The Cynicalest Generation
The point is well-taken. I’ll be the first to admit that my generation (X, for those keeping score) is spoiled. But not any moreso than the generation that preceded it or the ones that follow.
On the other hand, I think that making a comparison between the current war (On Terror, in Iraq, or a blended combination of the two) and WWII reveals some interesting differences.
Firstly, the nature of the enemy is dramatically different. In WWII we were facing an open alliance of nation-states bent on a nationalistic ideology and territorial conquest. The foe we face today is a hidden political movement, which is using a very narrow interpretation of holy scripture to justify violence in the pursuit of a political end. Terrorists are not, in fact, nation-states. Indeed, the “War On Terror” should not technically be classified as a war, but as a police operation. War is “Diplomacy by other means,” that is, using violence or the threat of violence to influence other nation-states to protect the national interest.
We cannot be at “war” with Al Qaida, as there is no chance of diplomacy with them. Hitler and Hirohito could negotiate and surrender, and their armies would lay down their arms. If Osama bin Laden showed up at CIA headquarters, shaved his beard and repented of his every crime, that would not stop the war. You cannot fight a “war” against a decentralized non-governmental organization. You can, however, pursue standard criminal charges. Indeed such an approach is more effective, often, than the “send in the Marines!” method of conflict resolution.
Then there is the idea of sacrifice. My generation is not opposed to it, believe it or not. We shelled out millions to help the Tsunami victims and the Katrina victims, sometimes curtailing our own expenses to do so. But the fact of the matter is, the current regime has not asked us to sacrifice anything but our sacred freedoms.
Indeed, George II has specifically said that we should continue business as usual in the face of this war, going about our lives as if nothing has happened. The last thing he and the Energy Syndicate want is for Americans to stop buying gasoline and other fine petroleum products – gods forbid that the war get in the way of profits. It took two major hurricanes and the near-collapse of the petroleum infrastructure for the painful words “energy conservation” to come out of W’s mouth. Material sacrifice, which Americans (Gen X included) are willing to do, that is not asked of us by the regime. We’d even be in favor of slightly higher taxes, if necessary. That idea makes a neo-con’s heart turn to ice.
No, the only thing that we are sacrificing are the very liberties that our fathers and grandfathers fought for and died for. We are speeding towards the establishment of a Big-Brother style police state, thanks to the Patriot Act and similar legislation. National ID cards are proposed and narrowly defeated during nearly every legislative session. (“Papers, please?” the SS officer says in a crisp, efficient voice . . .) Better means to monitor and track the actions of every American are routinely requested and granted without adequate review. The right of habeas corpus, the very foundation of our entire justice system, has been suspended. In New Orleans after the flood government-hired Blackwater Security mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians who sought basic necessities in a time of crisis. We are no longer free to read what we wish unmonitored by authority. In short, we have spent hundreds of billions of dollars doing to ourselves what we would have defiantly went to war to keep a foreign power from imposing upon us. If this is war, then we are losing because we are defeating ourselves and paying for the privilege.
When will these “temporary” incursions of our freedoms be restored? When the conflict is over? And when does that happen? I
n WWII we knew precisely when the war was over. When can we declare victory here? What criteria have been established as conditions of victory? Or are we condemned to sacrifice our freedoms piecemeal in a permanent state of conflict? That is not what the brave men who stormed Normandy beaches for, nor the ones who fought against the other enemies of the Republic.
Another major difference between Gen X and the WWII generation is a matter of sophistication and education. On the whole our population is far more educated than the WWII generation. While I’ll be the first to decry the deplorable state of public education in America, at the same time we have one of the most well-educated populations in the world . . . and we are increasingly using that education to examine the policies of our leadership. The legacy of Watergate has made our citizenry naturally suspicious of our government, and with good cause. The people recognize the importance of foreign policy, energy policy, and trade policy in ways that no previous generation did. And we are more willing, in general, to hold our leaders to account.
