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Long Read of the Week: A Thanksgiving Toast To The Old Breed by Victor Davis Hanson

 They gave us a world far better than they inherited.

The late World War II combat veteran and memoirist E. B. Sledge enshrined his generation of fellow Marines as “The Old Breed” in his gripping account of the hellish battle of Okinawa. Now, most of those who fought in World War II are either dead or in their nineties.

Much has been written about the disappearance of these members of the Greatest Generation—there are now over 1,000 veterans passing away per day. Of the 16 million who at one time served in the American military during World War II, only about a half-million are still alive.

Military historians, of course, lament the loss of their first-hand recollections of battle. The collective memories of these veterans were never systematically recorded and catalogued. Yet even in haphazard fashion, their stories of dropping into Sainte-Mère-Église or surviving a sinking Liberty ship in the frigid North Atlantic have offered correctives about the war otherwise impossible to attain from the data of national archives.

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.

The generation that came of age in the 1940s had survived the poverty of the Great Depression to win a global war that cost 60 million lives, while participating in the most profound economic and technological transformation in human history as a once rural America metamorphosed into a largely urban and suburban culture of vast wealth and leisure.

Oldest World War II vet and Texas native, Richard Overton

Their achievement from 1941 to 1945 remains unprecedented. The United States on the eve of World War II had an army smaller than Portugal’s. It finished the conflict with a global navy larger than all of the fleets of the world put together. By 1945, America had a GDP equal to those of Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire combined. With a population 50 million people smaller than that of the USSR, the United States fielded a military of roughly the same size.

America almost uniquely fought at once in the Pacific, Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, on and beneath the seas, in the skies, and on land. On the eve of the war, America’s military and political leaders, still traumatized by the Great Depression, fought bitterly over modest military appropriations, unsure of whether the country could afford even a single additional aircraft carrier or another small squadron of B-17s. Yet four years later, civilians had built 120 carriers of various types and were producing a B-24 bomber at the rate of one an hour at the Willow Run factory in Michigan. Such vast changes are still difficult to appreciate.

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. The strategic and operational disasters of World War II—the calamitous daylight bombing campaign of Europe in 1942-43, the quagmire of the Heurtgen Forest, or being surprised at the Battle of Bulge—hardly demoralized these men and women.

Miscalculations and follies were not blame-gamed or endlessly litigated, but were instead seen as tragic setbacks on the otherwise inevitable trajectory to victory. When we review their postwar technological achievements—from the interstate highway system and California Water Project to the Apollo missions and the Lockheed SR-71 flights—it is difficult to detect comparable confidence and audacity in subsequent generations. To paraphrase Nietzsche, anything that did not kill those of the Old Breed generation made them stronger and more assured.

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.”

I wondered where his assurance came. Fourteen of 16 planes—each holding eleven crewmen—in his initial squadron of bombers were lost to enemy action or mechanical problems. The planes were gargantuan, problem-plagued, and still experimental—and some of them also simply vanished on the 3,000-mile nocturnal flight over the empty Pacific from Tinian to Tokyo and back.

READ THE WHOLE THING AT A Thanksgiving Toast To The Old Breed | Hoover Institution

[HT: Never Yet Melted]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Casey Klahn November 25, 2017, 11:51 AM

    It’s an epic tale that needs to be told again and again, at every campfire and at many gatherings. The simple, clean morality, achieved in blood and in violence, is repugnant to many of the current population. I took a class of adults to Italy in 2015, and mentioned, probably trying to be understated but instead maybe tipping my hand, that my father had fought there in WW II. Almost every one of them came to me privately, or in twos, and explained to me that they did not want to hear about the war.
    Well, who wants to hear this stuff second hand, anyway? It’s repugnant to tell any war story once removed, isn’t it? VDH is a national treasure for his ability to write and for his message of American individualism and exception. More like this, please.

  • ghostsniper November 25, 2017, 3:02 PM

    “While U.S. soldiers proved heroic and lethal in Afghanistan and Iraq, their sacrifices were never commensurately appreciated by the larger culture.”

    It was never explained up front with credibility why the whole event was even going on.
    The flipside is, no one cared even if a proper explanation had occurred.
    My novice understanding is that it was about the expansion of empire and the acquisition of oil as a side benefit. The highest level of money deals. And yes I believe 911 was part of it. Consider it the culmination of my extreme distrust of everything gov’t. Once lost, trust can never be regained especially when the distrusted entity doesn’t care. EMPIRE! and you don’t matter.

