7 Lessons in Manliness From the Greatest Generation

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 30, 2009 · 114 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

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Every generation has its share of men who fully live the art of manliness. But there may never have been a generation when the ratio of honorable men to slackers was higher than the one born between 1914 and 1929. These were the men that grew up during the Great Depression. They’re the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And they’re the men who came home from that war and built the nations of the Western world into economic powerhouses. They knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real blood, sweat, and tears. They were humble men who never bragged about what they had done or been through. They were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. They were our Greatest Generation.

Tom Brokaw gave them that name, and while it’s a bold claim, I wholly support it. They weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole they were a cut above the rest. One of the inspirations for Kate and I starting the Art of Manliness was our grandfathers. When I looked at them, and then at the men of today, the chasm of manliness seemed jarring. These are men cut from a different cloth of manliness; they simply don’t build them like that anymore. Their extraordinary manliness is not something you can scientifically measure. But you can sure feel it. And you can see it in old pictures. It seems every man back then was dashingly handsome; their manliness practically leaps off the page.

When I was taking a tour of the USS Slater in Albany last summer, Uncle Buzz and I were looking at the tiny, closet-sized kitchen where a couple of men prepared meals for hundreds of sailors as the ship rocked to and fro, and at the giant guns the men used to blast the enemy and knock planes from the sky. One tends to picture 30 year old guys doing that stuff; Tom Hanks and Co. always leap to mind. But a lot of them were just 18, fresh from the prom and varsity football.

In Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he remembers his mother telling him the story of the day Gordon Larsen came into the post office where she worked. Larsen was typically a cheerful and popular member of their community, but that day he had stopped in to complain about the rowdiness of the teenagers the night before, which had been Halloween. Brokaw’s mother was surprised at his tone and asked him good naturedly, “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” Gordon looked at her squarely in the eye and said, “I was landing at Guadalcanal.” He then turned and left the post office. These were men who were surely mature beyond their years.

There’s a saying that each generation is most like their grandparent’s. And while we’re not there yet, I do see a lot of people these days who are dusting off the values of the Greatest Generation and embracing them once again. What were those values? Today I’d like to take an opportunity to enumerate a few of the Greatest Generation’s lessons in manliness, using some of my personal observations along with various stories and quotes taken from Brokaw’s book.

Lesson # 1: Take Personal Responsibility for Your Life

While today’s generation often shirks responsibility as too much work, the Greatest Generation relished the chance to step up to the plate and test their mettle. One son of a WWII Medal of Honor winner remembers of his dad and his peers, “For them, responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on, and anytime they could get a task and be responsible, that was what really got em’ going.”

And when the Greatest Generation accepted responsibility for something, they also accepted all the consequences of that decision, whether good or bad. They were not a generation of whiners or excuse makers. They took pride in personal accountability. In a time where individuals and businesses reach for a bailout or the easy fix of bankruptcy to make things right, stories like that of Wesley Ko inspire. Soon after the war, Ko started a printing business. After 35 years of working hard to transform it into a successful company, he decided to relocate his business from Philadelphia to upstate New York. Ko personally guaranteed the 1.3 million dollar loan needed to make the move. The transition did not go as expected, and Ko’s company faced several setbacks; after only a year, he was forced to go out of business. Ko said, “It was a big decision making time. I couldn’t retire. I hadn’t taken out Social Security. So at the age of seventy I had to go get a job and start paying back that million-dollar loan. I just didn’t feel comfortable with declaring bankruptcy. I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do, even though it would have been easier.”

Lesson #2: Be Frugal

If your grandparents are anything like mine, then their house is stuffed with doodads and boxes of stuff. They have a sort of pack rat mentality because they grew up in the Great Depression where the next canister of oats or pair of pants was not guaranteed. They learned to live on less and be grateful for the things they had, no matter how humble. It didn’t take a new Wii to brighten their Christmas morning; an orange at the bottom of a stocking was enough to knock their socks off.

This was not the generation that purchased Corvettes to soothe their mid-life crisis, nor the generation that equated success with the purchase of a McMansion. This was the generation that was thrilled to move into the small houses of Levittown, which at 750 square feet were as big as some people’s garages are today.

