Harry Patch, Henry Allingham: the very names of the last two survivors of the Great War have something square-shouldered, clear-eyed and honourable about them. What has been mourned over the past few days is not just the passing of two venerable servicemen but a lost age of straightforward integrity, civility and courage. Those who lived and died in the two world wars belong, we are repeatedly told, to the great – perhaps even the greatest – generation. Harry Patch and Henry Allingham were, according to one newspaper report, “the final link to a braver and nobler world”.
This view fits the spirit of our own age. Modern history tends to be painted in black and white. The Great War was a tragic waste. Lions were led by donkeys. The personal heroism of the ordinary Tommy was betrayed by the incompetence of the powerful. As for the Second World War, it saw a generation fighting and dying for the last great military cause, to save the world from fascism.
It is right, of course, that grateful tributes should be paid to those who have sacrificed so much for their country, but the coverage this week has gone further than that. There has been a powerful element of generational cringe, an unquestioned assumption that those who have lived through the peacetime years since 1945 have failed their brave predecessors in some fundamental way.
This attitude, an expression of modish self-hatred, both patronises the past by ironing out any awkward complexities (in vain did Harry Patch point out that not every soldier was a hero) and insults the present by glossing over or ignoring the different kinds of achievements of peacetime.
Reading recently letters sent by soldiers to a young serving officer in 1944, I have found it difficult not to envy the straightforward manly comradeship and sympathy they express. The horrors of what they lived through forged an intensity of loyalty and, though they would never use the word, love which their cosseted children and grandchildren will never experience.
That courage and stoicism, shared my many men and women, were needed at the time. It is absurd and reductive to compare how people behaved in times of war to how peacetime generations have reacted to different, less perilous pressures.
No one in the future is likely to salute the passing of the non-fighting generations, to murmur respectfully “He served in the Sixties, you know”, but it is important for our sanity and sense of worth that this generational inferiority complex does not take hold. There are other types of courage, other ways of contributing to the world, of responding the challenges each new age provides.
On the day when the press was full of tributes to last veterans of the First World War, a film showing a quirky kind of peaceable bravery was being broadcast. No sane person suggests that Philippe Petit, whose mad dream to walk a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center was captured in the documentary Man on Wire, should receive a medal from a grateful nation – indeed, for many people, defying national security and risking lives for the sake of an extreme stunt would be the perfect definition of social irresponsibility.
Yet Petit’s realisation of his crazy fantasy represents, in a pure form, the defiant, exuberant and rebellious individuality which marked the late 1960s. He and his co-conspirators found that a grand, politically subversive gesture with which to reject the world of careers, of fitting in, of behaving in a socially approved manner, and much of the freedom which we take for granted today was born of that refusal to conform.
That spirit of skittish private subversion, captured by the title of Richard Neville’s book Playpower, has been much mocked down the years, but it released a wave of musical, artistic and literary talent, shook up the political establishment and did much to break the shackles of class and prejudice. Above all, it showed that the power to act need not be limited by a person’s social position or even lack of talent. There is a direct connection between what was called the “youthquake” of that time and that ultimate, anarchic expression of individualism, the internet.
The generation of Philippe Petit and Richard Neville was not particularly noble but it responded to the demands of the moment, as have subsequent generations to the different challenges facing them. People in their twenties and thirties are, on the whole, better parents, more tolerant to others, more open to different ways of doing things than their parents or grandparents.
One could incidentally argue that today’s generation is, when it is required of them, every bit as brave as the old veterans who have recently died. Young soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen more direct and dangerous action than many of their counterparts of the Second World War, and have not had the advantage of being part a great national war effort. Yet such is the craving for the fake certainties of the past that while the war generations are represented as all that is good and noble, those who have lived in peacetime are invariably seen as wastrels, scroungers, feral, feckless – whatever the current buzzword of moral censure happens to be.
In our culture of disapproval, an unthinking fings-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be attitude propels every scolding paragraph of the Daily Moan or the Daily Depress. Why is that? Could it be more than a coincidence that those setting the tone of the media are part of generation which, unlike its parents and grandparents, has never had to make any kind of sacrifice?
There is an enduring sense of guilt among those who have never had to fight and die for their country. Perhaps those feelings of unworthiness are, in a manner which will be familiar to psychologists, expressed in aggression and grumpiness towards others.
The generations that fought in world wars were brave, and we are in their debt, but much of the talk of the greatest generation, of moral and spiritual decline, is sentimental, knee-jerk journalism. One only has to look at the way our society has treated the old, the very people who belonged to that “braver and nobler age”, to see just how skin-deep our gratitude towards them is.