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Measuring men against the Greatest Generation

I want greatness with a touch of humility and self-doubt, unlike the "you will do what I tell you or I will bomb or torture you" crowd. Such control of others is not greatness to me.
Reflections on Father's Day
National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 2004

One member of the "Greatest Generation" who fought in World War II is still attacking me for being concerned about yellow packaged bomblets that were dropped in Afghanistan. Why was I concerned? Because children mistook these hand grenades for toys. Why was he concerned? Because our country could never under any circumstances whatsoever have done anything like this. Our country is perfect.

Another member of the "Greatest Generation" ordered me, with the tone of a drill sergeant, to never preach on anything uncomfortable whatsoever. He went to church for comfort, not challenge. The very freedom for which he fought is regularly denied to others.

A third member of the "Greatest Generation," my father, battered my mother, physically and verbally. He felt so small that he constantly attacked those around him, reserving special abuse for my younger brother who could never be as "great" as those my father considered his masculine rivals. He regularly humiliated my brother for not scoring enough points in basketball or getting enough hits in Little League. I often had to call the police to stop my father from his greatness.

Rush Limbaugh has gone on record in favor of the torture in Iraq prisons: The negative reaction to the torture looks to him like just another example of the "feminization" of American culture. The torture pleases him as a weapon of war.

These four men do not disqualify Tom Brokaw's interpretations of greatness in his book The Greatest Generation. Many did not come out frightened to death (no challenges please), self-righteous (my country is perfect), or violent (my father.) Brokaw, and Studs Terkel after him, found many who are rightly applauded for saving the world from Hitler and building an extraordinary economic engine that pumps good energy into the world. Likewise, there were great heroes of nonviolence, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who saw the strength in loving weakness.

What bothers me is the static interpretation of greatness. One war does not make a country great. Nor does one man make a country suspect. Challenge does not come "once to every man or nation," the great old hymn notwithstanding. Challenge comes when a nation or person has to figure out what to do with his or her greatness.

With all due respect, my friend who doesn't imagine his country could ever do anything wrong is now the most dangerous man in the world. He has given self-righteous permission to an overreach that is unconscionable. He needs to worry more and brag less.

With all due respect, my friend who had a "hard life" in the Depression and the war needs to cling less to his full cupboard and modest security. Speaking about something uncomfortable need not bother him so much. He is strong enough if, God forbid, he has to go through something hard again. Time did not stop for him yet.

With all due respect, my father had no right to beat my brother, my sister, my mother, nor me. He joins thousands and thousands of fathers who did beat up those they love the most. Controlling love has to be strong; real love can share power and be "weak."

What demons lurk in greatness? Why is strength so weak, so much like Achilles' notable heel? Why are "father figures" not able to find a way to be great that doesn't involve dominating others? And why does this pattern of dominance, backed up by force and the conceited cloak of greatness, appear to be my childhood home writ large in Iraq and Afghanistan? You will do what I tell you or I will bomb or torture you. Such control of others is not greatness to me.

Instead I want greatness with a touch of humility and self-doubt. I want greatness well spiced by changing challenges and a recognition that our high school athletic letter doesn't mean we don't have to go to the gym today. I want greatness that doesn't require violence to back itself up.

My brother is one of the greatest men I know. Why? He was hurt and he has not hurt back. He is a fabulous father even though he never had one himself. My husband is a tough dove. My sons are becoming great as they excel simultaneously in athletics and in tenderness with their girlfriends. The men in my life are as "feminized" as I am regarding the absurdity and uselessness of war to stop terror in our hearts or countries.

The greatest generation didn't end; it has only just begun.

The Rev. Donna Schaper is senior minister of the Coral Gables Congregational Church in Miami. She is the author of Sacred Speech from Skylights.

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