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.”



Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice work, Joel. I’ve missed your thoughtful posts.

    Comment by Christopher — August 15, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  2. Ditto to Christopher: this post reaffirms that JI has missed your exquisitely thoughtful, meticulous, and impressively smart analysis.

    Comment by Ben P — August 15, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  3. Excellent.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — August 15, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

  4. This is an interesting post, but it feels incomplete. You start by drawing parallels between the popular view of WWII and its soldiers to the popular view within the Church of WWII and its soldiers. Your discussion of those parallels end, however, when you start talking about the horrors and atrocities of war.

    Granted, not all soldiers were “saints”, but are you saying anything about the participation of members of the Church or the Church itself, either as soldiers abroad or participating/supporting the work camps of conscientious objectors or incarceration of Japanese Americans? For example, Utah had its own camp, which included as its residents my wife’s grandmother. I would have liked to have seen the second part of the discussion more fleshed out.

    Comment by CS Eric — August 15, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

  5. Thanks Christopher, Ben, and Gary

    Maybe I’ll try and pop up a little more often around here.

    CS Eric,

    I actually think you captured the point of the post. I was trying to point out that the popular conception of World War II and Mormons in World War II ignores a lot of what really happened during the conflict. My three paragraphs about the more difficult aspects of the history of World War II were simply offered to show show what the narrative of the “greatest generation” and “Saints as Soldiers” leaves out about this transformative global conflict. As for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, I am literally writing a dissertation on the topic. It just wasn’t the point of the post. I wrote something about Japanese Americans and Mormons during the war a while back here. I also left out some thoughts about the contemporary Mormon response to the war for the sake of length.

    Comment by Joel — August 15, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  6. A wonderful post, Joel. I’ve wondered if WWII is where the LDS Church started being regarded as hyper-patriotic (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Certainly, WWI and J. Reuben Clark helped pave the way, but Ezra Taft Benson’s visits to war-ravaged Europe are believed to be the launching point of his anti-communist leanings.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 15, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

  7. As a non American, can I point out that there is some concern about the films portraying the war. Most of course are from a US perspective, and very unbalanced.

    You may get an idea why when you compare the casualty rates for different countries. US 0.3%, Australia0.57, UK 0.9, USSR 14%, Poland 17%. I realise America was not in the war for the first couple of years, but can you see how it could rankle if a country with 300% or up to 5000% of your casualties sees you claiming to win the war.

    It’s also a problem that countries are coerced into US conflicts. The coalition of the “willing”.

    On a different angle I have a problem with the number of Hymns we sing that seem to glorify war.

    Comment by Geoff - A — August 15, 2013 @ 10:28 pm

  8. Joel,
    Fair enough. I guess I was just looking for your views of the contemporary response of the Church to the war. I can see that you would leave it out for the length of the post. I think it is a good thing that you leave your readers wanting more.

    Comment by CS Eric — August 15, 2013 @ 11:43 pm

  9. J.,
    I think World War II was a moment of convergence between Mormons and mainstream American society. I don’t know if it was the beginning of the perceptions of Mormons as hyper-patriotic, but it couldn’t have hurt to have so many LDS soldiers entering the war. It’s been a long time since I looked through any of Benson’s memoirs, but I imagine that war-torn Europe would have been a transcendent experience.


    I’m glad you agree about the films. I agree with you that the idea of “winning” the war is problematic in a lot of different ways. The truth is that the principle contribution of the United States to the war effort was in money and resources, not soldiers.

    Comment by Joel — August 16, 2013 @ 12:15 am

  10. Arguments about who won the war get us off the track you started us on. I think what makes the WWII generation of Americans so unique is that it was by and large a generation that had suffered through the Depression, did not have a real middle class, did not think of itself as the greatest nation on earth, and was largely unprepared to fight a war both in Europe and the Pacific. That we rose to the occasion, imperfect though we might have been, and did so with a minimum of whining, is what most people, including Tom Brokaw, are referring to. While it’s true that our main contribution to the war effort was in money and resources, and while it’s equally true that our efforts in Europe were dwarfed by those of the Soviet Union, please don’t tell me our soldiers, aviators and sailors weren’t important. Every male member on both sides of my family was in uniform for that war.

    Comment by Aaron — August 16, 2013 @ 8:00 am

  11. This is a great post, Joel. One of my first exposures to this subject came reading Michael Adams’ The Best War Ever: America and World War II in an undergrad class at BYU. How has Adams’ book held up against subsequent work?

    Do you get a sense that Mormons are unique or representative of broader trends in ways that Americans memorialize World War II? Do you get the sense that internment camps were located in the Mormon Corridor has had any impact in the ways that (white) Mormons think about World War II?

    Comment by David G. — August 16, 2013 @ 9:28 am

  12. Interesting post. Felicitous timing, coming on the 68th anniversary of the announcement of the Japanese surrender. And I agree–there’s altogether too much hagiography in U.S. writing about World War II, and it’s even worse in the writing about LDS servicemen.

    A couple of minor quibbles. I don’t think Stephen Ambrose deserves to be singled out with scare quotes. I agree that Ambrose’s later work, including Band of Brothers, wasn’t good, frankly, but his early work, on Eisenhower in particular, doesn’t deserve it. And if Ambrose gets that treatment, then surely Tom Brokaw deserves it as well, don’t you think?

