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Can we survive without the resolve shown by a truly great generation?

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 12:00 am

I'd never seen him so angry. Dad's teeth were clenched as he shifted my canary-colored Volkswagen Karmann Ghia into second gear. I knew he was upset about the discussion that had just taken place.

It was 1970 and I was in San Francisco on leave from the Army. My car had not been running correctly. Dad offered to help. He liked working on German rear-engine vehicles.

"This is a girl's car!" he snarled as he experienced the slow acceleration. It wasn't a Porsche like his. He was trying to attack my manhood by sarcastically making fun of the Ghia. At that moment, it was the only way my father felt he could control a conversation that had deeply affected his emotions.

We had been discussing the Vietnam War. I told him it could not be won. Washington politics were overwhelmed with false information, incompetence and indecisiveness. American leadership just didn't understand the many facets of Southeast Asian cultures. Although the U.S. military had never lost a battle, it was doomed to lose this war. Men were dying needlessly.

But my father was a World War II veteran and had a completely different mindset. He had not known an America that could lose a conflict. The one exception, a stalemate in Korea, was rationalized as a "fluke" or "United Nations police action" — not a "real" war.

Dad was raised during a time when people trusted their government. The idea that a president would lie was unthinkable. If the commander-in-chief ordered citizens to take up arms, then patriotic Americans should stand up and do their part — no questions asked.

Yet there was a paradox in this thinking that was better understood by my generation. In the last big war, German military personnel had obediently followed orders and were punished by the Allies for doing so. As a member of the post-World War II generation, I was taught that conscience was supposed to trump politics. One was to say "no" when leadership demands did not meet collective and acceptable moral standards.

As we spoke, he looked behind the front seat of the Ghia and noticed a red and white "secret" document cover sheet on the floor. I was somewhat amused by the fact that he immediately turned his head and refused to look at it.

"Don't worry, Dad," I said. "Cover sheets are not classified if unattached to anything."

He still refused to look. That told me he took national security very seriously. He probably thought I didn't. I'm sure the idea of "traitor," or at the very least, "young idiot" crossed his mind several times, but Dad refused to say so.

He couldn't have been more wrong about the first assumption. Although I did not agree with our foreign policy, I never would have done anything to injure or compromise the security of the United States, nor harm the fighting men and women of this country.

Incidentally, I later asked my superior about the exposed cover sheet. He thought it was "no big deal" but stated it would be a good idea to secure them because "people might ask too many questions." Again, his unconcerned attitude suggested a different generational viewpoint.

Today, perhaps the unquestioned obedience of my father's generation has passed, along with the disappearance of rear-engine Karmann Ghias.

Dad was a believer in the words of Commodore Stephen Decatur, who in 1816 said, "My country, right or wrong." Journalist Tom Brokaw called my father's era "the greatest generation," for their incredible sacrifices and unwavering values in the face of evil.

But I wonder about moral standards practiced by younger generations. It seems there are some who not only disagree with U.S. policy but also would use their personal ideology to "sell out" our country with a complete disregard for whom it might hurt — including their own families.

So, I have to ask a question that cannot be easily answered: Is it possible that our nation can survive future challenges without the unwavering loyalty practiced by my father and others who went before him?

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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