  • Chris November 25, 2017, 4:46 PM

    Ghostsniper if you’re not one of those moron truthers, I apologize in advance. It’s been explained many times now what the whole Iraq invasion was… it served two purposes… it attracted the flies to the turd allowing us to kill them in mass numbers where we would never have been able to ferret out enough jihadis to use munitions on them. Secondly, if we were able to establish a functioning democracy there, it would serve as a lesson for the entire ME… there is an alternative to dictatorships and theocracies. It remains to be seen if that will be a long term success. We don’t need the oil, we are an net exporter… and that was certainly something in the cards we already understood.

    You’re living in the 90’s mindset with peak oil, conspiracy theories, and shadow governments. And if you’re a dumbass truther, well, nothing is going to help you, you’re too stupid to bother with.

  • ghostsniper November 25, 2017, 5:54 PM

    So, if there are 500,000 WWII vets still alive but more than 1,000 per day are dying, in 2 years most if not all will be gone?

    And look what is taking their place.

    Amazing what can be done in as little as 75 years, no?

    On Chris’s comment above, it was like being back in the early 00’s and reading a New York Times article. Copied and pasted from a thousand childishly goofy lies. It’s truly embarrassing how retarded many americans have worked hard at becoming.

    If you’re committed in your principles you never start a screed with an apology.

  • bfwebster November 25, 2017, 6:12 PM

    My dad enlisted in the US Navy at age 17 in the summer of 1941, wanting to see the world. Well, he saw it alright, including Pearl Harbor, the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and the invasion of Guam. He saw open-air nuclear tests in the South Pacific. He — and our family — traveled the various part of the US and the world. He stayed in long enough to finish his Navy career with two (2) tours over in Vietnam, then retired from the Navy at the ripe old age of 46.

    When we lived in the Philippines, at Subic Bay, I would occasionally go into the jungle and play; one such time, I found an abandoned Japanese pillbox and managed to cut my thigh on a piece of rusty rebar, earning myself two stitches and a tetanus booster. Another time, our family took a trip on a boat to go ashore at Corregidor, where the ground was still littered with thousands of empty shell casings (and occasional live ammo; all us kids had strict instructions not to pick anything up). This was all in the 1958-60 time frame, so 15 years or less after we recaptured the Philippines from the Japanese.

    My kids grew up knowing my dad, and I think that accounts for their general respect for the military. A few are still terribly ignorant about politics, economics, and history. Still love them, though.

  • Snakepit Kansas November 25, 2017, 6:48 PM

    Mr. Webster,
    I visited Corregidor in 2003. Although I saw no live ammo lying around, there was extensive evidence of shrapnel and bullet damage to several war time emplacements made of concrete and steel. Corregidor was not a fort but an island of many combat emplacements placed in strategic points. There was one horseshoe shaped position of large mortars that while walking through, and recognizing all of the residual damage from war, made me know that significant amounts of Japanese, American and Pinoy blood had been shed, right where I stood. Both when the Japanese initially invaded and again when the Americans retook Corregidor a few years later.

    I think the main difference between WWII and subsequent wars was that during WWII, the American public was in fear of being invaded. Their lifestyle and freedom was at risk. None of that exists today. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other third world dumps cannot pose any threat of invasion to the US. Yes, we deal with terrorism, but such incidents do not produce prolonged fear or threat to the Average American’s way of life. North Korea has some of our attention, but that fat bastard running the show there knows he better not push it too far of SEAL Team 6 will show up unannounced one evening to go George Zimmerman on his ass.

