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Mormons and the Mythology of the “Greatest Generation”

By August 15, 2013

This post is my contribution to our August theme highlighting the history of 20th Century Mormonism. A quick disclaimer–in the post I critique the idea of “The Greatest Generation.” This does not mean that I am degrading the patriotism or valor of men or relatives that served in the military during World War II. Many served valiantly and admirably. I am writing to expose some of the blind spots created by solely focusing on the pluck of individual soldiers and their commanders. Also, I know this post is a little long, so gird up your loins and ring the bell when you get to the top (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?)

The series of worldwide conflicts now collectively known as World War II transformed the sociopolitical landscape of both the Global North and South. The fighting redistricted the ongoing European ideological struggles between fascism, communism, and capitalism. It inspired anti-colonial movements throughout the world to fight the bonds of European imperialism. It also caused more deaths than any other conflict in human history with estimates of total deaths ranging between 50 and 85 million. From a global perspective, U.S. participation in the conflict appears relatively small–at least in terms of actual soldiers and casualties. Nevertheless, the number of U.S. deaths suffered during World War II exceeded the total from any other conflict except the American Civil War, and the actual number of combat deaths were probably greater. Somewhere around 275,000 Americans lost their lives in the fighting of World War II. In addition, a larger percentage of U.S. men of military age served in World War II than in any other U.S. conflict. Consequently, like the Civil War, World War II looms large in the American memory and consciousness. Historians, journalists, and novelists have written more books about these great 19th and 20th century conflicts than any other event in U.S. History. [1]

The great paradox of U.S. involvement in World War II is that Americans affected this world conflict disproportionately to the loss of life they experienced. Yet the scope of the United State’s casualties and its influence on the war’s outcome has made World War II one of the most significant military engagements in U.S. History. Most Americans, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have shown little interest in understanding the war’s complexities, but feel a personal connection to the conflict through relatives or acquaintances who fought in Europe or the Pacific. This combination of ignorance and fascination has created a market for popular representations of World War II which both obscure the real horrors of war and reveal the contours of human courage. One popular solution for resolving America’s oblivious captivation with World War II has been the creation of the idea of the “Greatest Generation.” Mormons have embraced this popular conception with equal, if not greater vigor. This post seeks to investigate this trope, demonstrate its significance to Mormon Studies, and illustrate its limitations.

Beginning in the 1990s, the United States seemed to experience a renaissance in the history and memory of World War II. This key moment in the creation of public and historical memory about the war emerged from the confluence of many demographic and cultural factors. The end of the Cold War made it appear that Democracy, so fervently defended by World War II soldiers, had won and led to an end of history. The fiftieth anniversary of the conflict created a motivation and deadline to recover and share lost histories from the war. The temporal distance from the trauma had helped many veterans find the perspective and strength to speak about their wartime experiences, and their advanced age led chroniclers to try and record this history before too many passed away. While this trend normally might have run its course after ten years of commemoration, the events of September 11, 2001 and the ambivalence caused by subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led many to long for the nostalgia of the “good war” of their fathers and grandfathers. Consider one of the most memorable images from the aftermath of the bombing, the photograph of firefighters raising the American flag over the wreckage and debris at Ground Zero. Many have pointed out that this image consciously drew from the famous iconography of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. [2]

Many American journalists, authors, and filmmakers worked diligently to capture and generate this nostalgia. They created an industry of memory production about World War II in these years surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century. Consider the following works: Band of Brothers (1992) and other works by “historian” Stephen Ambrose, The Greatest Generation (1997) by Tom Brokaw, Saving Private Ryan (1998) by Stephen Spielberg, Spielberg also produced the Band of Brothers (2001) miniseries for HBO. These were only the most universally acclaimed offerings from what became a cottage industry of World War II memory production–remember Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001). During this same period of time, the 1993 proposal for a National World War II Memorial led to fundraising, construction, and its dedication in April of 2004–a correlation in time frame which seems more than coincidental. [3]

One hallmark of all of these portrayals of World War II was their focus on the valor, strength, and fortitude of individual soldiers. Brokaw observed about those who lived through the World War II era which he called “the Greatest Generation”:

It is a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically, and culturally because of its sacrifices. It is a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor, a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. . . Millions of men and women were involved in this tumultuous journey through adversity and achievement, despair and triumph. Certainly there were those who failed to measure up, but taken as a whole this generation did have a “rendezvous with destiny.” [4]

Brokaw wrote of his parent’s generation, and understandably engaged in a certain amount of hyperbole. Nevertheless, his descriptions, along with the other portrayals previously discussed, have become the primary basis for public memory of World War II in the last twenty years.

