A Gap in the Generations

by Chris Curran | 5/12/03 5:00am

The war in Iraq is effectively over, but the question of whether it was justified still provokes divisions in our society. While most people have made up their own minds by this point, there is no societal consensus. Interestingly, opinions about the war tend to vary along generational lines. Most of the demonstrations in Washington, D.C. opposing the war were led by activists of the Vietnam era, while my generation and the World War II generation held a different view of the good that could come from using force. There was an element of choice in this war against Iraq. As such, questions of trust in George W. Bush were of the utmost importance. I couldn't help but notice that my generation and my grandparents' generation were generally far more trusting of his leadership and honesty than that of my parents and professors. There is a generation gap in the trust of government and in the just use of force. Time will demonstrate which perspective is more accurate, but I feel reasonably confident that our faith in him is justified.

The World War II generation saw the absolute good that can come from the use of military force. I am hard pressed to find a more just use of any military than preventing the spread of Nazi aggression and Imperial Japanese expansion. This generation understood that war was an awful thing, but the deceptive "peace" that appeasers promised was even more unsustainable. Indeed, the main fault one could find with its prosecution is not that it went too far, but that it allowed all of Eastern Europe to languish under Soviet domination. There were many atrocities and tragedies. But the bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, while unfortunate, do not mar the overall dynamic of World War II as a just war. This experience, continues to color the outlook of the "greatest" generation.

The lessons the baby boomers drew from the war in Vietnam could not have been more dissimilar. Many fought not because they believed in the unpopular cause, but because they were drafted. Many who stayed behind protested vigorously. The mission, plainly obvious in World War II, was unclear and ill-defined in Vietnam. The nation was torn apart. The Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandals changed the way this generation trusted government officials. Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon did little to reverse their declining faith in government. It is therefore not surprising that the baby boomers view the use of force in a more negative light and are far more skeptical about the secret motivations of presidents than other generations.

My generation has had vastly different experiences than that of my parents' generation. While baby boomer men worried about being drafted, men of my generation concentrate on more mundane matters. Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, all we knew of major conflict was the 1991 Gulf War, which resembled a costless video game on CNN. Perhaps this is why we are far less casualty-averse than the previous generation: we simply haven't seen body bags come home on a regular basis because our sole major war, until recently, was overwhelmingly successful. Indeed, the lesson we took from the first Persian Gulf war was that we did not go far enough to remove Saddam Hussein, out of respect for the will of the U.N. Security Council which authorized only the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The Iraqi people continued to suffer as a result, while Saddam continued to pose a threat to his neighbors for another decade before his recent removal. My generation believes that stability is not always preferable to action. I do not wish to denigrate the horrors of war which are quite real, but we understand that the false sense of stability we enjoyed during the last decade was not costless either. On Sept. 11, 2001, the defining moment of my generation, we saw the destruction that was wrought during a period in which we falsely believed we were at peace. These events shaped our perceptions of risk, danger, and the validity of using force overseas just as strongly as Pentagon Papers or Pearl Harbor affected the preceding generations.

This difference of opinion, defined by generation, is similar in many ways to the political ocean that separates America from some European nations. Is it any coincidence that our strongest allies in the recent conflict were Great Britain and Poland? Poland fought valiantly and unsuccessfully against the Nazis. Great Britain fought equally valiantly though with far greater success. Both nations endured massive destruction within their own borders, but the justness of their decision to fight was never in doubt. Contrast that with the behavior of Germany and France during the war. As the principal aggressor, Germany has a special burden which still weighs heavily on its collective conscience. That's not a bad thing, insofar as it prevents future German aggression, but it does cause problems when Germans impose their view of history on radically different conflicts between other nations. The French, are more troublesome. They fought with little vigor or lan in the war, and then collaborated with their aggressors in sending citizens to death camps. The guilt over this perfidy cannot be erased. Their view of war and conflict is still colored by the horrors that occurred on their land. Recent French diplomatic gymnastics designed to spite the United States, United Kingdom and Poland, are related to the different lessons they learned and the burdens they feel from World War II.

Which views of the current conflict and President are the correct ones? Should we trust President Bush? Was the recent war in Iraq just? Time will tell. I like my odds.