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The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II

by Thomas Childers

Pub Date: May 13th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-618-77368-8
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A sympathetic, wide-ranging look at unseen casualties of World War II—those psychologically damaged by battle.

The last battle of the men and women traumatized by combat was fought, writes Childers (History/Univ. of Pennsylvania; In the Shadows of War: An American Pilot’s Odyssey Through Occupied France and the Camps of Nazi Germany, 2003, etc.), not “on the fields of Europe or on the jungle islands and coral atolls of the South Pacific, but on the main streets of American towns.” Hundreds of thousands of soldiers came back shattered, suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and all that malady can bring, from difficulties holding jobs and maintaining relationships to substance abuse, mental illness and criminal behavior. None of this is news, of course; the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives limns the larger outlines of that story. Childers digs deep into the historical data, however, to show how widespread the alienation of the much-heralded Greatest Generation was after the war had ended, when more than two million veterans found themselves at home but out of work and without much to do. They had given the best years of their lives to their country, but now felt more than a little disgruntled about the experience. The passage of the GI Bill helped, as did a reviving economy that put veterans back to work. But the more seriously damaged soldiers, including one from Childers’s hometown to whom he pays touching homage, remained outsiders forevermore—and, as he notes, some are only now being diagnosed with PTSD, 65 years after the war’s end. Hardest of all for many, he writes, was the shame of having survived under terrible conditions to return to safety, “surrounded by the omnipresent family, stumbling over one another, everyone striving to behave well.”

A lucid study of a well-remembered war’s forgotten soldiers.