WHEN I was growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, patriotism wasn't something I was forced to learn. It came naturally. From the experience of my father and his brothers who served in World War II, to my mother's memory of what life was like on the home front, I was taught by example what it meant to love my country.
Mom kept a scrapbook, which I inherited. I see my Dad and his buddies. I also look at Mom's ration books and recall a generation largely untouched by the entitlement mentality that grips us today. We didn't have air conditioning in our home or car. We thought an electric fan was OK. In summer, we opened windows in our car and home.
Gasoline was cheap, when you could get it. Tires were less than plentiful because rubber, like so many other things, went to the "war effort." Children were asked at the end of movies, which were worth seeing, to buy savings stamps and adults were exhorted to purchase U.S. Savings Bonds. Most people thought these were good things to do.
Neighbors mostly helped each other and shared what they had with those who had less. The letters Mom preserved show my Dad loved us and he loved his country. He, and we, knew that all of our armed forces were opposing evil.
Such notions today are considered politically incorrect. Many in the current generation - the whining generation - tell us not to think highly of America. We are all one world now. In fact, America, because of her success and power, is supposedly responsible for much of the world's misery. We consume too much energy. We make too much money. We ought to give away what we have earned to others who did not earn it and do not wish to emulate what we did to get it.
Fighting for one's beliefs and the American way of life is now considered more evil than the evil our fighting men and women have opposed over the generations. Standing for anything is regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgmental, imposing morality and a violation of church-state separation. So, we fall for everything.
Those ideas were foreign to my parents' world. They were part of what Tom Brokaw aptly named "The Greatest Generation."
Mr. Brokaw's latest book is called "An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from The Greatest Generation." (Random House) It contains letters and pictures from World War II veterans, their spouses, children and grandchildren. The book is a needed rebuke to those among us who complain of an occasional power blackout and $2-per-gallon gasoline. Our generation is spoiled and self-indulgent and is mostly unfit to carry the duffel bag of a World War II vet.
One letter among many in Mr. Brokaw's book sets the tone for what that generation can teach us. Robert Cromer, from Roundlake, Ill., became a soldier at 18 and was twice wounded.
"We were privileged to grow up in a time when honor, truth, loyalty, duty and patriotism were real and meant something," Mr. Cromer writes. "Growing up in the Depression was not a great honor, but it was a classroom that taught us to be independent and innovative. We made our own toys out of orange crates and roller skates. We made our kites from newspapers and we melted lead to pour into molds to make soldiers, cowboys and Indians. We made rubber guns from a piece of 2-by-4, a half a clothespin, and a section of inner tube from a car tire ..."
Mr. Cromer adds, "The community stuck together and family was very important. Parents were role models ... In the back of my mind was always the thought, 'Don't ever do anything to bring disgrace to your family.' I never thought of' 'me first' or 'do your own thing' and neither did anyone else."
Mr. Cromer says by today's standards he and his family would have been considered poor but "nobody came around to tell us so."
Mr. Brokaw has performed a valuable service by publishing these books. Anyone wishing to know why we have so many social problems today should read these letters and understand that such problems occur because we've departed from the code of conduct that allowed the Greatest Generation to survive and prevail over the twin evils of a depression and a world war.
Their virtue, as well as their sacrifice, is what we should remember this Memorial Day and every day.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.