The Greatest Generation's Historian


Mr. Confessore is a senior writer at the American Prospect.

The following article appeared in volume 12, Issue 17 of The American Prospect (September 24-October 8, 2001).

This June, for the second time in their lives, the men of Easy Company invaded Normandy. It was considerably easier than the first time. From New York City, the surviving veterans flew in a chartered jet--courtesy of American Airlines--to Paris, where they boarded a chartered train to the town of Carentan, courtesy of HBO, and were deposited at the Utah Beach Memorial on the 57th anniversary of D day.

There, boasted a flurry of HBO press releases, several dozen construction workers had labored mightily to build an 80-square-foot high-definition movie screen, a viewing tent, and a reception area that could accommodate up to 1,000 guests,"as well as lounge and bar space." The occasion for all this was not so much the annual D-day commemoration, which was squeezed in after lunch, but an event that had for all intents and purposes replaced it: the star-studded premiere of Band of Brothers--a $125-million television miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, telling the true-life story of Easy Company, and appearing on a TV screen near you in early September.

Like almost everything Spielberg has touched, Band of Brothers will probably be a great success. But like D day itself, the miniseries is only part of a larger endeavor--one that began, fittingly, with the publication of Ambrose's book a decade ago. Over the years, Ambrose, Spielberg, and the television journalist Tom Brokaw have produced a body of loosely collaborative, thematically intertwined works about World War II, including a number of hugely popular books by Ambrose; Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, for which Ambrose served as a consultant; Brokaw's Greatest Generation book trilogy (largely inspired by Ambrose's D-Day and Citizen Soldiers) and related NBC specials (narrated in part by Ambrose); and Ambrose's National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, for which Brokaw and Spielberg have been major donors. Besides their obvious mutual interest in martial affairs, the historian, the filmmaker, and the journalist have come to share a sense of mission. They seek not to entertain but to educate. And they claim to offer a new, more accurate chronicle of World War II--films told"from the dogface's point of view," a journalism that will"pay tribute to those men and women who have given us the lives we lead today," a history of"who they were, how they fought, why they fought, what they endured, how they triumphed."

Instead, they have advanced a history in which victory is unambiguous and celebrating the past is the same thing as remembering it. Though sentimental and synthetic, their account of the war is also widely embraced and lucrative. Band of Brothers, D-Day, and Citizen Soldiers all have been best-selling books. Anyone who has not made it through Ambrose's many tomes has likely read his newspaper columns, watched him on a chat show, or listened to him narrate a documentary. Saving Private Ryan was among the top-grossing movies of 1998, its success almost single-handedly having revived the World War II genre in Hollywood. Brokaw's books have sold more than five million copies, and his television specials are even more popular. For many Americans, World War II has been replaced by World War II--written by Stephen E. Ambrose, directed by Steven Spielberg, hosted by Tom Brokaw, and starring Tom Hanks.


The triumph of this World War II industry owes much to the rise of Ambrose. Among historians, he earned his reputation when, as a 28-year-old Civil War scholar at the University of New Orleans (UNO), he was selected to help edit the personal papers of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Soon after these were published in 1970, Ambrose produced what is still considered his most significant work, The Supreme Commander, a nuanced, meticulously researched work that gave Eisenhower much more credit than he had previously received for the success of the Allied forces. During the next decade, Ambrose published a number of respectable but modest-selling scholarly works, including a primer on American foreign policy, several monographs, and a 1981 book on Eisenhower and the rise of the postwar intelligence establishment titled Ike's Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment. On the whole, Ambrose was a young, promising scholar doomed, like most young and promising scholars, to a life of noble obscurity.

But it wasn't long before Ambrose ditched academia for the cushier provinces of"popular" history. In 1983 he published Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952--essentially a shorter version of The Supreme Commander, stripped of scholarly paraphernalia and marketed to the general reader. Eisenhower: The President appeared a scant year later, leading one otherwise friendly critic to note in the journal Reviews in American History that the second volume gave"the appearance of being written at greater speed and with somewhat less reflection" than the first. And no wonder: By 1983--after launching the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, a research institute at UNO--Ambrose had moved to London to begin interviewing D-day veterans. These interviews formed the basis of his book Pegasus Bridge (1985), a short, straightforward reconstruction of an early but pivotal D-day battle. For the next seven years, Ambrose continued to collect D-day interviews while writing a three-volume biography of Richard Nixon.