Following the example of Brokaw and other popularizers of soldiers’ stories, producers of Mormon culture made sure that the contributions and faith of Latter-day Saint servicemen played a role in the mythology of the war. Since many of the leaders of the church had served in World War II, the idea that were no atheists in the foxholes of war had become an origin story for many leaders’ spiritual dedication and service. Before many of his stories proved fictional, Elder Paul H. Dunn had personified this mythology. In 2001, Covenant Communications, a popular Mormon press, released Robert Freeman’s and Dennis Wright’s Saints at War. The two authors, who at the time taught in BYU’s Department of Church History and Doctrine, claimed that they had been inspired by Brokaw and Ambrose to create an archive of Mormon soldiers’ accounts of military service during times of war. The book and its related CD and DVD offered short vignettes from different LDS soldiers’ World War II experiences. Unlike Brokaw, the authors of Saints at War allowed their subjects to speak for themselves, but in very short spurts. Most accounts focused on individual heroism, spiritual guidance on military missions, or soldiers’ efforts to maintain fellowship in the battlefield. Freeman and Wright also chose to edit out any derogatory terms used by their subjects to refer to the Japanese, Germans, or Italians. Consequently, Saints at War, as Freeman and Wright admit, “should not be seen as a history of World War II.” It offers an account of Mormon soldiers trying to hold on to the doctrines and practices of their church in an atmosphere often inimical to religious faith. It is a PG rendering of history meant to develop the faith of the reader. [5]

At about the same time, film director Ryan Little offered his film Saints and Soldiers (2005) which placed a Mormon soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder within a story of courage and intrigue supposedly inspired by real-life events. The Mormon soldier, along with several other escaped prisoners of war, struggled to help a crashed British pilot carry essential intelligence back to Allied lines. Mormon Corporal Nathan Greer gained his gentile companions’ respect and ultimately lost his life in his efforts to protect their lives and mission. Greer demonstrated his ability to follow Christ by giving his life for the sake of his friends. Similar to the argument made through the editing choices in Saints at War, Saints and Soldiers offers a portrayal of how Mormons lived their religion while in the trenches.

In many ways, such Mormon popular portrayals of Latter-day Saint wartime service followed the same basic pattern set by secular portrayals of World War II in the last two decades. This occurred, in part, because stories about Mormon participation in World War II fit into a narrative of Mormon integration into mainstream American society. World War II represented a moment when Mormons answered a call to service in the same way as other communities throughout the country. Popular Mormon portrayals of World War II generally focus on individuals rather than institutions. While revealing occasional weaknesses or misjudgments, LDS soldiers demonstrated the ability to hold to a set of admirable principles. These Mormon popularizers added the component of faith to the courage, humanity, patriotism, and loyalty that defined the “greatest generation.” Personal flaws were ignored, downplayed, or utilized as adversities overcome by courage. In popular LDS portrayals, Mormons emerged as premier examples of the “greatest generation” elevated by their willingness to adhere to values above and beyond their ordinary companions and consequently blessed with an insight that allowed them to achieve and endure great and difficult things. Should anyone doubt the enduring legacy of the “greatest generation” on popular Mormon thought, consider Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s decision to brand his BYU football team a “Band of Brothers.”

Historians must hold the Mormon appendix to the “greatest generation” myth up to the same critiques forcefully advanced by Kenneth Rose in his book Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II. The focus on exemplary soldiers during their most courageous moments obfuscates the many terrible injustices perpetrated by American soldiers and society during the war. Rose busts myths about the conflict both at home and abroad. For example, the legacies of sexual violence in every theater of war. American supplies placed U.S. soldiers in a position of abundance as the war forced them into environments of scarcity. For every soldier who used this abundance to give candy to children and feed starving refugees, there were other soldiers who leveraged their access to food into sexual violence. One of the terrible legacies of American occupation was the girth of illegitimate children they left in their wake. Sometimes they found women eager to please them, at other times they took what they wanted. U.S. victory and U.S. immunity from local law enforcement allowed a certain segment of American soldiers the freedom to rape and pillage and they worked to make the world safe for democracy. [6]

