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Columbia Business Monthly

Greatest Generation

May 02, 2018 10:30PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Temple Ligon

  In 1998, television journalist Tom Brokaw published his book, The Greatest Generation, which praised our country’s citizens of the Depression and the WWII eras. Brokaw called them “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”

With a population of 135 million in 1942, the United States had more than 16 million members of the armed services in the war effort. All told, more than 400,000 Americans in the military were killed.

Roughly in the same time frame and against the same enemies, the Russians suffered more than 25 million killed when their population was 170 million. The Japanese, with a population of 71 million, had 3 million killed in the war; and the Germans and their 70 million population lost almost 6 million. Total war dead came to 60 million worldwide when the world’s population was 2 billion.

Tough times call for tough people.

During the Vietnam War, 1965-1973, the United States suffered more than 58,000 killed. In 1968, the American population was about 200 million. Total American military who served in South Vietnam during the war was 2.6 million, and about 25 percent were draftees while the other three-fourths volunteered.

World War II was called The Good War—just about everybody participated somehow—and Vietnam was called a dirty little war, the one no one wanted but at the time it was all we had, as the military professionals put it.

For most of the run of the Great Depression and then World War II, the United States had continuous and popular leadership in President Roosevelt, a great war president. During the Vietnam War, however, the United States was under the presidential leaderships of Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, and none can be called a great war president.

Trying not to overstate the case, it was easy to jump onboard during World War II. Everybody was getting in, including the girls along the home front. A man in uniform wore an automatic dame magnet. World War II was cool.

In South Vietnam, especially after the Tet Offensive of early 1968, the American forces had to go out on night ambush patrol while their girlfriends marched on campus against the war. Bill Clinton, physically and intellectually up to the task, evaded the military. Visionary Clinton could see ahead when introductions in Yale Law School to women like Hillary would be more successful without a military past to disclose. The Vietnam War was not cool.

Still, the baby boomer generation, almost 70 million Americans born between World War II and Vietnam, 1945-1964, stepped up to the plate, even after Tet ’68. The number of young men available for military service was so huge, so unnecessarily large, the draft could pick and choose for the few actually needed. Reports of draft deferments due to severe acne were not uncommon. Here in South Carolina, a former state senator, now 70 years old, said when he was called up for the draft, he was rejected because he was allergic to bees. Allergic to bees? The men taken in for military service were allergic to bullets, not bees, but that didn’t keep them out. They served their country, as uncool that might have been.

I was an independent type, marching to the beat of my own drum, at least among my baby boomer peers. It was a time among draft-eligible young American men to put up or shut up, taking the heat from the boomer generation either way. New York Mayor John Lindsay said the real heroes of the Vietnam War were the protesters, and that was something of a majority position.

It was easy to object to the war and to burn your draft card and to score a date at a war protest rally.

But it was hard to come forward to fight for your country. A man in uniform was not wearing a chick magnet. In fact, a military uniform was a chick repellent.

In the spring of 1968, President Johnson told the nation he was stopping the bombing in Vietnam and he also dropped his own bomb. He was not going to run for re-election.

A little later, early May, Dr. Martin Luther King was shot at his motel room in Memphis, and major American cities were set ablaze.

That did it. I joined the army on May 13, 1968. All that upheaval 50 years ago and I jumped into the middle of it.

Brokaw has his Greatest Generation, and they were great. Look at what they did.

But I have the boys in the baby boomers, the ones who did it just because the Sixties was their time and Vietnam was their war. Their leadership might have fallen down on the job, not too inspiring, but the boomer boys knew that in a republic where we elect these people to make decisions for us, we have to back those decisions or we don’t have a country.