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Brent Budowsky

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Hemingway at War, America in Crisis

Posted: 10/02/11 05:44 PM ET

Several years ago, C-SPAN aired a brilliant half-day of discussion about the role of Ernest Hemingway in American history. Hemingway was a reporter, war correspondent and one of America's greatest writers, whose story offers profound insight at a time of epochal economic crisis, joblessness and poverty.

What makes Hemingway so relevant today is how he merged great literary works with personal heroism in world-shaking events, including World War I, the Spanish civil war and World War II.

Hemingway lived during the historical periods known as the American Century and the Greatest Generation. If our past is prologue, the solutions to our crises today are found in reviving the spirit of shared transcendent purpose and individual courage and action that Hemingway and others of his times embodied.

Hemingway was a hero during World War I, an ambulance driver decorated for valor, which seeded his epic novel A Farewell to Arms. He witnessed the battle between fascism and democracy of the Spanish civil war, which seeded his timeless novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. He was a war correspondent and combatant during World War II, participating in missions for the OSS and the liberation of Paris.

Hemingway at war dramatizes the values of a time when great masses of people believed their destiny was to pursue great aspirations through great acts of personal engagement.

This period began with the popular reformism of Teddy Roosevelt after the corruptions of the Gilded Age. America then became a world power during the First World War. The Greatest Generation won the epic battle against fascism, when taxi drivers and movie stars, teachers and bankers shared sacrifice together for transcendent values and common interests.

While Hemingway battled in Europe, segregated blacks served with valor, presaging the civil-rights movement. Women joined as the backbone of the war effort at home and as nurses in theaters of combat, empowering the movement for equality.

In our age, by contrast, troops who represent 1 percent of the nation bear the burdens of war; 1 percent of the nation reaps vast, disproportionate wealth; nearly 20 percent of the nation endures the pain of joblessness; and 46 million people endure an American tragedy of poverty.

The American Century advanced with John F. Kennedy and the younger generation within the Greatest Generation. Kennedy used family influence not to avoid combat but to join it. His presidency remains alive today, inspiring countless people, young and old, five decades later.

This spirit is embodied by those Tom Wolfe brilliantly called the Right Stuff astronauts -- average Americans who became legendary symbols of the American idea through acts of indescribable courage.

In important ways, Kennedy's Camelot was real. JFK inspired Americans to come to Washington to make America better, not to make a fast buck through revolving doors. He inspired people throughout the world to think big, act bravely and give themselves to a higher purpose.

Similarly, I would credit Ronald (and Nancy) Reagan for the part of his presidency that contributed mightily to reversing the nuclear arms race and leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This spirit remains alive, from the noble patriotism of countless Americans to the dreams of young people who march for their Arab Spring in Tahrir Square.

But this spirit is largely dead in the high councils of political and financial power. Both are widely reviled by our people. Reviving this spirit would be the great source of our solutions and should be the great issue in 2012.

President Obama recently told an audience: "Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying." These words by the president would have been profound if addressed to an audience of CEOs who enjoy enormous wealth and lead firms with enormous profits while they hoard trillions of dollars they refuse to spend or lend.

Instead, the president addressed these words to voices for the most crushed constituency in one of the most unfair economies in the history of capitalism. This attitude is the source of the president's problem and the nation's crises.

When I write of "Hemingway at war," I refer to an American idea and spirit, and a universal idea and spirit. We can read about the carnage of war in A Farewell to Arms, and the power of great aspirations in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and consider what each of us can do in our times by remembering what Ernest Hemingway and so many others did in theirs.

This column was originally published at The Hill.