When the decision to extend China Most Favored Nation status came before Congress during the Clinton Administration, what would have been seen as a highly specialized and technical aspect of trade policy, best left to the governmental experts, in a previous age was widely debated as the ramifications of such a move were understood by a much wider portion of the population. In 1940 less than 1% of the population had a post-secondary education. Here and now you cannot even think about a decent salaried job without at least a two-year degree, and a BA is considered a bare minimum standard for most management positions – even in food service and retail. There are more college graduates in prison at the moment than there were in all of the USA during WWII. We are a lot less likely to invest our leadership with our faith and confidence on obtuse technical matters, because as a people we understand them much better than our ancestors ever did.
In WWII there were a handful of government-censored media outlets. Here and now we are getting our news retail, through thousands of outlets from blogs to CNN. Everyone can carry a video camera in their pocket, and within hours serious abuses of power that could be easily swept under the rug in that “Golden Age” are headlined on international TV – and often they are late getting the news. We have instant access to information, news, commentary, opinion, and debate. What would have happened if the illegally detained Japanese citizens in the internment camps had blogs? Would the American people have stood for the treatment their fellow loyal citizens were receiving?
Despite the current regime’s best efforts to brutally squash dissent, the blogosphere makes it impossible to conceal any shenanigans indefinitely. We don’t get reports from the battlefront just from the pre-scrubbed News; oftentimes we are receiving emails and photos and video from the combatants themselves, reporting as accurately on the real “on the ground” situation as any trained journalist could. Major political blunders and scandals, things that once could be comfortably concealed, are transparent despite the best efforts of the regime to hide them. Violating the law for the sake of political expediency is now, thankfully, becoming impossible. When someone in the Bush regime screws up (like former FEMA chief Brown, say) there is no hiding it. Not forever. Soon there won’t be any secrets left at all.
Better education and better access to information means that we are a lot less likely to blindly follow our leaders when they mislead us. How can that be a bad thing for a democracy?
The issues here are not the unwillingness of my generation to make sacrifices and serve our country. We have a definite desire to do so. But there are more ways to be a patriot than putting on a uniform. Our founding fathers envisioned a nation where informed debate and civilized dissent would steer our country through the entanglements it would find itself in. Now that we have such a society, why would we turn our back on the sacrifices our ancestors made to give us such freedom? Is ignorance somehow patriotic?
Some look at a war protestor and ask “How can they do that to the troops?” or “Why doesn’t she love her country?” The fact is that it isn’t the troops or the military that the war protestors of today take issue with: it’s the policies of the leadership that puts our troops’ lives in harm’s way without a damn good reason – and trumping up WMD charges of a former paid CIA agent in order to launch a war of conquest is not sufficient cause to do so. Pointing those facts out should not be considered unpatriotic – quite the contrary. Questioning the political motives and methods of our allies in the region should not be considered seditious, for America has no permanent allies, only permanent interests. And I was always taught that the Constitution established religious liberty, freedom of the press, and a fair system of justice to be perpetually in the national interest.
You can love your country deeply and still fear your government. My generation does just that. The reason that we aren’t marching down to recruiting offices in droves is because we simply know better. We know war is not glorious, that people get hurt and killed, that the psychological damage to the soldiers themselves will last years after the last shot is fired. Our actions as individuals have consequences, we know. Those who do serve, we rightly honor – but to expect us all to follow the current regime into battle without question, when daily its attempts to skirt the law and subvert justice become more apparent, just is not in our nature. We are not inclined to spend our lives cheaply, for a cause we are not convinced of, to be led by leaders who have lied to us, to further a policy that strikes against our clear national interest.
That’s the biggest difference between the WWII generation and us. We aren’t spoiled – we’re cynical. We’ve been lied to all of our lives, from “Read my lips, no new taxes” to “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” to “Saddam Hussein definitely has Weapons of Mass Destruction” to “We will be greeted as liberators in Iraq”. We’ve heard a line of BS a mile wide from every administration since we were old enough to vote. The only politicians we trust to mean what they say are on the political extremes – and what kind of choice is that? In the face of this cynicism we look to each other for advise and guidance, rather than our elected leaders.
But isn’t that what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote, in big flowing, proud letters, “We the People . . .”?