One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Of course, it’s hard to “make it do” if you don’t know how to fix it, and thus handiness was also central to this generation’s frugality.

Tom Brokaw remembers this about his own dad:

“My father, Red Brokaw, was a blue-ribbon member of that fix-it generation. My mother learned not to say aloud what she needed, say a new ironing board, because my father would immediately build her one. She liked to buy something from the store occasionally. When I was a young man in need of spending money I mentioned that I could mow many more lawns if I had a power mower. I had a snazzy new model from Sears Roebuck in mind. My father went to his workshop and built a mower using an old washing machine motor, welded pipes for handles, a hand-tooled blade, and discarded toy wagon wheels mounted on plywood platform. He painted it all black and it was a formidable machine. At first I was embarrassed, but then as it drew admirers I was proud of its homespun place in a store-bought world.”

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Lesson #3: Be Humble

Typical of the Greatest Generation is the story of a son or daughter who finds a war medal stashed in the attic after their father passes, he having never told them about it. Even if their exploits had been brave and heroic, the Greatest Generation rarely talked about the war, both because of the difficulty in remembering such carnage, but also from the sense that they had simply been fulfilling their duty, and thus had no reason to brag.

Brokaw observes: “The World War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it. It was part of the Code. There’s no more telling metaphor than a guy in a football game who does what’s expected of him-makes an open-field tackle-then gets up and dances around. When Jerry Kramer threw the block that won the Ice Bowl in ’67, he just got up and walked off the field.”

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Lesson #4: Love Loyally

The men of the Greatest Generation took their marriage vows seriously. Brokaw wrote, “It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option. I can’t remember one of my parents’ friends who was divorced. In the communities where we lived it was treated as a minor scandal.” The numbers bear Brokaw’s anecdotal evidence out: of all the new marriages in 1940, 1 in 6 ended in divorce. By the late 1990′s, that number was 1 in 2.

This was a time where there was no hanging out or “hooking up.” Men asked women on real dates, and had serious intentions in doing so. When a particular gal caught a man’s heart, he proposed, and they got hitched. And they were married for the next 60 years.

Peggy and John Assenzio had the kind of commitment to marriage typical of the Greatest Generation. They were married right before John headed off to basic training. Peggy kept her husband constantly in her thoughts while he was away. “I never went to sleep until I wrote John a letter. I wrote every single day. I wouldn’t break the routine because I thought it would keep him safe.” When John got home, he and Peggy picked up right where they left off. John would sometimes have nightmares about the war, and Peggy was always there to comfort him. John said, “The war helped me to love Peggy more, if that’s possible. To appreciate her more.” Their commitment to each other was unshakeable. Peggy believed that young couples today, “don’t fight enough. It’s too easy to get a divorce. We’ve have our arguments, but we don’t give up. When my friends ask whether I ever considered divorce, I remind them of the old saying, ‘We’ve thought about killing each other, but divorce? Never.”

The cynical among us are apt to think that while the divorce rate was low, that simply means that more men were stuck in unhappy marriages. These days we’re quick to think that anyone who gets married in their early 20′s and is married for decades after that, is bound to be living a life of quiet desperation. Yet I’ve met a lot of Greatest Generation couples and almost all of them are and were quite happy together. They’re companions and best friends. What’s their secret? The answer can really be found in changing expectations. As Brokaw observes, “When they got married and began families it was not a matter of thinking, “Well, let’s see how this works out.” Some would argue that marriages were less happy because divorce wasn’t an option. But could it be that the opposite was true? That with the divorce option off the table the whole tenor of your marriage would change? Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t think there was an escape hatch, and you knew that whatever bumps in the road you hit, you had to work through them together.

Lesson #5: Work Hard

In war, these men had learned to focus on the objective at hand and not give up until that objective and the mission as a whole was accomplished. When they got home, they carried that focus over to the world of work. They didn’t fall into the fallacy that Mike Rowe has been busy denouncing, that you have to find “your passion” to be happy. They could find happiness in any job they did, because they weren’t just working for personal, self-fulfillment; they labored for a bigger purpose: to give their families the financial security they hadn’t enjoyed growing up.

As soon as they graduate college, many men today want the things it took our parents and grandparents 30 years to acquire. But the Greatest Generation knew that going into the debt was not the way to get the things you want. They understood that the good things in life must be earned by honest toil.