  • David November 25, 2017, 7:25 PM

    Bing West wrote about the Battle of Fallujah, that commenced in earnest in November 2004. The title of the book was “No True Glory”. The meaning of the title was that the men fighting there, against modern day barbarians, would never achieve True Glory, until the scope and nature of their fighting was recognized and honored at home. Which for various reasons, will probably never happen.
    My Father and were many of his friends that I knew growing up, a veteran of WWII. He was not in combat, but served in a lot of unpleasant places; New Guinea, Bougainville, Luzon. At the end of the war, he was in occupied Japan.
    One of the few things he said to me about the War, was how disillusioned he was when he came home, which was actually pretty common with a lot of soldiers coming home. Disillusionment with War is pretty common, even the so-called “Good War” that was supposed to be WWII. Usually called that because we were fighting “Fascism”. But it was man killing man, on an industrial scale. Or it was just boring, dirty and disease ridden; my father almost died of dengue fever. It was and is harsh and ugly. Most of the men in his high school went off to the War, and some of them never came home.
    What this all means, I really can’t summarize so simply. But we can’t pretend we can retain, or even understand all the thoughts of the men who served, then or now. We can grimly begin to understand, but nothing can put into place how dirty, boring, ugly and scary the whole thing was.
    The Greatest Generation will, indeed, soon be all dead. As some day, most of us will be dead. We will have to settle for the memories as written, and maybe something told to us second or third hand. And lots of people will forget, or never know, because they choose not to know. And whatever glory was earned by those who served will be forgotten, either by ignorance or malevolence.

  • Howard Nelson November 25, 2017, 9:25 PM

    Casey, your experience with that group of adults you took to Italy in 2015 does a better job explaining what’s wrong with too many kids today than all the bs articles I’ve read on the subject –.their parents insist on ignorance and lack of patriotism. How can they transmit a respect for our American heritage of decency?

  • Casey Klahn November 25, 2017, 11:01 PM

    Howard: thanks for that. To my mind, there are 3 things that have happened in Italy that trump all other history: the rise of the roman republic, the renaissance, and world war two. Other things, and very important things, did happen there, but everything is dwarfed by the three I mentioned.

    Imagine Dr Hanson taking his students to the Pacific, but the war is not a polite topic, so instead we’ll be talking about colonial oppression. Capitalist imperialism is ruining the coconut crop. Fuck his dad’s story.

  • Uncle Mikey November 26, 2017, 12:42 AM

    I think the pendulum is swinging back that way. The 12-16 year olds I’ve talked to are pretty goddamned practical and fairly conservative. Pewdiepie is doing a great job of red pilling the youth

  • Chuck November 26, 2017, 5:38 AM

    Don’t underestimate the millennials. In 1940 most of the world had a negative opinion of American and British youth. Both the Germans and Japanese thought American kids were soft and spent their time at the soda fountain listening to Benny Goodman while British kids would never fight for king and country. Those were two of the many reasons why both nations stupidly declared war in the first place. But when the bell rang, young Americans and Britons stepped into the ring and gave good accounts of themselves on the battlefields and back home in the factories.

  • Nori November 26, 2017, 6:50 AM

    The world that produced the Old Breed was run by men. Families were the core of life, with a Father at the head, Mother at his side and 2 or more offspring. There were lots of uncles, grand-dads and their wives, who helped raise the kids. Boys learned how to be men because they had examples all around them. Today’s single-parent (usually female) family has been disastrous for kids. The robust young woman wearing the “Don’t Touch My Pussy” t-shirt with the aqua tutu skirt a few posts down did not come from a loving, secure family.

  • ghostsniper November 26, 2017, 10:09 AM

    Nori is right.
    Treating the symptoms never cures the disease.
    The disease was created at the top and as long as the top continues so will the disease.
    IOW, if you pay for failure that’s exactly what you’ll get.

  • Howard Nelson November 26, 2017, 12:14 PM

    There are recent surveys showing acceptability of ~45% of our youth of socialism (thievery) vs capitalism.
    Of course, these youth have no idea of socialism’s death toll, economy and freedom failures around the world since our original colonization of America. Lack of proper education and lack of jobs for these ill-educated are resulting in self-defeating resentment and rioting.
    Demagoguery is now a major field of study at our formerly best schools.

  • ghostsniper November 26, 2017, 7:13 PM

    @Howard, I’ll posit that what we are trying to live with is not capitalism but rather quasi-capitalism, which is an eventual slide to full blown socialism or communism. People that see this are understandably frustrated for there seems to be no resolution short of total collapse of the system itself and the annihilation of the people that support it. My personal opinion is that eventually quasi-capitalism will consume itself.

  • Casey Klahn November 27, 2017, 8:38 AM

    Ghost, if I can own something that the gubmint cannot touch or take, then there is capitalism. Very imperfect, no doubt about it. But, my definition. I used to think I owned my water, but then whenever I look at the wellhead, I see the registration number and cringe.