In 1992 Ambrose published Band of Brothers. It was his first best-seller and, along with his 1994 blockbuster D-Day, made Ambrose the most widely read--and most identifiable--historian in America. He has occupied this perch ever since, thanks to an annual output that can only be described as diarrheal. Over the past nine years, Ambrose has authored nine full-length books; contributed to six essay collections and edited five other volumes, including a revised edition of C.L. Sulzberger's mammoth American Heritage New History of World War II; and penned forewords--endorsements?--for at least 18 other books. (This tally does not include Stephen E. Ambrose's World War II 2001 Calendar.) During the same period, Ambrose has written dozens of op-eds and features for every major newspaper in the country; reviewed books for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs; and published the occasional longer article in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, where he is listed as a contributing editor.

In addition to his writing, Ambrose remained the titular director of the Eisenhower Center until 1994, when he stepped down to launch the National D-Day Museum. Not counting his work with Spielberg, Ambrose has narrated, written, or consulted for a half dozen major documentaries and television specials; aside from his collaborations with Brokaw, he has been a frequent guest on PBS, CNN, NBC'S Today Show, and CNBC's Hardball. And though he took emeritus status at UNO in 1995, Ambrose remains immensely popular on the lecture circuit, where he commands a reported $40,000 per engagement plus transportation on a private plane.

So how has Ambrose managed to sustain this deluge? Partly by hiring a devoted army of research assistants, but mostly by becoming an efficient and unabashed recycler of his own work. Ambrose's chapter in this spring's No End Save Victory collection was, in a previous life, a chapter in Citizen Soldiers--a 1997 book that itself contains bits and pieces from Band of Brothers. The Good Fight, published this May and aimed at the children's market, is essentially a simplified combination of Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers. Though Comrades: Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals (1999) is partly an account of Ambrose's relationships with his brothers, father, and pals, it consists largely of reworked passages from Band of Brothers and his previous books on Lewis and Clark, Crazy Horse and General Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon. For The Victors (1998), Ambrose threw together large chunks of Eisenhower, Pegasus Bridge, Band of Brothers, D-Day, and Citizen Soldiers to produce what one reviewer glowingly described as a" compilation of his greatest hits." (If that's your fancy, Simon and Schuster has issued The Best of Stephen Ambrose, a three-volume gift set clocking in at more than 1,200 pages.) His book Americans at War (1997) contains essays on Ulysses S. Grant's win at Vicksburg, President Nixon's Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and other episodes--almost all of them covered in previous Ambrose works. And his contribution to the collection Character Above All: Ten Presidents from FDR to George Bush (1996) comes, like so much else, from the Eisenhower trove. As Ambrose has said of meeting Eisenhower,"I was filled with awe and reverence, all of that. But the emotion I felt above all was opportunity."

Ambrose's books are then broken down into his stock newspaper articles. Naturally, most of these recount World War II anniversaries or the occasional Civil War battle, but Ambrose also likes to compare U.S. presidents--either Eisenhower and somebody (Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton) or Nixon and somebody (George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton). He not only makes new books from old books; he makes new op-eds from old op-eds. A devoted Ambrose fan will thus read about how the young GIs"wanted to throw baseballs, not grenades, shoot a .22 rifle, not an M-1" first in D-Day, then again in Band of Brothers, and then again in a cluster of World War II-themed newspaper pieces. Likewise, a passage from Citizen Soldiers about how"they went to school on the GI Bill of Rights, and then they started building the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the modern corporation," and so forth, turns up again in several columns urging the creation of a World War II memorial and in a piece musing about heroism in the age of political correctness.

And like any good historian-pundit, Ambrose is more than willing to pontificate on subjects outside his purview, such as sexual-harassment law:"Decades ago," he reminisced in one Washington Post column,"it was widely accepted in this country" that"boys would be boys because they couldn't help themselves. That was why we had separate dorms for boys and girls in college, and chaperons at dances." Or genetics:"Between 1950 and today, basketball players' height, weight, speed, and skills have increased by astonishing proportions," he wrote in Forbes."There apparently is no upper limit." Or lung disease: During a 1994 lawsuit, this Certified Professional Historian testified, on behalf of the tobacco company Lorillard, Inc., that folks have known the dangers of tobacco smoke since the nineteenth century.