In addition, focusing on individual stories of valor keeps the U.S. public from dealing with the legacy of mass slaughter of civilians perpetrated by the U.S. military and its allies during the war. More civilians died in World War II than actual soldiers. Americans pilots indiscriminately bombed civilian targets throughout Germany and Japan. In Dresden alone, over 20,000 people, many of them civilians, perished by fire. The firebombing in Tokyo killed 100,000 people and left almost no building standing. The atomic bomb at Hiroshima directly killed 80,000 people, and the completely unnecessary bombing of Nagasaki killed upwards of 50,000 people. Tens of thousands more died from the effects of radiation. Military leaders advanced theories that such tactics saved U.S. lives, but this argument cannot mitigate the fact that Americans purposely targeted hundreds of thousands of civilians during the war. [7]

While historians offer many other criticisms of U.S. war strategy and policy abroad, my work focuses particularly on the injustices perpetuated by the U.S. military and government at home. The World War II army was a segregated army. African American soldiers often performed more menial tasks than white soldiers. They faced discrimination from officers and other soldiers. Often, the discrimination proved so terrible that soldiers returned home to the United States determined to fight for Civil Rights so that they might avoid such degrading service in the future. Another little known tragedy of the war was the treatment of pacifists such as Quakers. Men subject to the draft, whose religious convictions kept them from fighting, were placed in work camps in rural places such as Eastern Oregon where they worked cutting lumber for the war effort under very difficult conditions. It is fairly well-known that Franklin Roosevelt denied many Jews trying to escape the coming Holocaust access to the United States. American officials denied the existence of Concentration Camps until their own soldiers started encountering them first-hand. Such willful ignorance demonstrated the wide-spread anti-Semitism held by many Americans before and during the war. Finally, the government incarcerated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans–most of them without any evidence besides the country from which their parents emigrated. The justification that the necessities of war justified this blatant of Japanese American citizens’ civil rights proved inadequate, and government officials lied to the Supreme Court in their effort to cover their mistakes.

In the end, historians agree that leaders and soldiers from Germany, Japan, and Italy committed terrible atrocities both at home and abroad. Hitler lived up to almost every villainous claim made against him and more. Many of the people in these countries bought in to the hateful policies and rhetoric propagandized by their leaders. Historians also acknowledge the bravery and conviction held by soldiers like the ones depicted in recent popular culture both Mormon and secular. While the stories often omit darker details and have been reformulated to fit into popular narratives, many American soldiers fought bravely and with great humanity. Nonetheless, the conception of World War II as a “good war” and its soldiers as the “greatest generation” offers a representation of a struggle that never existed. American leader made difficult and sometimes evil choices. When Americans and Mormons forget that all conflicts create as much darkness as light, it becomes easy to forget that “war is hell.”


[1]  J.M. Winter, “demography of the war,” in The Oxford Companion to World War II, eds. I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 289-292; the Companion also makes clear that casualty statistics are notoriously unreliable.

[2] Guy Westwall, “One Image Begets Another: A Comparative Analysis of Flag-raising on Iwo Jima and Ground Zero Spirit,” Journal of War and Culture Studies 1, no. 3 (2008): 325-340.

[3] Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, S & S Classic Edition (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001); Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation, 2nd edition (New York: Random House, 2004).

[4] Brokaw, 11-12.

[5] Robert C. Freeman and Dennis A. Wright, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-day Saints in World War II (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2001).

[6] Kenneth Rose, Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[7] Oxford Companion to World War II, s.v. “strategic air offensives.”



Panel Summary: “Teaching Mormonism in the Digital Age”

By January 9, 2012

I spent this last weekend at the annual American Historical Association meeting and since the American Society of Church History is an affiliated organization and holds its meeting concurrently, I was able to sit in on the Mormon History Association panel entitled “Teaching Mormonism in the Digital Age.” What follows is a summary of the presentations given. Jan Shipps chaired the panel with Kathleen Flake, Patrick Mason, and Peter Thuesen participating. Jonathan Moore was supposed to participate, but ultimately was not able to make it. Dr. Flake tried to incorporate some aspects from his paper into her own. For me, the most exciting part of the panel involved the glimpses of Dr. Flake’s upcoming work which looks to be groundbreaking.  This rather long summary is from handwritten notes, so I make no claims to it being a perfect representation of the presenters’ ideas. Any mistakes are my own. I hope you enjoy.

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Book Review: Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 by Reid Neilson

By August 17, 2011

Neilson, Reid L. Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010

Dr. Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ history department, has written a fascinating account of the Mormon Japanese Mission at the turn of the 20th century. Neilson argues that the 19th century LDS missionary experience in the United States and Europe had calcified Mormon evangelizing strategies to a degree that ultimately determined their failure in the rapidly modernizing Japanese nation. While Neilson’s trajectory often wades a little shallow and missionary-centric, his transnational gaze at Mormon mission policy and practice, while situating his study in a comparative Christian missionary framework, offers important inroads for scholars of Mormon history who have too often found themselves mired in the nineteenth century American origins story of a 21st century global church.