Lesson #6: Embrace Challenge

The Greatest Generation wasn’t the greatest despite the challenges they faced, but because of them. Today many men shirk challenge and difficult pursuits, believing that the easier life is, the happier they’ll be. But our grandfathers knew better. They knew that one cannot have the bitter without the sweet, and that true happiness comes from overcoming the kind of challenges that build character and refine the soul. The challenges they experienced made their joy all the more sweet because it was tinged with the gratitude of knowing how easily it could all have been taken away.

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Image by iamthelorax

Lesson #7: Don’t Make Life So Damn Complicated

If there’s a common thread in these lessons, it’s having a common sense and a level-headed approach to life. In our day, when men are obsessing about finding themselves, their holy grail of a woman, and their “passion,” the Greatest Generation’s uncomplicated approach to life is refreshing. They didn’t go on a diet, they simply ate whole food; they didn’t exercise, they worked around the house; they didn’t obsess about their relationships, they just found a gal they loved and married her. They always looked sharp, but never fussed with fashion trends. They didn’t mull over which appliance better suited their personality and image, they just bought the machine that worked the best. They didn’t think about how to get things done, they just got em’ done. When Joe Foss, a celebrated and daring WWII pilot and then governor of South Dakota was asked if he missed his younger days, he said, “Oh no. I’m not a guy who missed anything from anywhere. I’ve always been a guy who just gets up and goes.” Instead of spending you time navel gazing your life away, just get up and go!

{ 112 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Sage March 12, 2013 at 4:45 am

As a woman, and gerontologist (the study of the aging process, not diseases), I would like to add my voice on generations, men, and women.

1. AGE GROUP CLASSIFICATION. Depending on whether you are citing social historians (the study of human experiences), sociologists (the study of societal norms: family, government, economy, education, and religion), or archaeologists (the study of past cultures), you shall have a different set of dates that represent each age group. I cite social historians William Strauss & Neil Howe because they have aptly grouped people by their similar ages and life experiences). Buy their book, “Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1684 to 2069.
2. THE GI AGE GROUP. Children’s behaviors are shaped by the adults in their environment. The GI generation (1901-1924) was shaped by their parents the Lost generation who were shaped by their parents the Missionary generation, and so on. By the way, GI means “government issue” because their “Lost” parents formed the first Boy Scout and Girl Scout organizations to keep their children off the streets, and away from the gangs formed by the newly immigrated foreigners whose cultural behaviors were criminal by American standards. The GI children grew up wearing uniforms so it was an easy transition into military uniforms, hence, the name GI generation. The main body of warfighters in WWII was born during 1901-1924; however, about one million were born after 1924 – they lied about their age to Recruiters to escape the farmlands and inner cities. The military leaders had a very hard time with the GI males because they weren’t masculine enough for the standards of military duty. The Missionary and Lost generation women had thoroughly nurtured their sons to sissy-hood, and that pattern in history has not improved, it has worsened.
3. HUMANS versus ANIMALS. Children are humans, kids are baby goats; humans rear their children into adulthood whereas adult goats raise their kids into adult goats. Do you understand the biological and psychological difference? Next time someone says, “KIDS” educate him or her because the application of KIDS for children began decades ago as an insult.
4. WOMEN. Women rear children, not men. Yet women are the first to queue up in a march to protect against men not being men. Women refuse to take responsibility for their own decisions and actions. Rather, than take pride in the responsibility and accountability of rearing children as caregivers, women turn their rights and privileges over to strangers for a “career.” In addition, women dress like prostitutes and scream when men lay money down for the service of a woman whose career service is trading sex for money. Who is responsible? Women. Why are women turning to women for their sex in exchange? Because women do not like the “product” of male behaviors, women created. If women can convince you men that your behaviors are of your own making and believe it, they would. Women deceive themselves everyday with the notion they can do whatever men do, but a little bit better. DO NOT BELIEVE THE POLITICAL LIES AND DECEIT INTENDED TO DESTROY MANHOOD. Just remember: children are humans and adults shape their behaviors.
5. WARFIGHTERS. If American admirals want Spartan warfighters, they need to look to the use of drones. Americans do not rear up their sons as warriors, so why should males be ready for warfare by late teenage years? Why should Americans serve in the political wars that the rich, powerful, and well connected devise for their own makings? Vietnam was waged to end communism and socialism in Asia while the political philosophy was shoved down the throats of young students on campuses and in city parks to embrace as a lifestyle! There is no place on earth where the political philosophy successfully exists and never shall because humans do not embrace degrading themselves; certainly not Americans.
6. MEN. The time is now for males to refuse the mollycoddling of women. Stand up for your gender and quit yielding to female manipulation. Men are so confused by decades of female manipulations that you couldn’t find your true north with a navigational compass. Women suffragists began the feminist movement over 100 years ago – to what aim are women marching today? The answer is power, self-indulgence, and misandry (man haters). Psychologists have a label for misandry: it is called penis envy. Men must regain their manhood. You have your male rights just as women have female rights. Put an end to the movement that is endangering the American societal norms before the society is unrecognizable. You have the genetics, society, and its psychology of the Missionaries, Lost, and GI generations within you. Do what men do well: Take control and be leaders!