There is, of course, no sin in being a popular, successful author. And Ambrose has on occasion put his fame to noble use. He has agitated for reclamation of the Missouri River and against runaway defense spending. He's donated a significant amount of his own money back to the University of New Orleans, the Eisenhower Center, and the National D-Day Museum. And for many historians and former GIs, Ambrose's efforts in collecting some 2,000 oral histories from the fast-dwindling ranks of D-day veterans is nothing less than a public service.

But in becoming perhaps the nation's preeminent example of the academic as entrepreneur, Ambrose has introduced to his millions of readers a profoundly distorted view of America at war. He underplays, for instance, the contributions of Great Britain, which bore the brunt of the Axis assault alone for a year between the fall of France and Hitler's invasion of Russia. In his haste to present the United States as a united democracy dutifully tramping off to battle, he ignores the vicious ideological divisions at home during the war years (as in 1942, when voters dealt a sharp rebuke to Rooseveltian internationalism by sending a slate of Taft Republicans to the House of Representatives). Nor did most Americans fight--as an Ambrose reader might think--to liberate France, to free the Jews, or"because they didn't want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed." As a wide array of writing on soldiers' motivations during the war makes clear, most American GIs fought out of loyalty to one another or because, in the end, they had no choice. Those who embraced a broader cause sought revenge against Japan, not Germany.

In Ambrose's view, D day was"the climactic battle of World War II," the war itself a"test of national systems" in"which democracy proved better able to produce young men who could be made into superb soldiers than Nazi Germany." But as Benjamin Schwarz notes in a recent Atlantic Monthly essay, it is widely accepted among academic historians that the pivotal battle of the European theater was fought at either Stalingrad or Kursk, not Normandy, and that--as distasteful as the idea may be--far more German soldiers were killed by the children of Stalinist Russia than by the children of democracy.

Yet such empty sloganeering represents what little critical thinking Ambrose brings to his subjects."You are a story-teller, not God," Ambrose has written of his approach to writing,"so your job is not to pass judgments but to explain, illustrate, inform and entertain." For most historians, this kind of thinking--that taking a position amounts to partisanship, that rigorous inquiry demands a pretension to deity--is heresy. For Ambrose, it is a methodology. With the exception of D-Day (which incorporates a fair amount of Ambrose's earlier archival and documentary research on Eisenhower), his writing on World War II relies almost exclusively on oral interviews conducted decades after the fact. With few exceptions, he neither raises nor attempts to settle any questions of historical importance; he doesn't uncover new information and doesn't even venture a particular interpretation. He does not write history or even popular history, but merely chronology.

As a consequence, Ambrose's later books, though bestsellers, are not considered important or useful by academic historians. Despite his celebrity among readers, veterans, and much of the Army brass, Ambrose does not enjoy as close a relationship with the military's academic institutions as some of his predecessors and contemporaries have. The most prominent of these--such as Temple University's Russell Weighley or Ohio State University's Allan Millett--have mentored generations of future West Point and U.S. Army War College instructors; Ambrose, largely because UNO's history department lacks a doctoral program, has not. (For the same reason, Ambrose has no real academic protégés, either. Douglas Brinkley, who succeeded Ambrose as director of the Eisenhower Center, earned his Ph.D. at Georgetown University.) Indeed, with the exception of Eisenhower and the German POWs (1992) and Eisenhower: A Centenary Assessment (1995)--both symposium collections co-edited with Gunter Bischof--Ambrose has published no scholarly books or articles in more than a decade.

Nevertheless, Ambrose's academic credentials remain the foundation upon which the World War II industry is built. If Ambrose is the gruff, avuncular voice of academic authority, Brokaw--author of The Greatest Generation (1998) and two sequels--is his journalistic shill. A compilation of short profiles, The Greatest Generation stakes out broader territory than Ambrose's books do; the presence of union activists, female pilots, and Japanese-American internees lends it a semblance of balance. But like Ambrose, Brokaw relies heavily on oral interviews and bookends them with sections of commentary, insists on rendering the war as a uniquely American triumph, and makes promiscuous--and revealing--use of the word they.

"They helped convert a wartime economy into the most powerful peacetime economy in history," he writes."They made breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences. They gave the world new art and literature." Though Brokaw concedes that"they made mistakes"--among them, allowing"McCarthyism and racism to go unchallenged for too long" and resisting equal rights for women--there is no doubt in his mind that"they are the greatest generation any society has ever produced."