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The Responsibilities of History (and Historians)

By September 1, 2010

JI bloggers invest significant amounts of time and effort in this blog, and this commitment becomes quite evident through the internal debates that sometimes occur behind the scenes as we discuss the future and purpose of this ever-changing form of new media in which we have become involved. Today we invite you behind the scenes to illustrate one of the great debates among historians today. In part, the discussions developed as many of us commented on Max’s excellent post on the proposed New York City mosque and community center, the debate about building it so close to Ground Zero, and how Mormons should react based on their shared history of religious persecution. Max adeptly historicized the issue of Mormons and the mosque in an effort to turn the overwhelming and sometimes baffling tide of Mormon opinion against its construction.

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Finding Mormon References in the Strangest Place

By June 1, 2010

This summer I am doing some freelance research for a family on one of their ancestors who edited a small community newspaper in Marion, Ohio from 1877-1883. The man, George Christian Sr., was Warren G. Hardings’ neighbor and his son became Harding’s secretary during his senatorial and abbreviated presidential years. Although Christian probably is not particularly relevant to the readership of this blog, I have been surprised to see how often Mormons make an appearance in Christian’s newspaper, the Marion Mirror.

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The Corporatization of the University (Updated)

By November 16, 2009

The Graduate Student Employment Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois is going on strike tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM. I know this blog is primarily about the study of Mormon History, but inasmuch as almost all of its contributors are involved in Graduate Education I thought they might be interested in the following letter I wrote to my undergraduate students as an explanation for the strike. I think it tries to explain and interrogate the rapid corporatization of universities all over the country. I promise I will write something about Mormon history soon 🙂 We would also appreciate any support from those of you in Illinois.

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Repudiating Scholarly Violence in Mormon History

By April 6, 2009

Before I start this post, I just want to apologize to all my fellow JIers for my unproductive participation in the blog as of late. Because my primary area of research falls outside of the Mormon History paradigm, I often have to wait for the spirit to move me towards some sort of meaningful post. I still want to put together some concluding thoughts on Mormonism and ethnicity one of these days, but it seems like my dissertation research has kept me pretty busy the last little while. I am hoping to attend at least some of the Mormon History Conference in May since Springfield is quite close to Champaign. Several posts on the Bloggernacle of late (not particularly on JI but as a blog devoted to Mormon history I think this is a good forum for addressing the issue) have made me think about the reality and role of bias in the production of historical scholarship.

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Examining Mormon Ethnicity (Part II)

By December 8, 2008

I realized after thinking about my previous post that I did not really summarize what scholars mean by defining Mormons as an “ethnic” group or “ethnicity.” Different historians have explained the idea in different ways. For example, Dean L. May’s explanation emphasizes the shared migratory experience of the pioneers and the voluntary spatial isolation represented by Mormon settlement in the West. [1] Jan Shipps similarly argues in her Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition that “by virtue of a common paradigmatic experience as well as isolation, [Latter-day Saints have acquired an ethnic identity so distinct that it sets the Saints apart in much the same fashion that ethnic identity sets the Jews apart. [2] Patricia Limerick outlines the components of Mormon ethnicity as “the creation of a community in which religious belief laid the foundations for a new worldview, a new pattern of family organization, a new set of ambitions, a new combination of common bonds and obligations, a new definition of separate peoplehood.” [3] All of these definitions sound very apt until you start to think about the process of defining and the ways that these definitions either include or exclude.

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Identifying with Romney? My Historiographical Rant Against Mormon Ethnicity

By November 17, 2008

Having recently completed my Preliminary exams, and thus ended my self-imposed blogging moratorium, I have decided to put up a first offering in a series of posts regarding the ethnicity paradigm and Mormon identity.

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Model Minorities?

By August 25, 2008

I have recently been exploring Chiung Hwang Chen’s 2004 book Mormon and Asian American Model Minority Discourses in News and Popular Media which, along with her and her husband Ethan Yorgason’s 1999 Dialogue article, makes the case that the media has portrayed both Asian Americans and Mormons in the last fifty years utilizing what Asian American scholars have identified as a model minority discourse. [1] Although Chen is not a historian, the way that she tracks changes in representation over time feels quite historical and, in some ways, might be considered a continuation of what Terryl Givens was trying to do in The Viper on the Hearth. [2] Although I have some critiques of the book which I will get to later, I thought it might be relevant to also consider some of the advantages to her approach.

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