We were walking through Central Park in Manhattan, just south of the Naumburg Bandshell, when we came across what we thought were the remains of an ancient churchyard. Like an ancient churchyard, it was seemingly untended and abandoned. On closer examination, it turned out to be a grove across which were scattered fourteen memorial stones dedicated to the men of the 307th Infantry, 77th Division, who had died in action in World War I. A large boulder nearby was inscribed “To the Dead of the 307th Infantry AEF, 590 Officers and Men, 1917–1919.” Twelve of the fourteen stones still bear a brass plaque on which, in raised or sunk relief, are the words “Memorial Tree World War 1917–1918.” It was evident that the fourteen stones originally marked the spot at which a tree was planted in memory of the fallen, and ten trees remain standing. At the bottom of many of the plaques was the information “Registered/American Forestry Association/Washington, D.C.”
I learned later that the American Forestry Association promoted the planting of such memorial trees after World War I, to honor war heroes and veterans, and the trees in Central Park were planted in the spring of 1921 with President Harding in attendance. The 77th Infantry Division was from New York City and trained at Camp Upton in Yaphank on Long Island. According to military critics of the time, this division was composed of the poorest fighting materials in the United States—residents of New York City. It was the first division of the U.S. Army to arrive in France, however, and it prevented the Germans from capturing Paris during the Battle of Chateau-Theirry on July 18, 1918. The Lost Battalion was the popular name given to eight units of this division, one of which was the 307th Infantry. This battalion, consisting of roughly 550 men, was isolated by German forces in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Almost 200 men were killed in action.
The plaques bear the names of the company and of the soldiers who served together and died together. The names of the men are poignant evidence of melting-pot New York circa 1918: Owens, Prato, Whitby, Sullivan, Booth, Behrend, Carlsson, Chambers, Curtis, Depuis, Navitski, Specht, Pappalardo, Olsen, Lizewski. Probably few people alive today knew any of them or have any knowledge of them. Since we were in the park right after Yom Kippur, my husband was reminded of the recent homily at his synagogue. The rabbi had spoken of consulting the “Gold Book” of the synagogue, a memorial list of names of family and friends of members of the congregation. Since many names were of people who had died before the end of the nineteenth century, the rabbi was struck by the fact that neither he nor anyone else in the synagogue would have any memory of them. He went on to make the point, however, on that day on which Jews remember the dead, that God forgets none of us who has ever lived.
What particularly struck me about the headstones in Central Park (besides their sadly neglected state) was how distant the war in Europe must have seemed to most Americans in 1917. When John J. Pershing was appointed commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917, the regular army comprised 25,000 men, with no effective reserves, and the Carlssons and the Lizewskis may have felt that they had left the Old World precisely in order to avoid such conflicts. Within a year and a half, however, the national army had grown to three million men. In June 1918, to rally further enlistment, Pershing recorded the following short message for American radio: “Three thousand miles from home, an American army is fighting for you. Everything you hold worthwhile is at stake. Only the hardest blows can win against the enemy we are fighting. Invoking the spirit of our forefathers, the army asks your unshrinking support, to the end that the high ideals for which America stands may endure upon the earth.” More than two million Americans fought on the battlefields of the Western Front. Almost 120,000 (of whom 53,000 died in battle and the rest of disease) never returned home.
From the distance of nearly a century, their response to Pershing’s appeal, this willingness to sacrifice their lives in far-off Europe, offers much food for thought, especially in the context of the current war, in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically, but against terrorism in general. Unlike in earlier wars, the enemy reached our shores in a spectacular, coordinated assault, and for a moment we seemed united in understanding the threat to our way of life represented by Islamic terrorism. Our soldiers have responded, but the president has not asked the rest of us to make any sacrifice. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he instead urged us to continue living as before. The president was criticized for his failure to demand sacrifice of us by none other than Frank Rich, the liberal New York Times columnist. Rich may have been harkening back to the more austere conditions of his post-World War II childhood, to the ideals of a Norman Rockwell-like era when the nation would show its unity by restricting its weekly intake of sugar, coffee, and butter. Such sacrifice would be a very 1950s, post-World War II imperative, appropriate to a period when we were still on the gold standard and the GNP could be overseen and levered by a handful of men. But President Bush, an MBA from Harvard, understands that, in the new millennium, our strength as a nation is demonstrated by gas guzzling, not gas rationing. It is consumption that keeps our economy growing.
Unfortunately, consumption is not a virtue, unlike self-denial, and, by appealing only to our comfort, to our material natures, the president missed an opportunity. The result can be seen in the outcome of the recent election, which will effectively hobble the president whose goal it has been to protect the nation’s security so that we can continue to consume and grow. Among the puzzling data emerging from pre-election polls was the belief of a majority of Americans that the Democratic Party would be better than Republicans on both national security and the economy. This puzzle, I believe, demonstrates how deeply the priorities of the Boomer generation, particularly the liberal political and social program that it produced, have penetrated the American consciousness.
Though the liberalism that emerged from the sixties is usually interpreted as a triumph of idealism over the moral slumber of the 1950s, there is another way to regard that idealism. In truth, the 1950s was a very good time, of which all of us living today are the fortunate beneficiaries. But we who first went to school in that decade have been particularly favored, unduly so. While our parents had experienced World War II and the Depression, we grew up with path-breaking dermatological and dental care. When the “sixties” arrived (which for most of us was the 1970s), many of us were unwilling to make the same sacrifices our parents had made, either by going to war or becoming mothers. Sacrifice meant wasting all our good dermatological care, our college education, and indeed the good life for which they had raised us. We justified our unwillingness to follow in their footsteps by portraying the decade in which we had been raised as the breeding ground of repression, authoritarianism, xenophobia, moral and sexual hypocrisy, and untold (and therefore in need of telling and exposing) varieties of injustice. The fact is, we simply had it too good and wanted to keep things that way.
There is a noisy contingent still trapped in those times and whose opposition to the war in Iraq comes straight from the sixties playbook, but such overtly anti-American attitudes haven’t, in the current conflict, gained much traction. After all, the Boomers have grown up, chronologically at least, and the liberals among them don’t relish camping in tents in Crawford, Texas, or even marching in the streets. They have also benefited most from America, Inc. By now, they have made it through the institutions, the media, the law, and the universities. They have paid off their mortgages. They enjoy the advantages of the best health care system in the world. They are about to receive not only Social Security but also the fruits of their considerable investment in retirement plans. The terms of their opposition to war and to authority have changed—the president is an incompetent—but, as in their youth, they remain averse to sacrifice. Their priorities are now those of people who have had a good life and don’t want to jeopardize it.
By any objective criterion, we in America live in the best time in the history of the world. Perhaps too good. Four decades of Boomer liberalism have simply made Americans risk-averse. While our soldiers have again demonstrated their readiness to serve and to sacrifice, the majority of Americans have made a pact with the party of the safety net.
Elizabeth Powers is currently completing a memoir of American life since the 1950s.