7 Lessons in Manliness From the Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation is a term used to describe the generation of Americans who fought in World War II. Less has been written about this topic than any other, but there are lessons we can all learn from them.

“The Greatest Generation” is a term that refers to the generation born from 1901-1924. The “Greatest Generation” had 7 lessons in manliness they learned during the war. Read more in detail here: the greatest generation years.

Veteran saluting head shot portrait.

There are guys who thoroughly embody the art of manliness in every century. However, there may never have been a generation with a larger proportion of honest men to slackers than those born between 1914 and 1929. These were the young guys who grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. They’re the guys that traveled to the Big One to battle. And it was these guys who returned from the war to turn the Western world’s countries into economic powerhouses. They understood what sacrifice meant, both in terms of monetary goods and in terms of genuine blood, sweat, and tears. They were modest guys who never boasted about their accomplishments or experiences. They were devoted, patriotic, and calm. They were the Greatest Generation of our time.

They were given that designation by Tom Brokaw, and although it’s a big declaration, I wholeheartedly agree. They weren’t formed of any different materials than we are, but they confronted larger difficulties and challenges and rose to the occasion. They weren’t flawless by any means, but they were a cut above the others as a whole.

Our grandfathers were a major source of inspiration for Kate and me when we first started the Art of Manliness. When I compared them to today’s males, the difference in manliness was startling; they just don’t make ’em like they used to. Their exceptional manliness isn’t something that can be measured scientifically. But you can definitely sense it. It’s also visible in vintage photographs. Every guy seemed to be dashingly attractive back then; their manliness literally jumps off the page.

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 back and forth last summer, and at the giant guns the men used to blast the enemy and knock planes out of the sky while on a tour of the USS Slater in Albany. Tom Hanks and his ilk come to mind when one thinks about 30-year-old men doing such things. However, many of them were just 18 years old and had just returned from prom and varsity football.

Brokaw recalls his mother telling him the account of the day Gordon Larsen walked into the post office where she worked in his book The Greatest Generation. Larsen was usually a pleasant and well-liked part of their community, but he had come in that day to express his displeasure with the teens’ rowdiness the night before, which had been Halloween. “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” inquired Brokaw’s mother, who was taken aback by his tone. “I was landing at Guadalcanal,” Gordon answered, looking her straight in the eyes. He then turned around and walked out of the post office. These were males who seemed to be much older than their years.

There’s an old adage that each generation is most like their forefathers and mothers. And, although we’re not quite there yet, I’m seeing a lot of folks these days who are dusting off the Greatest Generation’s principles and re-embracing them. What were these values, exactly? Today, I’d want to use some of my own observations, as well as numerous anecdotes and passages from Brokaw’s book, to list a few of the Greatest Generation’s lessons in manliness.


Take Personal Responsibility for Your Life (Lesson #1)

While today’s generation avoids responsibilities because it is too taxing, the Greatest Generation enjoyed the opportunity to prove their worth. “For them, duty was their juice,” one son of a WWII Medal of Honor recipient recalls of his father and his comrades. They adored being in charge. They attacked it straight on, and anything that gave them a duty to do and be accountable for got them moving.”

And when the Greatest Generation took responsibility for anything, they took responsibility for all of the implications of that action, good or ill. They were not a whiny or excuse-making generation. Personal responsibility was something they took pleasure in. In a time when people and companies are looking for a bailout or a quick fix like bankruptcy to get back on their feet, tales like Wesley Ko’s inspire. Ko began a printing company soon after the war. He chose to transfer his firm from Philadelphia to upstate New York after 35 years of hard work to turn it into a thriving corporation. The 1.3 million dollar loan required to execute the transfer was personally guaranteed by Ko. The shift did not proceed as planned, and Ko’s firm suffered multiple failures, forcing him to close his doors after just a year. “It was a significant decision-making period,” Ko remarked. I was unable to retire. I hadn’t taken out any Social Security benefits yet. So, at the age of seventy, I needed to find work and begin repaying that million-dollar debt. I simply couldn’t bring myself to declare bankruptcy. Even though it would have been easy, I didn’t believe it was the honorable thing to do.”

Lesson #2: Be Cost-Effective

If your grandparents’ home is anything like mine, it’s crammed with trinkets and boxes of things. Because they grew up during the Great Depression, when the next canister of oats or pair of clothes was never assured, they have a pack rat mentality. They learnt to make do with less and be thankful for what they had, no matter how little. It didn’t take a new Xbox to brighten their Christmas morning; an orange at the bottom of a stocking did the trick.

This was not the generation that connected success with the acquisition of a McMansion, nor was it the group that bought Corvettes to alleviate their mid-life crisis. This was the generation that was ecstatic to move into Levittown’s modest homes, which were as large as some people’s garages now at 750 square feet.

“Use it up, wear it out, make do, or go without,” was one of the Greatest Generation’s mottos. Of course, it’s difficult to “make anything work” if you don’t know how to repair it, so frugality was also important to this age.

Tom Brokaw recalls the following about his own father:

“My father, Red Brokaw, was a stalwart of the fix-it generation. My mother learnt not to speak aloud what she required, such as a new ironing board, since my father would construct one for her right away. She loved to go to the shop every now and then and purchase something. When I was a young guy in need of spending money, I claimed that if I had a motorized mower, I could mow a lot more lawns. I had my eye on a stylish new model from Sears Roebuck. My father went to his workshop and constructed a mower out of an old washing machine motor, welded pipe handles, a hand-tooled blade, and abandoned toy wagon wheels put on a plywood platform. It was a fearsome machine once he painted it completely black. I was ashamed at first, but as it gathered admirers, I became proud of its handcrafted status in a store-bought world.”


