Will War on Terrorism Define a Generation?


President Bush says it’s going to be the centerpiece of his administration. Colin Powell at the State Department, along with Sen. John McCain and a cadre of Capitol Hill lawmakers, are priming the American public for a long, hard campaign akin to the Cold War, or the U.S. home front during World War II.

The crusade they speak of is a massive anti-terrorism “war,” to be waged militarily on the geopolitical front, as well as socially on the domestic front. In the halls of Congress and from high-tech bully pulpits across the land, the terrorist attacks are being described over and over as a turning point, the start of a potentially defining epoch for an entire generation.

Many Americans have begun scanning their hearts and minds, trying to comprehend the role they may be asked to play in a rapidly unfolding national epic. Are we, as some claim, on the brink of a period that will profoundly transform us politically and/or socially, as did the Great Depression, the Cold War, the civil rights era? Have we just witnessed a 21st century version of the Cuban Missile Crisis or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat? Or will this make-over be far more limited, as it was with the ‘70s oil shock, pooling then quickly dissipating like spent petrol fumes?


To spin the questions somewhat differently, is history thrusting a new script on an untried generation that few have yet thought to call The Greatest? How might this test differ from those faced by previous generations?

As they scan their TV sets and swap e-mails, historians and cultural observers reflected earlier this week on the forces that can transform--or fail to transform--a singular event into a generational touchstone.

What type of sacrifice will this new epoch entail? Will it rely on voluntary compliance or, to borrow Noam Chomsky’s chilling phrase, manufactured consent?

Crucially, will this tragedy set the standard for life-altering experiences and collective obligations over the next several decades, or will it leave a fainter imprint?

“Many people thought on Nov. 22, 1963, that they had experienced a transformative moment,” says Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. “Well, that turned out to be much less transformative than anybody anticipated. Partly because there was a transition in administrations, and there was an agenda that continued to be popular. Johnson actually proceeded with Kennedy’s agenda, but more so. Being the master politician that he was, he was actually able to ram the civil rights bill through.”

In other words, while terrible occurrences like last week’s attacks can prompt political action and shape short-term popular perceptions, they’re only one part of history’s broader flow. Many historians believe, for instance, that while the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria sparked World War I, it’s likely that military and colonial rivalries and surging nationalism would have led to war among Europe’s great powers sooner or later anyway.

“The attacks obviously [dealt] a huge blow to the national psyche, and if I were in the guessing game, I would guess the psychic reverberations are likely to be complicated,” Gitlin says. “To assume that the public is ready to sign up for the crusade that’s been offered ... I think would be a mistake. ... I think opinion hasn’t crystallized. There’s certainly space for a variety of policy options.”

Indeed, generation-defining events seldom take place overnight. Most unfurl over years, if not decades. They also come in many forms: Wars. Economic crashes. Sexual revolutions. New technology such as cars, sputniks, computers, atomic bombs. Some create more casualties than others, but none is entirely bloodless or victimless.

For people in their teens and early 20s, those who often bear the brunt of war, the prospect of being tested by history may appear to be a mixed blessing, at best. “Any generation that welcomes a ‘test’ in the form of war doesn’t understand war,” says Jedediah Purdy, 26, a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and author of “For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today.”

In an e-mail interview last week, Purdy wrote that it has been “amazing to see how in these past few days we--who have been so used to living with our selves front and center--are suddenly all aware that a common condition comes first. We have not been flip, self-involved, needlessly sarcastic or focused on small divisions. We have all been looking for ways to help. All of us. That is new to us.”

At the same time, he continued, while the challenges posed by the attacks could “maybe make us better in some way ... in the end it might have been a better thing not to be tested at all. Violence is a terrible way to be reminded what we’re made of.”

At this point, it’s unclear whether thousands of young Americans may be sent into battle. Even if that occurs, says historian Taylor Branch, “I tend to think it’s a mistake to slice this up and say it’s a test for only one segment of the population. I think it’s a test for all of us.”

“If it’s a turning point, it’s a turning point against a generation of cynicism for all of us, not just for one,” says Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Parting the Waters,” a history of the U.S. civil rights movement. “And if it’s to be like the civil rights movement, it will have to broaden and engage people right down at the street level, not just the president.”

Historian Howard Zinn suggests that the long-term impact of the attacks--including a “war on terrorism"--may be limited in some ways precisely because of the experience gained from previous military watersheds, like the Vietnam War or, to a different degree, the Gulf War.

“The differences in the Gulf War were in good part the result of what the national administration learned from the Vietnam War, in the fact that America and her troops were not sent into a long-term conflict and the control of the media was more stringent,” says the author of “A People’s History of the United States.” “Those were lessons learned from the Vietnam War.”

