Was our father's generation smarter than we?
I began thinking about this last week while watching news footage of the tragic Minnesota bridge collapse. The issue reared its head again at a Reflector editorial board meeting earlier this week.
I tend to think they were.
After World War II and America's subsequent emergence as a world superpower, those who ran our country set about to mimic our success on the battlefield on the home front. They built bridges, the interstate highway system, dams, levies, water and sewage systems, public schools, etc., creating a wonderful infrastructure that largely made possible the incredible prosperity of the second half of the 20th century.
While there were certainly debates over how to pay for these projects, there was general agreement that these things were necessary to secure our future; that they would strengthen our nation; and that they would benefit nearly every man, woman and child.
Where is that kind of thinking today, while many of these edifices are collapsing around us?
While most of my adult experience has been in Virginia, I imagine things are pretty much the same everywhere. Virginia is home to the Washington, D.C. and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas, two of the most prosperous, fastest-growing regions of the country. Population has been exploding, yet the state government has steadfastly refused to spend a penny to alleviate the massive traffic congestion. Road systems built to support a quarter of the population have been deteriorating quickly and are increasingly hazardous, as are bridges and tunnels that are as much as five miles long.
Nor are they willing to do anything to fund higher education, forcing tuition hikes that are quickly putting a college education out of reach for any except the most affluent. Our fathers thought that the opportunity to receive a college education should be within the grasp of any American who desired it, particularly those who interrupted and risked their lives to defend the nation. It was they, not we, who developed the G.I. Bill, Pell grants, etc.
And it doesn't end with spending priorities. The biggest issue of our time, of course, is the Iraq war. Regardless of whether you supported the invasion, it's hard to escape the conclusion that things there have not gone well.
Even if one accepts initial claims that Saddam Hussein was a threat to us and that he was harboring weapons of mass destruction and aiding terrorists and that's being generous in light of what we've come to find there I can't help but think Eisenhower might have gone about things differently.
Many of our leaders admit (some even proudly) they did not know there were two Muslim sects Sunnis and Shia and that the two didn't think much of each other. It seems not to have occurred to anyone anyone who kept his or her job at least that our invasion might unleash an insurgency or even a civil war.
What makes the entire situation even more maddening is that we, or rather, our fathers, had successful experience for us to draw upon and we apparently completely ignored it.
In 1943, with Britain's extended empire weakened, the Army was concerned that the Nazis were trying to stir up trouble in the Middle East. In response, it deployed several units to Iraq to engage in reconnaissance. To help prepare the young soldiers who would be deployed in this strange, exotic land, the Army printed up a little 44-page pamphlet that included basically everything the soldiers needed to know. It included many interesting nuggets of information like this one:
"That tall man in the flowing robe you are going to see soon, with the whiskers and the long hair, is a first-class fighting man, highly skilled in guerrilla warfare. Few fighters in any country, in fact, excel him in that kind of situation. If he is your friend, he can be a staunch and valuable ally. If he should happen to be your enemy watch out!"
An illustration shows U.S. soldiers briskly walking away from a mosque to make the point that Muslims "resent unbelievers coming close to mosques."
Some U.S. soldiers in the present conflict have reported they received basically no information on what to expect when they arrived in Iraq.
You know, those guys that put that pamphlet out were pretty smart. (Chicago University has reprinted it, but so far, no takers at the Pentagon). No wonder they call our fathers' "The Greatest Generation." I wonder what our sons will call us?