope to produce."

But wait, there's more. They were "a generation birthmarked for greatness, a generation of Americans that would take its place in American history with the generations that had converted the North American wilderness into the United States and infused the new nation with self-determination embodied first in the Declaration of Independence and then in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

When an author sets this carried away it's a dead cert that an anti-climax is coming, and Brokaw delivers a beaut:

They became part of the greatest investment in higher education that any society ever made, a generous tribute from a grateful nation. The GI Bill, providing veterans tuition and spending money for education, was a brilliant and enduring commitment to the nation's future....They were a new kind of army now, moving onto the landscapes of industry, science, art, public policy....

They helped convert a wartime economy into the most powerful peacetime economy in history. They made breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences. They gave the world new art and literature. They came to understand the need for federal civil rights legislation. They gave America Medicare.

These overwrought hosannas to the greatest generation are the hallmark of the book and crop up on nearly every page. However sincere his admiration may be, we can't help sensing that Brokaw is obsessed with World War II, and we begin to wonder why. It is fruitless to expect him to tell us because his skill at avoiding insight, which I will come to presently, is another of the book's hallmarks, but we learn enough to guess.

His father went to war, yet didn't. A civilian maintenance worker at an army air base in South Dakota, "Red" Brokaw was drafted, but the base commanaer pulled strings to get him back, reasoning that Red, a mechanical genius who could fix anything, was more valuable where he was. …