Though such platitudes echo Ambrose's D-Day and Citizen Soldiers, Brokaw's fixation with the tired idea of"generation" helps illuminate one of the more exasperating Ambrosisms: history by demographic. Contrary to both Ambrose and Brokaw, age groups do not write novels, paint watercolors, or invent better pesticides--individuals do. Like any group composed of millions of disparate individuals,"they" certainly"made mistakes." But as a factual matter, some of"them" were on the right side of the struggle for women's equality, and others were on the wrong side. Some courageously opposed Senator Joseph McCarthy from the beginning, some came later to the fight, and some, it needs saying, never came at all.

And while postwar America certainly would have been a better place if the Greatest Generation had"stood up to Jim Crow and licked him" (as Ambrose puts it) and" came to understand the need for federal civil rights legislation" (as Brokaw writes), the reality was rather different. The foot soldiers of civil rights--the freedom riders, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee organizers--were mostly the younger siblings or children of the Greatest Generation. Though World War II veterans like Medgar Evers would go on to become civil-rights leaders and elder statesmen, members of the Greatest Generation were more often bystanders to the conflict or, worse, those who stood in the schoolhouse door. Among the many men who fought at D day was future Senator Strom Thurmond; before he saw the need for federal civil rights legislation, Thurmond embodied the dreams of those millions of Americans who in 1948 hoped to put a segregationist in the White House.

Brokaw professes to be"in awe" of his subjects, but it's hard to see how his brand of cheap praise does them any justice. Heroism and virtue properly reside with individuals, not generations; casting the men and women of the World War II era as a monolithic Greatest Generation strips them of their agency--and of the capacity for sacrifice. If everyone is a hero, after all, then no one is a hero.

Spielberg, at least, is more subtle. on its face, Saving Private Ryan is much less romantic than Ambrose's or Brokaw's books; its depiction of the Normandy invasion is so graphic and unrelenting that some conservative pundits were moved to suspect the famously liberal Spielberg of a plot to turn Americans into peaceniks. While Ambrose and Brokaw are hacks, Spielberg is a conscientious, thoughtful filmmaker (especially by Hollywood standards). And as a committed fabulist, he owes somewhat less fidelity to the past than historians and journalists do. Directors are by definition dealers in myth--even those who claim, as Spielberg does in the Saving Private Ryan coffee-table book, to approach a movie"the way a documentary filmmaker would have approached it."

Still, Ambrose's influence on Spielberg is obvious. Though Saving Private Ryan is dominated by two long and justly praised battle sequences, the meat of the story lies in between them. Soon after the D-day invasion, a diligent Army secretary discovers that three soldiers with the last name of Ryan, all brothers, have recently been killed in action. A fourth has parachuted into Normandy and may still be alive, and so a squad of eight men is dispatched to find him. The central character is not, however, Matt Damon's Private Ryan; it's Tom Hanks's Captain Williams, who leads the search crew and begins the movie's second act by deriding his task as a"public-relations mission." In war, Williams says to his sergeant,"you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two, or three, or ten, or maybe a hundred... . And that's how simple it is. That's how you rationalize the choice between the mission and the men." The sergeant replies:"Except this time the mission is a man."

But Ryan isn't a man. Barely fleshed out and only a minor presence in the film, he is merely an incarnation of the Ambrosian virtues: sacrifice, fortitude, democracy. The search for Private Ryan is really a quest for moral epiphany. So by the time Ryan is found defending a strategic bridge in a burned-out French hamlet, the soldiers in Williams's unit realize that they are not simply saving a person but proving a principle."We do that," a soldier intones just before the second big battle,"maybe we all earn the right to go home." Most of the squad, including the captain, proceed to die rather horribly--but they know, as we know, that they didn't die for nothing.

Thus, Saving Private Ryan is really two films. The first is one of the most stark, demanding accounts of war ever filmed; the second is as sentimental and didactic as anything in the director's portfolio, a fantasy for grown-ups just as E.T. is for children. A climactic cameo by Indiana Jones, punching out Nazis with a single blow, would not have been all that out of place. (In the end, Spielberg resorts to a more conventional deus ex machina: As German tanks advance menacingly upon our heroes' last redoubt, an American P-51 appears out of nowhere to blow the bad guys to smithereens. The bridge is saved, and so is democracy.)