Others historians, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., reject drawing simplistic parallels between America’s current crisis and the nearly instant, globally transforming consequences of Pearl Harbor. “I think this talk of a new historical epoch is wildly inflated,” he says. “We are now moving into a phase which the rest of the world is already in.”

Gerald Horne, a professor of African American history and culture, says that his students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have been devouring newspapers, C-SPAN reports and radio accounts of the attacks. They’ve been debating the need for ethnic profiling to combat terrorism--"The class was split on that,” says Horne--and pondering the racial politics of modern warfare.

“Most of them didn’t seem ready for any sacrifice,” says Horne, author of “The Fire This Time,” a book about the 1965 Watts riots. “A few said they felt like going and joining the military tomorrow, but I think I’ll see them in class on Tuesday. I don’t think they’re ready to have their lives disrupted in any way.

“I think the idea driving my students’ minds is that there is some sort of character gap between them and their grandparents, that their grandparents were heroes and they’re lazy louts,” he went on. “And I think that has influence. I don’t think that’s accurate, but a lot of things that aren’t accurate have influence.”

Purdy agrees that young Americans--members of the so-called Gen X and Gen Y, and even some baby boomers--may feel their characters haven’t been tested in the same way as older Americans’. He thinks the recent spate of movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” along with Tom Brokaw’s bestseller “The Greatest Generation,” have carried “an implicit rebuke” of these younger generations.

“I suspect that it has contributed in small ways to the quick mobilization of solidarity and determination this time around,” he says. “That is good in terms of domestic commitment to serve and protect--volunteerism, contributions to relief funds, everything we’ve seen so far. What worries me is that going on a ‘war footing’ with an elusive and ill-defined enemy stirs up a lot of energy that doesn’t necessarily have anywhere to go. Noble passions are dangerous--particularly in unfamiliar contexts. That goes double for martial passions.”

One problem with the idea of a generation-defining moment is that race, income, ideology, collective experience and dozens of other factors besides age create and shape historical generations, Gitlin says.

History abounds with examples. On the eve of World War I, millions of Europeans from ages 18 to 80 were ready, even chomping at the bit, for what they imagined would be a glorious national enterprise. It was only after the muddy, entrenched stalemate of the Western front and the appalling carnage of Verdun and the Somme that Europe’s youth revolted against the slaughter.

The stereotypical Vietnam War protester was a bearded, dope-addled 19-year-old hippie flashing the peace sign. Yet Americans of all ages lined up on all sides of the Vietnam conflict, and the number of hard-core antiwar youth activists was relatively small until about 1967, Gitlin says. How someone felt about the war was likely to depend on a complex calculus of education, income, race, geography and political affiliation. A radical sophomore at Columbia University wasn’t likely to have much in common on this score with a Tuscaloosa fraternity president, despite their common age.

“We can’t think of the generation as a block, as a unit,” Gitlin says. “Don’t tell me that somebody born in 1946 and somebody born in 1964 are members of the same generation.”

If it’s hard to say which Americans may be most affected by the fallout from two weeks ago, it’s equally hard to predict what will be asked of them. Though public officials are speaking in terms of sacrifice and commitment, at this point it’s unclear what that could mean. A 30-minute wait in an airport check-in line? The need to carry the equivalent of a U.S. passport when traveling domestically? Or something of even greater import?

“I’m not sure our life would be radically different, because it wasn’t radically different during the Cold War,” says Thomas B. Silver, president of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank outside Los Angeles. “The worst demands will be on our soldiers and therefore by implication there will be demands on their families to make sacrifices. But during the Cold War we went from being the most prosperous nation to being the most prosperous nation on Earth to the nth degree. I certainly can’t see any economic privation that would be involved in a sustained war on terrorism. There might have to be some tradeoffs in the federal budget. But I don’t think that would imply any belt tightening.”

In the end, some historians predict, these attacks will continue to sway our hearts and shape our thoughts and actions mainly insofar as they intersect with social and political currents that are already present, and they accurately anticipate the shape of things to come.

As Branch points out, the civil rights movement began as a relatively isolated, regional grass-roots struggle. But it gained in power as it converged with the anti-Vietnam War movement, women’s liberation and other causes. A similar scenario could very well play out again.

“I think it could be a defining moment for this generation,” Branch says, “if we come to look upon this as the challenge of globalism in its largest sense, not only the terrorist challenge but the economic and environmental challenges that had begun to attract young people, how our economy affects your economy, how your crimes affect our innocent people, how do we relate to one another. I think that, really, is the test of a generation.”