Monday, February 18, 2008

Wars of our Fathers: A Generation Gap

We are a country whose generations are defined by war. For my Grandfather it was World War II, my father, Vietnam and for me, Iraq. The pulse of our nation can be categorized not so much by domestic policy but rather the endeavors we pursue outside of our own borders. These wars have a profound influence that contributes to generational attitudes and that sets the stage for our American identity.

My grandfather was a pilot. He taught Army Air Corps pilots in World War II. If not for a terrible plane crash which took half of his foot, he would have been a fighter pilot. My father on the other hand was trained as a combat engineer in the Army, and would later stay in the reserves as a cook. Although their decision to serve differed from two extremes, their obligations of duty and country were identical.

Most in my grandfather’s generation answered President Roosevelt’s call to service freely and voluntarily. One in five eligible men raised their hands to service. The country at the time truly rallied around the flag and the cause of overcoming global tyranny. My father’s generation on the other hand faced involuntary service through the draft board. The US Army during Vietnam was largely conscripts of men who were not professional soldiers and consisted of many who flat out opposed war. My father was dealt a bad hand. His draft card number was so low; it would have been inevitably called. Rather then waiting for what would have been the obvious, he enlisted. He went from protesting war on his college campus to now being sent to prosecute it.

My father’s experience with the Army was not all bad. However, it was an obligation that he would rather not have accepted. Today he often wryly remarks that he’s not quite sure how my brother and I got our crazy ideas to join the service, since we surely didn’t get it from him. And despite his opposition to certain wars and his inclination towards peace, he still praises the unique nature of our constitution that allows us to speak out against war and at the same time accept the responsibility of perhaps having to die for those same beliefs. Indeed my father sees this country with the same optimism as he did while protesting at Holy Cross, serving in the Army and now at present time. I don’t know what kind of soldier my dad was but knowing the man I know him to be, I can almost be certain he served admirably. If his tips for boot shining and bed making before I left for my own boot camp in the summer of 2003 were any indication, than I suppose there’s only more reason to believe that the system of transforming civilians to leaders in the US Army is the best in the world.

World War II was a shining moment in America’s history which produced an appropriate mystique about the ones we now consider “the greatest generation.” Great they were, and greatness they preserved. WWII proved to the world that the United States of America was unwilling to give into oppression and would fight at all cost to defend freedom. It was the ideal of freedom that resonates with so many of us even today. In the face of evil, I can look at the history books with pride, knowing that America was on the right side of history just as I can look to my family albums knowing that my Grandfather did not hesitate to answer a call to service.

Vietnam was much different. It represented a time of uneasiness about the prospects of forcing America’s ideals on a country that did not appear to be taking well to our involvement. There was much dissent about whether or not we should have been there. On the evening news body bags were shown flying in from cargo planes (today they are prohibited). The body count on the other hand was manufactured while enemy deaths were inflated as to pander towards public opinion. In a drastic change since the last major war, our government could not be trusted. Protestors across the country on major college campuses to small town streets asked for a stop to the war, all the while insulting the immeasurable contributions of personal sacrifice that thousands of uniformed men returning from war had made. In retrospect, it was a time to be proud of the American people to put an stop to an endless war and to also be disgusted by the manner in which they had ostracized the courageous men (many who did not willingly go) who had carried out the orders of their government.

That leaves us with Iraq and the so-called “Global war on Terror,” whose conclusion may never be answered by my generation. At times I shake my head wondering how we went from there to here. How the similarities in every war are unmistakable and how the images of our successes and failures resonate with us for our entire lives. I think back to 2003 as I watched our tanks roll through Baghdad with ease as I thought to myself that this had all but seemed too effortless. I remember my former roommate missing out a year of college to what he jokingly refers to as his “semester abroad program in Iraq,” and wondering on a constant basis whether he was safe. I also often wonder if those from the previous wars felt the same anxiety, helplessness at times and fear.

There have been a lot of comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq. I once strongly debated this notion with my father through a vehement email exchange while I was in college and studying the two closely in ROTC. No matter how hard I tried to convince my father to see differently, there was always this feeling of inadequacy in my argument, for I had not been to war and I had not seen the effects of it like my father. Nor did I have to bury classmates and go through the rest of my life wondering “what if things had been different.” My father is an adjunct professor who often talks about the Vietnam War to his students. He remarks that “it might as well be the Civil war to these kids,” since they seem so removed from the history pages they read. In his eyes, I was at the time one of his students.

Neither my grandfather nor father ever considered themselves veterans. To me, as an active duty servicemember, I don’t think I’ll be able to do that either once my time is up. There is something very humbling about making the distinction between those who fought on the front lines with bullets flying directly at them and those who did not. There is for me-and perhaps like my father- a feeling of “I could have done more.” Yes, I think I’ll walk away knowing 100% that I fulfilled my commitment but will always fall short of using the V word. I’ll reserve that for the real heroes who I so dedicate this blog to in the first place.

And so, fast forward to 2008 where protestors and hawks have not clashed so much in open rallies but in debates. Both the Republicans and Democrats have become mere demagogues unwilling to accept the realities of either side’s truisms. For instance, the surge is clearly working as I type this in terms of a decrease sectarian violence and casualties, a fact the Democrats are unwilling to accept. At times it seems as though they almost want Iraq to fail as to reinforce their point that it had been “wrong all along.” I can’t help but think that for some in the Democratic Party, when the death toll rises, there are those who almost become excited since this can be more fuel to their argument.

The Republicans aren’t any better though. They have failed to state the benchmarks of success and even when they do, they rewrite them as soon as a new update arises. Sure it’s easy to say the surge is working but by what standard? Are the decreases in US deaths alone prime indicators of success? How do we measure it?

So is it that my generation is unable to capture victory like my grandfather’s or end a war like my fathers? Perhaps not. Maybe the inability to get straight forward results like wars past is not so much a reflection of our generations unwillingness but instead simply of our unknowingness. There appears to be a generational gap between my generation and generations before. The lessons learned, the mistakes, the failures are some how never translated to our current crisis. Instead, we start from scratch by using the blundered old models to our new problems. We erase history or put our own spin and interpretation so that it fits the neat little policy that we set forth. It has left us with doubt in our country’s integrity, competency and virtue.

My generation might constantly be reminded of our 9/11 roots and there is no refuting this. Still, I don’t know if it defines what we are. We aren’t like WWII, all volunteers. The back-door draft of the National Guard and the stop loss program are constant reminders to us. Then again, we aren’t all protestors either and those who do are the rehabilitated types who put our soldiers first. We haven’t won the GWOT nor do I think there will ever be a peace treaty to confirm victory. We are as I have so ineloquently concluded a combination of our WWII/Vietnam heritage. Some of us did step forward in a time of uncertainty to answer the call to service and still some stayed back to protest. Some of us see the toppling of Saddam’s government was a success and some of us think it only created more instability.

I suppose a lot of the answers we seek will have to be found out on our own as we seek to construct our own identity. And still, I think some of these questions that we ask might just as easily be found from our predecessors who have been down many of the roads that we continue down today. Maybe all we really need to do is talk to our fathers.

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