AS A YOUNG reporter, I got to interview a group of World War II veterans who had been invited to a preview screening of A Bridge Too Far. The 1977 epic told of the brave but doomed Operation Market Garden, which saw Allied paratroopers dropped behind Nazi lines in 1944. I remember thinking how old those guests of honor looked, and how long ago their experiences seemed.
I am now older than many of those vets were when I spoke to them. And far more time has passed since that meeting than had between the actual events and their re-creation. It makes me realize how skewed our perceptions of history can be by our limited perspective.
With that in mind, the recent 75th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings have prompted me to look back on another pivotal time in history with freshly curious eyes—the turbulent sixties.
The contraceptive pill and rock-and-roll are credited with fomenting much of the decade’s generational and cultural clash. But I wonder what other forces were at work behind the scenes. Namely, how much of that turbulence could be traced back two decades?
The young men of World War II—actually, many of them no more than boys, like the fresh-faced one in the center of the accompanying D-Day photo—came back and tucked their experiences away. No one at home was aware of what they went through, in the way we have since become used to through television (as muted as that may still be). Nor was there any real understanding of what they needed.
For the most part they just stuffed it away and got on with things. As this New York Times article noted, “the Greatest Generation might just as easily be called the Quietest.”
Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that as they grew into young adulthood, many of their children would find their fathers distant, if not cold. And, look to fill up what they lacked in that most formative of relationships with the intensity of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
For the fathers’ part, in turn, no wonder perhaps that they struggled to understand or accept this rising generation. They had sacrificed so much for this—ingratitude, insolence, irreverence, irresponsibility?
And what of today? How might we see things differently if we could look through younger or older eyes, as needed? As French scholar Henri Estienne said, “If youth knew, if age could.”