    People have been arguing for a long time about the bombing of Nagasaki, but I don’t think the “completely unnecessary” folks have routed the other side. The principal evidence on the other side is the continued refusal of the Japanese government to quit fighting. Perhaps a few days more to let the horror of Hiroshima sink in would have brought them to their senses–but we can’t re-run August 1945 and see how things would have turned out if the second atomic bombing were rescheduled for, say, the 15th. (Besides, we might never have heard of Nagasaki, since Hakata, the principal target which was obscured by clouds on August 9, may have had clear skies on the 15th. Which among other things would have spared Nagasaki a bunch of horrid Soviet Realist art.)

    I’m not quite certain why we should bemoan the difficult conditions of conscientious objectors in lumber camps in the Pacific Northwest–they were a hell of a lot better than the conditions faced by the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions on Omaha Beach, or by the 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions in Okinawa. And my dad never liked winter camping after spending winter 1945 in France.

    Regarding casualty rates, there’s no question that the U.S. emerged from the war with much smaller losses than any other major combatant. But your number of 275,000 combat losses is about 45,000 low–290,000 combat deaths and 30,000 missing are the latest numbers I’ve seen. The smaller numbers are primarily due to the shorter duration of U.S. combat operations. By contrast, the Russians were in constant contact with German forces from June 1941 until May 1945, on a front that at times was over 1000 miles wide. (And Russian commanders were considerably less concerned about minimizing their own troops’ casualties.) In contrast, the Americans had small forces on narrow fronts in the Mediterranean from November 1942 onwards, and somewhat larger numbers in Northwest Europe during the last 11 months of the war. The small overall numbers should not, however, blind us to the intensity of the fighting–recent studies have shown that casualty rates on both sides during the Battle of Normandy (June 6 to July 20, 1944) were as high as losses on the Russian front. I haven’t seen similar comparisons for the worst of the fighting in the Pacific, but I suspect that Peleliu and Iwo Jima and Okinawa show similar casualty rates.

    Finally, I trust that you meant “perpetrated” in each of the places where you wrote “perpetuated.” I’d blame it on auto-correct.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 16, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

  13. Interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 16, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  14. Aaron,
    You are right that arguments about who won the war get us off track. I would also say that personalizing the conflict is one of the largest reasons we favor certain narratives and ignore others about the war.

    I think Adams (1995) was reacting to a different era of mythology–though my post is clunkily trying to make the same kind of point he made in his conclusion. He synthesized a generation of scholarship that focused primarily on the social history of the war. He was drawing on revisionist histories of the war from the 1980s which at times made their points with a heavy hand. We now know a lot more about many of decisions made in World War II because most of the documents opened up in the 2000s. Ever since then, historians have been filling in the gaps of some of this provocative, but sometimes difficult scholarship. For example, we now now much more about the U.S. Occupation of Japan and the arguments and tactics going on behind the scenes of the war.

    As for Mormons remembering the war, I think the powerful emphasis on transcendent faith and its role in protecting and comforting soldiers in popular Mormon memory is something different from the general mythology of the war which sometimes mentions generic faith in God. As for the camps, I am always surprised when I talk to people about my work–now that I am living in Utah. Almost everyone talks about an uncle or relative who worked at a camp–though as often as it is at one of the Japanese internment facilities, it is a prisoner-of-war camp for Germans. I haven’t really thought enough about what this means, but it is an interesting and consistent phenomenon.

    Thanks for the spelling correction, I changed it in the original post–dang spell correction 🙂

    As for Ambrose, his early work is respected. It is the proven plagiarism that makes him suspect to other historians. He cut corners to produce quickly. Also, many of us are probably also jealous of his popular appeal. His later works on the war really did add to popular mythology as did the mini-series based on his work. Brokaw is not a historian; he is a journalist writing history for a popular audience. Hence, no quotation marks.

    As for Nagasaki, the biggest problem with the decision to drop the second bomb is that Truman and other military leaders didn’t listen to their own experts on the Japanese who all stated that both bombs were probably unnecessary. The crew known as the China hats had taken over the Asia desk in the Department of State. Work from Japanese historians has proven, almost conclusively, that the Japanese government was ready to surrender before Nagasaki. Many decision-makers later regretted their decision about the second bomb. As for Nagasaki being a second choice, bad weather could have given the military an excuse to wait.

    My problem with the treatment of conscientious objectors is that many were being persecuted for their religious and political beliefs. They were not treated with the same respect as soldiers–though they held to their convictions just a strongly

    Finally, as to the question of casualties. I did add a footnote that casualty statistics are notoriously unreliable. Even with augmented casualty numbers, the percentages increase only marginally. One reason for the significantly smaller numbers of dead Americans, as I pointed out in the original post, is that very few American civilians died in the conflict. Civilian deaths on both sides were common throughout Europe and Asia

    Comment by Joel — August 17, 2013 @ 1:47 am

  15. Great post! You forgot to mention how bankers from the U.S. funded Hitler throughout the war and how war is really about the few convincing the many to kill each other in the name of power and money for the few. One simply needs to look at our most “holy” war contractor profits since 9-11 to see the incentive to keep perpetual war going in the name of “God and country.” On to Syria, then Iran and God bless the U.S.A.

    Comment by james4250 — September 1, 2013 @ 12:47 pm


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