The Good Depression
How hardship steeled the Greatest Generation for their greatest challenge.
The day will come when American presidents will no longer feel compelled to visit the beaches of Normandy on landmark anniversaries. Like other great feats of self-sacrifice, D-Day will fade from public memory. The veterans will pass away. And no movie can replace hearing their first-person accounts of these heroic, horrific events. But for now, anniversaries still stir presidents to deliver new words of appreciation for the soldiers who never returned home. Official visits bring to our television screens the haunting images of rows and rows of white crosses that mark veteran graves.
â€˜It was unknowable then, but so much of the progress that would define the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, came down to the battle for a slice of beach only six miles long and two miles wide," President Obama said on June 6, the 65th anniversary. "More particularly, it came down to the men who landed here - those who now rest in this place for eternity, and those who are with us here today. Perhaps more than any other reason, you, the veterans of that landing, are why we still remember what happened on D-Day. You're why we keep coming back."
President Obama noted that these soldiers could have shrunk from the daunting task. They didn't have to run down the landing craft or scale the cliffs. Officers ensured that they would, for the only thing more dangerous than advancing was staying put. But something else steeled them for the mission. As Christians experience in their pilgrimage of faith, personal history prepares us for the unknown future. For the men of D-Day and the entire World War II generation, that history was the Great Depression.
Tom Brokaw, who celebrated these men and women in The Greatest Generation drew this connection for The Wall Street Journal on the D-Day anniversary. He explained how a Normandy visit with two D-Day veterans inspired him to write the bestselling tribute. Listening to their stories, Brokaw remembered people like them who cared for their neighbors during his childhood in South Dakota. The same sort of self-giving relationships that sustained men on the battlefield held communities together back home.
"As I began to write the wartime accounts of that generation, I realized how much they were formed by the deprivations and lessons of the Great Depression," Brokaw wrote. "During that period life was about common sacrifice and going without the most ordinary items, such as enough food or new clothes."
Some men received their first pair of boots or shoes from the Army, Brokaw recalled. Cafeteria food topped what they could scrounge up at home. And though basic training was no picnic, few would rather be home putting up hay in the late summer heat.
"The surviving members of that generation - now in their 80s and 90s - are living reminders of the good that can come from hard times," Brokaw reflected. "They can teach us that if we're to get through this time of crisis a better nation with a fundamentally stronger economy, we'd better learn how to work together and organize our lives around what we need - not just what we want."
I grew up in South Dakota after Brokaw had already started broadcasting the NBC Nightly News. But the Greatest Generation passed down their history to me, too. My grandparents were too young to serve in World War II, but they were self-identified children of the Great Depression. Still today, they often recall ways their families pulled together to make ends meet. They don't complain, even though they sometimes wonder how their parents managed.
As hard as it is to believe, I don't think they would trade this history of hardship for a childhood of ease. But maybe this decision reflects the way God works. As a Christian, would you trade the crucibles that tested your fledgling faith? Can there be sanctification without struggle? Can you recognize blessing if you've never known want?
While dying of cancer in 2004, my grandfather asked me to help plan his funeral. He showed me the picture of himself as a child that he wanted to print on the back of the funeral bulletin. He wrote a caption to explain his choice.
"We children of that era didn't think of being deprived as we had no worries - our parents had those, and all our friends and neighbors were in like circumstances," Bill Daniel wrote. "Only we of such humble beginnings can fully appreciate the many blessings God has given us."
Hardship itself becomes a blessing when God turns our personal history into a reservoir of resolve we can draw from to tackle life's most daunting challenges.
Image: "Migrant Mother," by Dorothea Lange, 1936, via Wikimedia Commons.