The Greatest Generation is a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw to describe the generation of Americans who grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity within the war’s home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort.
I am fortunate that this is the generation my grandparents were a part of.
In particular, my Grandpa Johnson was a WWII Veteran. Though I seldom heard him talk about his war experiences, I know that they deeply impacted him. I remember one visit with him, shortly after the movie, Schindler’s List, came out. My mom asked him if he was planning on seeing the movie. My Grandpa responded, “Why would I see the movie? I saw it in real life and have no desire to see it again.”
My Great Uncle Bill is also a WWII Veteran. For him, being a veteran is part of his identity; Something that he takes pride in and finds honor in (as he should.) Because of Uncle Bill, I grew up hearing stories from WWII and now appreciate the sacrifices of his generation.
Unfortunately, few of today’s youth have had similar experiences because for the most part, their grandparents are Baby Boomers, a generation removed from the Greatest Generation. Few personally know people from the Greatest Generation and even fewer have actually heard war stories told by this generation.
Following a profound experience with some of my youth at the World War II Museum in New Orleans this summer as part of the ELCA’s Youth Gathering, this fall, I knew that I wanted to talk more about the idea of Just War with my youth and connect them with a generation that understands the cost of war.
To do that, last week, I invited a member of our church, Betty, to come speak to our youth. Betty is a military veteran who served our country as a navy nurse from 1943 – 1946. As she shared her experiences, I was amazed at the respect that our youth gave her, and at the way they sat riveted, listening intently to this 89 year old’s stories.
At one point, one of our adult leaders asked Betty, “Was the war worth the cost?”
Betty then proceeded to talk about the personal cost of war, telling our youth about a young boy who arrived in her ward, injured from the Pacific. She said that his eye was dangling out of its socket, in his hand, and that despite their best efforts, it could not be saved. That’s the cost of war. To a generation that has grown up during a time of war and yet has had to bare little of that cost, this was a profound statement.
Betty also talked about how her generation willingly sacrificed for their country but questioned whether or not if a draft began today, our youth would still respond with a valor similar to that of her generation.
Betty’s comments led to a fascinating discussion amongst our youth about just war. Using the just war principles established by St. Augustine in the 400s, we wrestled with whether or not the wars we are currently fighting are just; with how church’s should respond to unjust wars; and with how we, individually and collectively, can support and honor the troops who sacrifice so much for us. We concluded our discussion by wrestling with what it means to be a carrier of the Gospel of the Peace (Ephesians 6:15) and peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) during a time of war.
The discussion was rich, challenging, and thought-provoking – largely because of Betty’s presence and her willingness to share her story and thoughts.
I pray that in the time we are still blessed to have people from Betty’s generation with us that we will take the time to listen to their stories, to learn from them, and to follow in their footsteps and be willing to sacrifice for others and for the pursuit of peace.