  • Rusty November 28, 2019, 12:31 PM

    Casey, what a sad moment that was when they shut you down. Unfortunately even members of our own generation have no idea what it was like living in the presence and sometimes shadow of the larger than life men that made it back. As regards a story told second hand, I have come to know that you, me and many of our peers that grew up in households such as ours possess rich oral histories crafted from years of listening to stories well told. A piece of those stories and the men that told them belong to us as our birthright, compensation for bearing witness. You know what I’m talking about, Casey. Personally I made a decision long ago that when I met a ‘peer’ I would strive to give the gift of listening. I usually can spot them within a few minutes of conversation. I have used my own historical knowledge gleaned from oral history to draw them out. I love the moment when it shows up on their face that says, ‘my God this guy knows what I’m talking about!’. The gift of listening…whom is really made richer by it?

  • Georgiaboy61 November 28, 2019, 6:46 PM

    @ Nori

    The late William Manchester (1922-2004), served as an infantry sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Second World War, and later attained post-war notoriety and fame as a well-respected biographer, historian, writer and professor of English. Manchester’s account of his Pacific service, “Good-bye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War,” stands alongside Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa” and Robert Leckie’s “Helmet for my Pillow” as being amongst the most-enduring stories from that war.

    Those men went off to war not only because they were men who had been seasoned and toughened by hard times, and raised to understand such things as duty and honor, but – to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton – because they loved what what they were defending as much as they hated the enemy. The old America they were defending was vastly-different than what came after it.

    Manchester, as a middle-aged man, retraced his steps and the steps of other youthful Marines like him from Guadalcanal, island-hopping across the South Pacific to the Central Pacific and finally the Northern Pacific nearest to Japan. His quest was a voyage of self-discovery and an homage to his lost friends and lost youth at the same time. In the concluding passages of the book, he stresses over and over again that he and his fellow Marines thought they were fighting to preserve the old America they loved, not what the nation became later on, especially during the counter-culture years and afterwards.

  • Boat Guy November 29, 2019, 8:19 AM

    “…what the nation became later on…” I have come to conclude became such because WWII ( and Korea) guys like my Dad (still going strong at 92) and uncles were building stuff – missiles to space and an unparalleled economy, among other things – at the same time the leftists were taking over academia and the media resulting in the widespread rot and malaise now plaguing us.
    I am privileged to know many millennial combat veterans ( one of my sons among them) my Dad and I both agree that they are every bit as “great” as the generations before but their peers are NOT.

  • Casey Klahn November 29, 2019, 3:34 PM

    I hope this post stays with us and can be read again and again.

    In fact, if you’re not reading VDH, I suggest you do so. He’s the best we have, now. Clear. Undistracted.

    I’m watching a color version history of WW II, greatest events. The starting part of the show is all BS boilerplate that Dr Hanson has shown differently. The Treaty of versailles was nowhere near as harsh as the unconditional surrender, which worked far better. But, the good part in the first episode is how fucking brilliant the Germans were at war. Those are whom our dads went up against. The best vs the best. Another brilliance from VDH is the fact that the Axis powers, while losing the war, did indeed kill wholesale the civilian populations where they invaded. They killed the shit out of the people and for (probably) the fun of it.

    Yes, I talk to these men, and some women, from the era. It is burnt into my mind. I’ll never be as good as them, but I have a standard well-known to me.

    I was trying to tell my daughter, again, the story of how her granddad liberated Verona, where Romeo and Juliet is set. He was in the company of the famous Bill Darby, who would be dead within the week, and the war would end in the following few days.

    The Manchester book is required reading.

    carry on, friends. Thanks, again, Gerard.

  • Rob De Witt November 29, 2019, 5:59 PM

    Today would be my dad’s 102nd birthday. Seventy-five years ago Wednesday he died in France following George Patton. I’ve since heard from his nephews that he didn’t want to go when he was drafted at 26, but he went because that’s what you do.

    I never knew him, but I pray for his immortal soul daily, in gratitude for showing me what it means to be a man. It’s not much, but it’s what I can do.

  • McKiernan November 30, 2019, 6:01 PM

    In case y’all missed it:


  • Gordon Scott November 27, 2020, 7:38 AM

    I heard a very interesting quote on a podcast about the Pacific war. It mainly had to do with the fighting on New Guinea. I never really knew a lot about that. But it was important, and just getting to the fight could be deadly.