102 James March 16, 2013 at 6:06 am

How about the lessons on racism, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption? Adults in the 1950s-1980s taught us how to consume things we don’t need: fast food, tract homes, cars, and appliances, and this pattern of consumption they created will cause climate change collapse of civilization this century. 1950s America was also much more egalitarian – possessions and consumption are relative, and today it takes a lot more consuming to keep up with the Joneses than it did in the 1950s. A person’s worth in the US is based on consumption and money, anyone who lives simply in a tiny home without a car or cell phone who grows most of their own food doesn’t fit in and are looked at as poor.

103 Sage March 20, 2013 at 4:53 pm

To James: By your inquiry, I think you are probably young and confused. Turn to the annals of HISTORY, SOCIOLOGY, and ANTHROPOLOGY for the answers to your inquiry. Happy reading.

104 Andy March 27, 2013 at 11:56 am

best article I’ve read

105 Ben May 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thank you for the article. Is any generation perfect? No, but you weren’t trying to say that. What you were saying was that there was something about the men of that genereation that the young man-girls of this day can learn from. And ask any women what she wants, deep down (if she is being honest) she will tell you she wants one of those men spoken of above!!!!

106 kenneth June 6, 2013 at 9:08 pm

my father was born in 1923. he often told me that there were never any good ol’ days. racism, sexism, child abuse, spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual predators, scam artists, and a myriad of social problems existed then as they do now. there were always people who shirked responsibility. many women with the opportunities they have today would find life then untenable. the men cited in this article would have also been the fathers of the counter-culture youth of the 60′s.

107 Mark December 31, 2013 at 11:14 pm

The WWII generation grew up in “their world”, which was local, not a national or world standard like the media projects today. They were involved with their local communities – schools, elections for sheriff or police, county board or alderman, etc. At the outbreak of WWII, 70% of the U.S. population was rural, and 30% was urban. Today, 80% is urban, and 20% is rural. The WWII generation lived through hard times, knew hard work, had faith, and relied on each other. Today, very few people even know or help out their neighbors, unless there is a major calamity such as a tornado, bid snow storm, flooding, etc. Also, the WWII generation did not have widespread media like we do today preaching what the “standard” is for behavior. That generation was based, as Stephen Covey said, on the “character ethic”, not the “personality ethic” as we see today on TV and the “Hollywood Standard” projects to everyone as being the acceptable social norm. Also, the WWII generation knew the difference between being “great” and being “famous”. Lady Gaga today is “famous”, but being “great” was a person doing the right and courageous things, without the need to boast or brag about it. I’m glad my parents were the WWII generation who were poor during the depression but worked hard and had faith and survived. My father fought in WWII and afterwards worked his own business despite a heart condition (from the War) and raised 8 kids and despite the carnage and bad things he saw during the war, was a true man that got on with his life like most men of that generation did and didn’t complain or ask for help or pity. A very proud generation with “the right stuff” that built this country and the rest of the world after the war. Look at the video of construction of the St. Louis Arch in the 1960′s built by tough men who got things done in WWII and built that arch. Tough men. Tough women. Strong character, ethics, and responsibility and accountability.