Spielberg has said that Saving Private Ryan, though largely inspired by Ambrose's D-Day, is fiction. But there was a real Private Ryan, of sorts. In a brief, perfunctory paragraph in Ambrose's Band of Brothers, Easy Company's Fritz Niland learns that he has lost three brothers--two at Normandy and one in the Pacific theater, as in Saving Private Ryan-- to enemy fire. In real life, if not in the movies, Niland is quickly located a few miles inland of Utah Beach, placed on a plane, and whisked back to his mother in the United States without incident.

But if America did not actually send a taciturn sergeant, a tough Italian, a gun-loving southerner, a bookish Yankee, a neurotic Jew, and a wisecracking New Yorker to save a corn-fed farm boy, it is precisely the kind of thing we like to remember we did. Like the classic"platoon" films of the postwar era--The Sands of Iwo Jima and Battleground, among others--Saving Private Ryan evokes our own longings for an imagined past, for an idealized, pluralist America. But the utter verisimilitude of the movie's overture lends a patina of fact to the nostalgic, romantic symphony that follows, so Spielberg can claim the high ground of history.

And he does. As with the politically correct, historically incorrect Amistad--which DreamWorks mailed, complete with"study guide," to some 20,000 college and high-school teachers in 1998--Saving Private Ryan aspires to be more than a mere movie. Among the film's many spin-offs is a remarkable book titled Now You Know: Reactions after Seeing"Saving Private Ryan." Published by DreamWorks and America Online, Now You Know contains a selection of some 30,000 postings to AOL's Saving Private Ryan chat rooms; many of the writers clearly see the movie as a reliable guide to the past--a line of thinking that DreamWorks and AOL seem happy to promote. As AOL Chairman Steve Case puts it in the book's preface,"Saving Private Ryan wasn't going to be just a film" but"a profound and personal experience for millions of Americans." He adds:"You could almost picture our members stumbling out of the theaters and, with their eyes still damp and their emotions still raw, logging onto AOL to share their memories and feelings... . The Saving Private Ryan message board had become the center of a national conversation about this film."

If Saving Private Ryan is at least nominally fiction, the miniseries Band of Brothers--which has the same creative team, the same cinematographer, and even some of the same sets--seems likely to blur further the distinction between history and memory. Consider, as a kind of window into the corporate id, the press releases on HBO's Band of Brothers Web site:"Our goal," quoth HBO executive Bruce Richmond,"was to seamlessly blend supporting the miniseries itself, creating an experiential journey, and building an enduring living memorial where community activity of this nature could take place for years to come."

To that end, the Band of Brothers site offers chat rooms, a"Resource Center," and, most interestingly, a"Living Memorial" where veterans and their families are invited to"share stories, letters and photos from WWII." But be warned:"Should you decide to contribute a story to the Living Memorial, your story will be recorded for posterity and possible use on the website or television program relating to World War II. By contributing your story, you agree to give HBO full use of your transcribed story and to be identified by your name if it appears in your story." The commercialization of history is disconcerting enough; the corporatization of memory is downright ominous.

Granted, it's easy to take such marketing bravado too seriously. But together, Spielberg, Ambrose, and Brokaw command a disturbingly vast audience. Why?

A major theme of all their work (and, indeed, much of the coverage that it has inspired in the press) is the explicit, ungenerous comparison of the Greatest Generation and what Brokaw describes, with evident discomfort, as"another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers." Since all three are themselves boomers, along with most of their imitators and much of their audience, it's hard not to see such uneasiness as self-loathing. If the heroes we enshrine inevitably reflect deeper preoccupations, then it's revealing that the World War II industry took off in the mid-1990s, just as the long-awaited political ascendance of the boomers--epitomized by early Clintonism, an idealistic creed in which ideas trumped character--seemed to have gone horribly awry. Against that background, the embrace of the Greatest Generation by their once-rebellious children seems like nothing so much as an act of belated filial piety. Not unexpectedly, many boomers began to search for new heroes--heroes who would reflect the values that they had spurned in their youth. And like so many people in so many eras, they settled upon a Cincinnatus.

