Q: What is
it good for?
I. World War II. Viet Nam. These three conflicts
have been seminal events for every twentieth-century American
generation before our own. The significance of these wars goes beyond
the lives lost, and the national consensus or national divisiveness
they engendered. Each war, in its own way, resulted a crushing
betrayal of expectations.
World War I, the "Great War," brought to a shocking conclusion the Victorian Era and the 19th century ideal of eternal progress. Barbed wire and poison gas crushed the idea of an ever-progressing civilization.
World War II brought us Hiroshima. On the day the first atomic bomb was dropped, the world changed irrevocably. Every person alive must now accept the fact that we have the capability to exterminate all of humanity.
Vietnam shattered the confidence of Americans that their nation was invincible.
Those born in the 1970s and after have had no such disappointments. We still believe that technology will make us free, for we have never truly seen the enormity of destruction that technology can bring. On the contrary, the Persian Gulf War showed us images of warfare as video game, stripping the encounters of their terror and destructiveness. With the end of the compulsory draft in the early 1970s, the threat of being exposed directly to war receded even farther from the consciousness of the new generation. It is true that, thanks to the communications revolution, warfare around the world is brought to our doorstep instantaneously. We know exactly what is happening in the streets of Somalia, Bosnia, and Kuwait City as it is occurring. At the same time, the images are distant, otherworldly. These conflicts are not about us. They will have no effect on our daily lives.
Clearly, we do not live in a world without war. More people have died in armed conflicts since the end of World War II than perished during that struggle. But we do live in a world where war is no longer a reference point. We do not draw a straight line from technological innovation to napalm-engulfed babies or disintegrated cities. We are enthralled by the potential of technology, captivated by its aura, unwilling to imagine the apocalyptic potential of what humanity has created. So we dive in, headfirst. We give ourselves up to technology, whether it be credit cards or home video games.
But the implications of the absence of war go deeper. There are two sides to war as it has affected American society. In addition to the destruction of expectations, war has also had the effect of crystalizing who we are. War causes people to focus on their identity, and to distinguish themselves from the "other." The two World Wars united Americans against external enemies, while Viet Nam created two opposing groups within American society. For the younger generation of the 1960s, the one that opposed the Viet Nam war, the conflict provided a focal point for generating an identity.
The new generation, the children of those Baby Boomers that fought the Viet Nam war, has neither suffered the crushing of idealism nor experienced that exuberance of identity that result from war. We believe that the future should be bright, but we have lost the connections that color our view of what we want the future to bring us. Alone in a world of opportunity, we seek consolation in our technological toys, but the solace they give us is ultimately unsatisfying.
What will be our substitute for war?