108 Y January 31, 2014 at 9:31 am

I have the greatest respect for the greatest generation and indeed they earned that title. On behalf of the generation Y I want to thank you for everything you’ve done to give us the world we have now :)

It’s a damn shame about your kids though. I think you’d be ashamed of the world the Baby Boomers made for their grandkids.

109 Ramos February 26, 2014 at 7:44 pm

So much truth in this article about character.
However we have to remember to differentiate between the a good culture/behavior which is what is portrayed here and the historical climate with human rights, McCarthism, racism and all that.
It’s the culture that matters, how the right kinda people acted and lived their lives, not historical facts cause that was how average or all lived that time. We are on about those who did right, which was probably most people and then the rest ruined history with what we (also) remember those postwar times for.

Reading this article was pleasant, though men in this era DID work out actually. They just did not lift weights, rather they ran 5 miles, played amateur football/soccer(in EU) or even biked on regular bicycles, often for needed things such as 5 small local shops or the freezer house. Or walked to the neighbours to borrow whatever or just talk over coffee.

My granddad was a farmer, b.1914, and had no money for travelling, let alone around in Europe in the 1930s, but he and a mate really wanted to go see the World Expo in Paris in 1937. So what did he do?..Borrowed some rubber hoses for spares, packed a bag with food and a water bottle and after asking a month off from his dads farm, he BIKED to Paris from the middle of Denmark, 757 miles, saw the show and biked back, 757 miles again. What was that “ride” thing you needed again? :)
Okay that granddad didn’t exercise after that, but farming is constant exercise so he didn’t need to.
My grandmothers never drove cars, they biked to everything they had todo alone and they both had drivers’s licences so it wasn’t for that or cause grandpa x2 wouldn’t let them drive or wouldn’t drive.
Wanna get something out of the freezer?…Good, it’s 5 miles THAT way and back to the shared freezer house, to get that pork side labeled (familyname) we have from the last time we butchered a pig.

Just wanted to add these. I guess they can fall under working around the house, but I kept thinking DIY work and cleaning :)

110 John February 27, 2014 at 7:45 pm

I totally agree with all that has been said. We all know what our society is coming to.I am wondering when and what is going to need to happen to us before we take action. We need to look in the mirror folks,for we are the problem, therefor we need to be the solution. I certainly hope there is divine intervention because society as a whole does not have the stomach for it.

111 Someone March 18, 2014 at 11:16 pm

John, I believe it will take a complete societal collapse before we take action.

Americans are currently very apathetic towards each other and their Federal Government. No one wants to rock the boat because their material needs are mostly satisfied. Why would anyone want to give up that materialist lifestyle and potentially end up an enemy of the state?

Moreover, they are simply not interested in effecting any change because they don’t want to think. It’s sad, but true.

112 Mark April 13, 2014 at 7:14 pm

I agree that it would take a complete societal collapse or some type of calamity to prompt us to go back at embracing and appreciating the same good core values common with “The Greatest Generation” and earlier generations. Maybe the “calamity” might need to be some type of real threat to our freedom, like another World War, or another “Great Depression”. Life is too easy today compared to what the “Greatest Generation” had to endure, and people today take too much for granted. It’s a fact that as life gets easier, people become more spoiled and take things for granted. The Bible talks about “The Long Defeat” when Christians were constantly being persecuted by the Romans. The Christians knew they would not win in the long run, but they would continue to fight for what was right. The “Good Fight”. We are in the same situation for upholding the values and work ethics of the “Greatest Generation”. We will not be able to change what has already been set in motion by the spoiled kids of the Baby Boomer “Me Generation” and other generations that is corrupting our country’s core values, but some of us who were taught well by our “Greatest Generation” parents and grandparents should continue to heed what they stood up for and stand up for what we believe is morally and spiritually right, despite many of the schools and the liberal media and Hollywood are espousing as “the new normal” for values and principles. Even though this country is in a steady decline, morally, spiritually, and economically, we should not give in the overwhelming forces that is compromising our moral and spiritual base many of the “Greatest Generation” exhibited. Those that hold up good values and morals like the Christians did, like how this country was founded, and what the “Greatest Generation” fought for and died to preserve, cannot be forsaken, even though most likely it is a losing battle and a “long defeat”.

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