In April 1995, Ambrose published the first of several columns that advocated the presidential candidacy of Colin Powell. Predictably, they took the form of a comparison between Eisenhower, the great hero of World War II, and Powell, the great hero of Operation Desert Storm (and, as a proud Vietnam veteran, a kind of anti-boomer boomer)."Like Ike, Powell is not going to seek the office," Ambrose wrote."He must be convinced that he has a duty to run and there is genuine public support." Readers were informed--nay, assured--that"no professional politicians were involved in the Citizens for Eisenhower clubs that sprang up spontaneously in 1951" and that"it is the same for the Citizens for Colin Powell organizations." (At the time, Ambrose was a board member of Citizens for Colin Powell.) Moreover,"Powell shares another quality with Ike. When people look at him, whether they are conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, he makes them proud to be Americans." And of Powell's qualifications for office?"Soldiers," Ambrose lectured,"spend their lives learning how to lead." In any case, he wrote in a version of the essay that appeared several months later in Newsweek,"most people don't choose a president based on his position on the 55-mph speed limit, or even abortion. They want someone who inspires them."

For Ambrose, Powell was the classic war-hero politician: a potential leader whose greatest political virtue is his lack of politics. When Ambrose wrote that Powell took"the demoralized U.S. Army of the 1973-1975 period"--the early post-Vietnam years--and turned it into"the best army in the world," the historian may well have hoped that Powell would do something similar for the republic itself. But Ambrose was not alone. For a man who never declared his candidacy and never set out to build a political base, enthusiasm for Powell was remarkably wide. The same month that Ambrose urged us to"draft Colin Powell," Gallup gauged Powell's personal approval rating-- admittedly, a crude measure--at an astonishing 72 percent, far higher than that of any other potential candidate for the White House at the time. His rating remained in that range throughout 1995 and early 1996, when American politics was widely deemed relentlessly vicious and hopelessly partisan, and it has only risen since.

Whatever his virtues and faults, Powell seemed to understand how unlikely he was to live up to such expectations; like Cincinnatus, he declined to run. But the imprint of his non-candidacy continues to pervade American politics--from the astounding deference paid to former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska this spring, when The New York Times Magazine revealed his role in a 1969 massacre of civilians in Vietnam; to the refusal of Beltway politicians even to consider rethinking plans to build a World War II monument on the National Mall; to, most significantly, the rise of John McCain. During the 2000 presidential-election campaign, McCain--a likable, opportunistic, and previously unaccomplished Arizona senator--was widely touted as the only worthwhile thing in Washington. Other politicians might have had the endorsements, the policies, and the votes, but only he, it seemed, could"restore honor"--as one major profile put it--to American politics.

McCain--more accurately, McCainia--was Powellism taken to the extreme. The story of his capture, torture, and imprisonment in Vietnam is well known, the course of his life arguably inspiring and even heroic, and his personal appeal obvious. But while Powell's vaguely centrist opinions somehow authenticated his vaguely centrist appeal, McCain emerged as a dark-horse contender for the White House in spite of his politics. Though McCain spent most of the campaign aligned with his party's conservative wing, his apostasy on a few issues--all of them widely supported by the American public, though not by the GOP leadership--was and is taken by many as evidence that he is above petty politics. He isn't, of course. But war-hero candidates--McCain, Powell, Eisenhower--are popular precisely because they are Rorschach candidates. As empty vessels, they are more easily pressed into service as symbols. In politics, McCain is the pluperfect symbol of boomer regret: insolent in youth, a redemptive Vietnam War hero in middle age, and a postpartisan crusader today.

But it's troubling that we need him to be. If the popularity of a Colin Powell or a John McCain reveals a desperate thirst for heroism in American life, it also exposes the sheer poverty of our expectations. Ultimately, the wide embrace of old war heroes--like the wide embrace of an old war--reveals less about the past than it does about the present. The Greatest Generation does not require an Oliver Stone; it already produced a Norman Mailer, a Joseph Heller, and a Studs Terkel. But there is something cynical about the idea that our greatest generation resides in the past--and something decadent about investing citizen-soldiers with the unique ability to create and nourish democracy. The Greatest Generation deserves more. So do the rest of us.

Mr. Confessore can be reached at:

Copyright © 2001 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Nicholas Confessore,"Selling Private Ryan," (original title)The American Prospect vol. 12 no. 17, September 24, 2001 - October 8, 2001. This article is reprinted with permission of the American Prospect.

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Rosalind C. Hays - 2/7/2002

A minor point about this interesting article: Confessore's point about the stance taken by Ambrose, Brokaw, and Spielberg looks at them explicitly as members of the "boomer" generation. Brokaw and Ambrose were born in the 1930s, according to my almanac (perhaps not the world's best reference tool). Spielberg is indeed a "boomer" (according to the same source), but Brokaw and Ambrose are part of the "skipped" generation who will never produce a U.S. president.