The third lesson is to be humble.

The soldiersin the boats while storming on the beach.

The narrative of a son or daughter discovering a military medal stored in the attic after their father dies away, despite the fact that he never informed them about it, is typical of the Greatest Generation. Even if their actions were courageous and heroic, the Greatest Generation seldom spoke about the war, partly because it was difficult to recall such horrors and because they felt they were merely doing their job and had no need to boast.

Brokaw makes the following observation:

“The generation of World War II performed exactly what was expected of them. But they never mentioned it. It was stipulated in the Code. A player in a football game who accomplishes what’s asked of him–makes an open-field tackle–then gets up and dances about is a great metaphor. Jerry Kramer just stood up and went off the field after throwing the block that won the Ice Bowl in 1967.”

Lesson #4: Loyalty in Love

Vintage man carrying his wife in the room.

The men of the Greatest Generation were serious about their marital vows. “It was the final generation in which marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option,” Brokaw wrote. I’m not sure whether any of my parents’ friends were divorced. It was viewed as a small scandal in the areas where we resided.” Brokaw’s personal testimony is backed up by statistics: one out of every six new marriages in 1940 ended in divorce. By the late 1990s, that figure had risen to one in two.

There was no “hanging out” or “hooking up” at this time. Men asked ladies out on genuine dates, and they were serious about it. When a certain woman captured a man’s heart, he proposed and the two married. They stayed together for the following 60 years.

Peggy and John Assenzio had the type of matrimonial dedication that the Greatest Generation was known for. They married shortly before John left for basic training. Peggy kept her husband in her thoughts at all times while he was abroad. “I didn’t go to bed until I’d written John a letter. Every single day, I wrote. I wouldn’t deviate from the pattern because I believed it would keep him safe.” When John returned home, he and Peggy resumed their conversation exactly where they had left off. John had nightmares about the battle from time to time, and Peggy was always there to console him. “If it’s possible, the war made me love Peggy more,” John added. To be able to enjoy her more.” Their love for one other was undeniable. Peggy feels that today’s young couples “do not argue nearly enough.” Divorce is much too simple to get. We’ve had our differences, but we’re not giving up. When people ask whether I’ve ever pondered divorce, I tell them the old adage, “We’ve discussed murdering each other, but divorce?” Never.’”

The cynical among us would conclude that the low divorce rate merely implies that more men are trapped in miserable marriages. We’ve come to believe that anybody who marries in their early twenties and stays married for decades is doomed to live a life of silent desperation. Nonetheless, I’ve met a number of couples from the Greatest Generation, and virtually all of them are and were quite happy together. They’re great pals and companions. What’s the key of their success? Changing expectations is where the solution lies. “When they got married and had families, it wasn’t a question of thinking, “Well, let’s see if this works out,” as Brokaw observed. Some say that since divorce was not an option, couples were less pleasant. Is it possible, though, that the contrary is true? That taking the possibility of divorce off the table would transform the whole tone of your marriage? Maybe things wouldn’t be so horrible if you didn’t believe there was an escape hatch and you realized you’d have to work through any bumps on the road together.


Lesson #5: Put forth the effort

These troops had learnt in combat to concentrate on the task at hand and not to give up until the task and the mission as a whole were completed. When they returned home, they continued to concentrate on their job. They didn’t fell for the misconception that Mike Rowe has been debunking, namely, that in order to be happy, you must discover “your passion.” They could be happy in whatever job they performed because they weren’t simply working for personal satisfaction; they were working for a greater cause: to provide their families with the financial stability they lacked as children.

Many guys today desire the things that took our parents and grandparents 30 years to achieve as soon as they graduate from college. The Greatest Generation, on the other hand, understood that getting into debt was not the way to acquire what you wanted. They realized that nice things in life must be achieved through hard work.

Embrace the Challenge (lesson #6)

The Greatest Generation was the greatest not because of, but because of the hardships they encountered. Many men nowadays avoid challenging tasks and challenges, assuming that the simpler life is, the happier they would be. Our grandfathers, on the other hand, knew better. They understood that you can’t have the sweet without the bitter, and that genuine pleasure comes from conquering the kinds of trials that help you grow as a person and polish your spirit. The difficulties they faced only added to their excitement, which was laced with thankfulness as they realized how easily it might have all been snatched away.

Lesson #7: Don’t Make Life Too Difficult

Old couple dancing in public area.

iamthelorax contributed this image.

If there’s one thing these teachings have in common, it’s having common sense and a level-headed attitude toward life. The Greatest Generation’s straightforward attitude to life is refreshing in today’s world, when men are obsessed with discovering themselves, their holy grail of a woman, and their “passion.” They didn’t go on a diet; instead, they ate whole foods; they didn’t exercise; they didn’t obsess over their relationships; they simply found a woman they liked and married her. They always looked nice, but they were unconcerned about the latest fashion fads. They didn’t consider which appliance best fit their personality and image; instead, they just purchased the most functional item. They didn’t think about how they were going to get things done; they just did it. When asked whether he missed his younger days, Joe Foss, a famed and daring WWII aviator and then-governor of South Dakota, said, “Oh no.” I’m not the kind of man who forgets things. “I’ve always been the kind of man that gets up and goes.” Instead of sitting around pondering your life, get up and do something!