(In remembrance of, among others, Captain Beefheart.)
It may well be that the conception of well-marked generations got its impetus from the world wars, now usually called One and Two. The first, once simply The Great War, was the war of my grandparents; the second, that of my parents. That distinction was clear, easy to remember, soundly based in events.
The first war seems not to have touched my family much. Both my grandfathers were too old to be conscripted, and my Swedish grandfather lived in a neutral country. The second war, on the other hand, touched everyone. All my uncles served; all my aunts contributed on the home front. My father, after receiving a BME courtesy of the Army, travelled to Japan just in time to see Macarthur accept the surrender of the Japanese at Tokyo Bay. Of his experiences he, like many veterans, said very little. It was not for them to speak of “the greatest generation”—that was someone else’s invention. My mother was a med tech at Oak Ridge; among her duties was that of checking the radiation badges of some of her fellow workers; even so she was as surprised as anyone else when the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The children of the millions who fought in WWII were the famous Baby Boomers—the cohorts of 1946 to 1964, says the US Census Bureau (I would have said 1960). We were a generation too, self-consciously so, with a boost from the marketing division. Our war was Vietnam, morally ambiguous at best, tangled inextricably with the fall of LBJ and the crimes of Nixon. For me and, I think, many of my age, World War II remained the War, out of which came the Bomb (A- or H-), the Cold War, the Holocaust (becoming prominent in popular culture only after the trial of Eichmann) — features of the landscape, so to speak, that accompanied our first four decades like the roar of distant jets. The Vietnam War, though millions died in it, was, together with the almost forgotten “police action” in Korea, a single battle in the forty-five-year conflict between Freedom and the Evil Empire.
After wars, memorials. Veterans Day used to be Armistice Day; Memorial Day, originally a Civil War remembrance, was Decoration Day. Now, with too many wars to remember, we cannot devote a holiday to each. We have one for all, just as to all our dead Presidents we now devote a single convenient Monday not long after Valentines.
Generations subsequent to the Baby Boomers have proved difficult to define. Proposed names don’t stick. In part that is, I think, because the Boomers were in fact just the “children of WWII”. The previous two generations were marked by their wars; that allowed one more—the generation after the last war—to be clearly discerned within the gapless stream of birth and death. After that, despite attempts to distinguish a “Generation X” or the “Millennials”, there has been no generation of the sort so triumphantly proclaimed by the Who as they destroyed their amps and guitars, and the notion itself now seems to have been an artifact of its time, rightly consigned to history’s attic.