After years of treating the Greatest Generation with reverence, years in which late-life oral testimonies have established that generation’s quietly reflective bearing, it’s a jolt to read, say, James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, and find the heroes of World War II portrayed so anti-heroically, much the way veterans of our later wars have more typically been portrayed. Near the end of that work, Jones—a Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal veteran—has Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt holed up at his prostitute girlfriend’s Honolulu rental on December 7, 1941, AWOL after shivving a noncommissioned officer. In the midst of a days-long bender financed by his girlfriend, Prewitt has slept through the Japanese attack, waking up only to hear the radio reports, blame those “dirty German bastards,” and resume drinking. Violating curfew, he later attempts to sneak back to his unit and is shot dead by friendly fire.
Meanwhile, his comrades have mobilized for the beach, fearing invasion:
Going through the back streets of town, all along the route, men, women and children stood on porches fences cartops and roofs and cheered them roundly. They waved Winnie Churchill’s V for Victory sign at them, and held their thumbs up in the air. Young girls threw them kisses. Mothers of young girls, with tears in their eyes, urged their daughters to throw them more kisses.
The troops, looking wistfully at all this ripe young stuff running around loose that they could not get into, and remembering the old days when civilian girls were not allowed—and did not desire—to speak to soldiers on the street in broad daylight let alone at night in a bar, gave them back the old one-finger salute of the clenched fist jabbing the stiff middle finger into the air.
Given their experiences, Jones and other author-veterans (Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller) had little problem striking disrespectful tones. But at least since Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation project, there has been a general reticence to address the socially disfiguring aspects of that conflict. The 1998 smash movie Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s subsequent Band of Brothers (which between them garnered an army’s worth of Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes) did take a hideous leap forward in portraying physical disfigurement. But despite the depictions of bodily harm, which served partly to amplify the heroic strains, these works were still notably protective of their characters’ dignity. The leads were allowed to be most heavyhearted—say, after having to take out a foe whose humanity was briefly glimpsed—but hard-heartedness was kept generally to the casting margins, or acknowledged under the cover of exigency.