The greatest generation

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Sullivan
  • 911th Air Refueling Squadron Commander

When Tom Brokaw's book “The Greatest Generation,” was published in 1998, the title quickly became the label for the generation of American GIs who changed the world. 

Today’s generation of Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen is similar in so many ways that it's being called the “Next Greatest Generation.” Our grandfathers trained, fought and died together and when they returned home, they were different from when they had left. They were tougher and more independent, but they were also wiser and had learned that by working together, they could change the world. After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation returned and built our modern society on the foundations of teamwork, self-sacrifice and a moral sense of right and wrong-the very same characteristics that carried them through the war. Their legacy to us is an America based on freedom, democracy and justice. I have no doubt the next greatest generation will pass on a world based on the same principles. 

The heroes of Greatest Generation were mostly 20-somethings during World War II. They were well led by the likes of Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur-some of the finest generals ever to command. However, it isn’t generals who win wars; it is the officers and NCOs who actually execute the plans, bringing order out of chaos when plans go awry. This was true then, and it is true today. D-Day was a shining example of what that generation’s young Soldiers could accomplish. The Allies had rehearsed detailed plans until everyone knew exactly who would be where and when. As we now know, the actual execution was an utter catastrophe. Despite meticulous planning, landing craft hit the beaches out of order and off course, the paratroopers dropped behind the beaches did not land together and the beach was more heavily defended than anticipated. Everything that could go wrong, did. What saved the day was the ingenuity and leadership of the 20-somethings on the battlefield. There were 26-year-old battalion commanders (the equivalent of Air Force squadron commanders) who rallied whatever Soldiers they could find and led them up the beach. The young officers and NCOs were committed to success, and they improvised, adapted and overcame. By 10 p.m. there were 175,000 U.S., British, and Canadian troops in France. It was the beginning of the end for the Nazis. 

When this generation got the call to duty the day after Pearl Harbor, there wasn’t a clear explanation of how a tyrannical regime threatened the American heartland, but they answered nevertheless, and went overseas. Sixty years ago, America’s leaders understood the threat and committed the country to defending freedom abroad. Today, advances in travel, telecommunication, and a global economy based on the free flow of goods and information mean that events in Southwest and Central Asia affect us even more than events in Europe affected our country in the 1940s. There is no question today that standing up to Germany and Japan was the right thing to do. 

Speaking at Normandy on the 20th Anniversary of D-Day, Gen. Eisenhower said “It’s a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows were fighting for, and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own.” The same words could be said about Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Airmen. Just as the greatest generation answered the call sixty years ago and rewrote history, today’s heroes are also changing the world.
Although they probably didn’t realize it, when the greatest generation defeated the Axis, removed their tyrannical leaders and established stable democratic governments in their place, the change had a profound effect on the world. Germany and Japan became barriers against an oppressive Soviet Union and China. 

Establishing stable, democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan may well have the same effect with respect to rogue nations in Asia. I’m confident that sixty years from now today’s Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Airmen will be remembered with the same respect and admiration we feel for the greatest generation. I am honored for the privilege of serving with Airmen and am thankful for the opportunity to command them as they change the world during these difficult times. Their legacy will be a better world for our children and grandchildren.