The commitment to duty and honor that galvanized this nation’s greatest generation in the 1940s lives on today in the American military.
Where it’s lacking, some say, is in the rest of us.
While the troops are as engaged as ever in defense of freedom, the rest of society is hardly involved, said professor Donald Shepardson, a military historian at the University of Northern Iowa.
“Unless you have a close relative in Iraq or Afghanistan, those wars don’t really affect your daily life or require any sacrifices of you,” he said.
As a historian and as a child who grew up during World War II, Shepardson said he knows the American home front was much more engaged in the war effort in the early 1940s than it is today.
Of the 132 million Americans in 1940, 16 million — more than 12 percent — wore uniforms before the war ended, and nearly everyone else supported the war effort and deeply felt its impact almost on a daily basis.
Today, of the 300 million U.S. residents, only about 2.25 million — 0.75 percent — are members of the nation’s volunteer armed forces, and most of the other nearly 298 million Americans live as if the nation were at peace.
Grinnell College history professor Victoria Brown said today’s disconnect between troops and the populace is unhealthy for society. “Each family felt the cost during World War II. We are not sharing the burden,” she said.
VIDEO: What does duty mean to you?
Like Shepardson, George Drake recalls the widespread patriotism, sacrifice and privation of U.S. civilians during World War II. The president emeritus and professor emeritus of history at Grinnell College was a sixth-grader when the United States entered the war.
Drake, Brown and Shepardson agree that Americans today do not perceive the same level of threat as their grandparents did in the 1940s.
Drake said people feared that the nation would be overrun by its enemies, that it was fighting for survival.
“The perception was we were up against the forces of evil, fighting for a just cause, and the sacrifices were worth it,” Shepardson said. “Most people today just don’t feel as threatened.”
Shepardson worries that many Americans take their freedoms for granted and are content to let someone else defend them.
Brown said she does not see a decline in the value that Americans attach to freedom.
“Participation in the military is not a measure of Americans’ value of freedom,” she said. “It is a measure of the level of threat they perceive in the nation’s enemies.”
In the wake of public disillusionment with the Vietnam War and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Brown said many Americans are skeptical of their nation’s foreign policy. “That doesn’t mean they don’t love freedom,” she said.
Though young Americans may be less inclined to join the military, they are strongly oriented toward public service, said Drake, who said 18 percent of Grinnell College’s 2010 graduates have taken low-paying public service jobs.
“I’ve never seen youthful volunteerism as strong as it is today,” he said.
Though more than 90 percent of America’s World War II veterans have died, the survivors still uphold the values of duty and honor that made them, in the estimation of journalist Tom Brokaw and many others, “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”
Ted Birdsall, 86, of Oxford Junction, who served in the Marines during World War II, said a tremendous wave of patriotism swept the country after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Everyone his age that Birdsall knew was gone to the service six months later, he said.
“We really believed we were out to save the world, and I believe we did save it for a while,” he said.
Now, as then, he said, the nation’s hopes lie with its young adults.
In an era in which patriotism is less pronounced, Birdsall said he is impressed with the caliber of troops in the modern volunteer service.
“Most young people today would serve if there was a draft,” he said.
Ray Buchholz, 88, of Denver, Iowa, said he was glad to serve “two solid years” in New Guinea with the Army during World War II.
“They needed us. We just figured it was a job we had to do,” he said.
Buchholz said he believes duty to country remains strong among working-class Americans. “It’s changed more at the top levels of society than at the bottom end,” he said.
Eugene Blount, 84, of Victor, who was drafted into the Army shortly after he turned 18 in 1944, served in France and Germany before the war’s end.
“We knew we were staying until we won the war,” he said.
Blount said he admires but feels sorry for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is so hard to know who they are fighting” and whether their political leaders are committed to victory, Blount said.
Blount said he believes Americans’ sense of duty to country has waned in recent decades. “The attitude seems to be, ‘Let the other guy do it.’ That’s my opinion,” he said.
Unlike today, nearly every American was united in the effort to win World War II, said Stan Oftelie, 83, of Amana, who was drafted into the Army at age 18 in 1945.
“There were no draft dodgers or protesters. Our way of life was threatened, and we knew Hitler and Tojo had to be stopped,” said Oftelie, who arrived in Okinawa just before the war ended.
Given a similar threat to national security and individual freedoms, Oftelie said he believes young Americans would again rise to the occasion.
Brig. Gen. Tim Orr, adjutant general of the Iowa National Guard, said the 2,800 Iowa Guard troops deploying to Afghanistan in October already have risen to the occasion. Their willingness to sacrifice for the common good makes them heroes and role models, Orr said.
“It’s what makes our country great,” he said.
Col. Ben Corell, 48, commander of all 2,800 Iowa Guard troops in the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said he joined the Guard 25 years ago out of “pride in country,” one of the values he grew up with.
Now, the Strawberry Point native said, it comes down to an obligation to provide national security.
“I stepped forward. I raised my hand. I have an obligation,” said Corell, who has been deployed to combat zones four times in the past 10 years.
Notwithstanding public attitude toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many members of the Iowa National Guard seem to share their grandparents’ attitudes toward duty and honor.
Pvt. William Wessely, 22, of Waterloo, a member of the Iowa National Guard’s 1-133rd Infantry Battalion and facing his first combat deployment this fall in Afghanistan, eloquently evoked those concepts when asked why he joined the Guard.
“I just wanted to serve my country, sir. We have rights and freedoms that are worth protecting,” he said.
Another member of the 1-133rd, Spc. Jonathan Sampson, 26, of Ames, answered the question similarly: “I feel pretty strong for the country and our freedoms.”
Second Lt. Lucas Peterson, 23, of Ames, a platoon leader in the 1-133rd’s Company C, acknowledged that he joined the Guard at least in part to help pay his college expenses. Now that he’s preparing for the upcoming Afghanistan deployment, Peterson said he’s planning an Army career.
“Why not me?” he said. “I’m physically and mentally able. I’ve studied enough history to know that preceding generations sacrificed for us. I’m trying to do a duty.”
So is Spc. Brandon Berry, 21, of Tipton, another member of the 1-133rd, who said he was raised in a family that respects and honors God and country.
“I do feel that as a country, just the way things are going, that we are losing that attitude. For a lot of people today, it is get, get, get, rather than give, give, give,” Berry said.
VIDEO: Spc. Brandon Berry talks about his service and his upcoming deployment
Travis Anderson, 20, of Marion, who will go to Afghanistan this fall with the 1-133rd, said he had wanted to join the Army since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “I love my country, and I am proud to be part of the effort to protect our freedoms,” he said.
That same attack motivated Capt. Michael Seale, 44, of Ankeny, to join the Iowa National Guard. “When the towers fell, that galvanized me,” said Seale, who commands the 1-133rd’s Company B.“The way I look at it, someone has to do it. It’s a job I can do, and not everyone can. If guys like me weren’t doing it, it wouldn’t get done,” he said.