When fretting about modern manhood, American masculinity worriers have usually looked to the past--sometimes to the revolutionary generation, sometimes to romanticized Indians, often to Theodore Roosevelt and his ilk of the Progressive Era. In recent decades, we've added a new idealized period of masculinity: World War II.
With Tom Brokaw's group fellatio of, er, book about the World War II generation, an entire other generation, which perhaps we can name "The Worst Generation," looked to their fathers as heroes in innumerable ways, including as specimens of ideal masculinity.
Not surprisingly, our friends at The Art of Manliness buy whole hog into this:
Tom Brokaw gave them that name, and while it’s a bold claim, I wholly support it. They weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole they were a cut above the rest. One of the inspirations for Kate and I starting the Art of Manliness was our grandfathers. When I looked at them, and then at the men of today, the chasm of manliness seemed jarring. These are men cut from a different cloth of manliness; they simply don’t build them like that anymore. Their extraordinary manliness is not something you can scientifically measure. But you can sure feel it. And you can see it in old pictures. It seems every man back then was dashingly handsome; their manliness practically leaps off the page.
Jesus Christ. I think I need to smoke a cigarette after reading that.
While I have no particular beef with the World War II generation, except perhaps for its parenting skills, the idea that it consisted of men (and women) far and away greater than us is totally absurd. First, in the same situation (the Great Depression and World War II) is there any question that we would act in somewhat the same way? Not in my mind. Second, the World War II generation did some horrible things: placing the Japanese in concentration camps, resisting desegregating the military, mutilating Japanese corpses in the Pacific, moving to the suburbs so they wouldn't have to live near black people, etc. Not that we haven't done bad things too, but that's precisely the point; they were no better or worse than we are.
Moreover, some of the assertions about the manhood of this generation are totally without empirical evidence. My favorite from this Art of Manliness post is #4, Love Loyally.
The men of the Greatest Generation took their marriage vows seriously. Brokaw wrote, “It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option. I can’t remember one of my parents’ friends who was divorced. In the communities where we lived it was treated as a minor scandal.” The numbers bear Brokaw’s anecdotal evidence out: of all the new marriages in 1940, 1 in 6 ended in divorce. By the late 1990’s, that number was 1 in 2.
This was a time where there was no hanging out or “hooking up.” Men asked women on real dates, and had serious intentions in doing so. When a particular gal caught a man’s heart, he proposed, and they got hitched. And they were married for the next 60 years.
Even if they did stay married for 60 years, was this a good thing? How many couples stayed together through sexual abuse of children, domestic violence, alcoholism, affairs, women forced to stay in the home against their will, etc? A lot. An awful damn lot. Divorce is a good thing--it ends some horrible horrible situations and allows people to move on with their lives.
And when did this rise in divorce rates begin? By 1960--and some of this was the supposed committed men and women themselves getting divorced. Moreover, today divorce rates are actually going down. I don't know why this is, but I think it's pretty strong evidence that supposed lack of commitment in the modern generation is a bunch of hooey.
Finally, there's this to end the piece:
If there’s a common thread in these lessons, it’s having a common sense and a level-headed approach to life. In our day, when men are obsessing about finding themselves, their holy grail of a woman, and their “passion,” the Greatest Generation’s uncomplicated approach to life is refreshing. They didn’t go on a diet, they simply ate whole food; they didn’t exercise, they worked around the house; they didn’t obsess about their relationships, they just found a gal they loved and married her. They always looked sharp, but never fussed with fashion trends. They didn’t mull over which appliance better suited their personality and image, they just bought the machine that worked the best. They didn’t think about how to get things done, they just got em’ done. When Joe Foss, a celebrated and daring WWII pilot and then governor of South Dakota was asked if he missed his younger days, he said, “Oh no. I’m not a guy who missed anything from anywhere. I’ve always been a guy who just gets up and goes.” Instead of spending you time navel gazing your life away, just get up and go!
They didn't worry about going to prison, they just whacked their wife in the face. They weren't concerned with free speech, they just drove the commie out of his job. They didn't worry about gay rights, they just beat the queers up. They didn't worry about the dignity of their daughters, they just forced her to have her child in an institution. They didn't fret about political correctness, they just lynched the darkey.
Maybe my characterization of the World War II generation's dark side is overheated, but no more than so than the religious cult that has sprung up around them. And we really need a corrective. I agree that Cary Grant was a pretty suave guy, but can we please look at these people's lives in some kind of reasonable perspective. And for the love of God, not look at these men as some font of mythical masculinity to which can only futilely aspire.