    It had to do with who was the best jungle fighter in the Pacific war. The conclusion was that the Australians were the best, closely followed by the Japanese. The Americans were third, but that didn’t matter much because the Americans would just shred the jungle with artillery and fight in what was left.

  • Sam L. November 27, 2020, 8:16 AM

    Let us not forget the Ghurkas and their Kukris with the English army in the jungles.

  • Dirk November 27, 2020, 8:34 AM

    Attempting to Install a democracy in Muslim nations, like taking a horse to a BBQ.
    Col. Jeff Cooper!.

    Our History is a lie.
    Dirk Williams

  • Casey Klahn November 27, 2020, 10:41 AM

    Dear Mr Dirk Williams, eat a bag of dicks! This post is about WWII, and your mind seems not a little addled about our recent wars. I’ll not hear your moist-panty tirade on the sacred ground of our fathers who fought in WWII. Eat me. Go shit in your shoe. Beat it.

    Sam, my dad fought alongside the Gurkhas and they are not forgotten. They were fukn cool.

    Rob, my regards and your father was a great man.

    Isn’t it true that when we look at our situation today, that we can look back to the deeds of our fathers and mothers in WW II and take courage? They did what they did and didn’t bitch about it. Verbal attacks on our nation from within don’t serve me, and in fact they piss me off tremendously.

    Gerard, you dad’s memories at the end of this post are a prize and thank you for sharing them. He did what he did with an abundance of courage, considering the losses of airmen in the war.

  • Boat Guy November 27, 2020, 8:14 PM

    Right on Casey! Though I must say the WWII folks did “bitch” as every soldier, sailor, Marine and airmen would. What they didn’t do was whine, something done far too much by too many people today.
    VDH is correct (as he nearly always is) we of the following generation initially didn’t appreciate the bounty given to us by those tempered people who bore us. We have to atone for our ignorance and arrogance by ensuring that we honor our forefathers by telling the stories.

  • Martin Karo November 28, 2020, 12:02 PM

    No disrespect to the Old Breed — I revere them still — when I say the follow-on wars of any size really stem from them. Andy Rooney, in a similar piece, wrote that “[The Normandy invasion] was one of the most monumentally unselfish things one group of people ever did for another.” That really extended to the entire war effort. The sacrifice was for one’s comrades, and even more for foreigners the soldiers didn’t even know. That very moral moral — that American power is best used when it is used for others, to make the world a better, freer place — has played central position in every large-scale military venture we have had, from Korea right through to Syria. Even the most cynical politician knows to couch a call for armed intervention in the language of freedom and sacrifice for others. That’s because that’s the lesson the men and women of WW2 taught us.

  • Anonymous November 29, 2020, 7:44 AM

    “didn’t appreciate the bounty given to us by those tempered people who bore us.”

    I used to tell people that Minneapolis was very, very wealthy, and could stand bad government for a long time before it descended into the kind of chaos one sees in St. Louis or Chicago. I did not figure 1.5 riots and Coronavirus into the equation.

    Parking lots downtown that charged $12 for early arrivals are down to $4, and they’re empty. There were a couple hundred food places on the Skyway ™ level, where all the buildings are connected by a web of street crossing glassed-in passages. I haven’t walked through lately, but they’ve got to be down 70 percent, and they’re not coming back. No one wants to work downtown with the thugs and the bums.

    A woman of 70 was loading her groceries in her car at a store in Uptown, the trendy district. Personal crime there used to be so rare that any of it at all made the news. But when a car screeched up, three “youth” jumped out and grabbed her purse, after slugging her to the ground, it doesn’t even make the newspaper, and hell, there’s video of it.

    The store security guard knows the drill. He has access to the cameras on other businesses, and compiles a video hits DVD for the cops. He says it won’t matter, though, as he’s done this a lot lately. No one is prosecuted. Oh, they’ll come down like a ton of bricks on the small town bar owner outstate who refuses to follow Kaiser Tim’s latest shutdown decree.

    But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman (geez, I’ve voted for him twice) has not prosecuted one arsonist, looter or rioter. Not one. The Feds have done a few. But Freeman is prosecuting the poor dumb truck driver who hurt no one.

  • Larry November 29, 2020, 5:21 PM


    Manchester is enigmatic. He served and steadfastly in the war. Yet, he falsified a portion of his experience.


    I’ve read nearly everything that he wrote and enjoyed all of it.