A new Great Generation?
On the cover of TIME this issue... there it is. My generation being proclaimed a second Greatest Generation.
Even President Obama is in on the act.
The 9/11 Generation? I guess it's as good a name as any. I was born at the tail end of Generation X in 1979. However, I grew up more Nu-Metal than Grunge. We were tech savvy, introspective kids - we didn't have much in common with our weepy, overly socially conscious older siblings. The X'ers were individuals, we were almost collective joiners. If the Boomers had Woodstock, the X'ers had Kirk Cobain's death and a youth of unmatched prosperity they didn't appreciate and complained constantly about... we had Columbine and a certain stained blue dress. Nobody expected much from us beyond the hope we wouldn't become addicted to Ecstasy and blow each other away at school. The Boomers and X'ers screamed at the world, they wanted to be heard. We were quiet and withdrawn - encased in our computers off in la-la land. If Bob Dillon spoke to the world and Kirk Cobain screamed at it the best we could muster was a lengthy text message. We didn't want to be heard. As children of divorce when we grew to become young adults, we wanted to belong.
Then some of us went to war. Less than 1% of Americans serve today in the military. That's a pretty far cry from the WWII Generation, who even if they didn't go away to war stayed home and fed the arsenal of democracy and made huge sacrifices in austerity to see the war effort through. Back then celebrities sold war bonds, today they call us war criminals. Did this generation sacrifice. Well, 1% of them did.
Many Boomers lost their innocence in the jungles of Vietnam, forced into a war they had not interest in fighting via the draft. It was traumatic for all concerned, and veterans did their best to forget and civilians did their best to ignore them. We haven't been forgotten, we've been honored and thanked and taken care of better than our WWII forbears. We were even TIME's 2003 "Person" OF THE YEAR. When you thank us, we awkwardly thank you back and carry on. We don't expect all this, and wonder why the Vietnam veterans didn't get it. We wish you'd thank them.
The Marine Corps tells it's recruits it will change them. In fact it's part of the recruiting pitch. I joined because I wanted to reject the hyper-consumerist comfort based life my peers sought and test myself against all that the toughest of the tough could throw at me. My generation is very pain averse... so seeking out discomfort and pain was the ultimate act of rejection and rebellion. My generation suffered the highest divorce rates of any before it. My peers and I were young men raised by women. Most of my fellow Marines were looking for something masculine. The ultimate rejection of the female way of life forced on us at home, in school, and in popular culture. We were sick of everyone getting a trophy just for playing. We wanted to see what we were made of when mommy wasn't there to pick us up when we fell. The Marines were our own little Fight Club. It's mostly that way for Soldiers too.
I couldn't appreciate that change until after I graduated Boot Camp in the late 1990s. I remember coming home on 10 day Boot leave, feeling like I had gone home and the world had been flipped upside down; then realizing it was me that had changed. I could no longer relate to my peers. They were disorganized, slow, unmotivated and they whined constantly. Things didn't get much better over the years. As my first years of service went on I would intermittently return home and see fewer and fewer of my old high school friends because I was becoming less and less interested in them. It seemed the longer I was part of the Military Culture the more alien civilians became. It was like I was from strange foreign culture to them, and they to me. I was from Accountability, Responsibility, No-Excuses Land, they from somewhere else that involved MTV, video games and complaining. I found myself gravitating more to Vietnam and WWII veterans than people my own age, whom I had nothing in common with anymore.
Now after ten years we are coming home for real - for ever. Coming home and staying there. The military is drawing down in the next few years, 45,000 Soldiers alone will be forced out of the only home we've known for a decade. Likely many more will follow as the Air Force and Navy contract even more. Some veterans have done a tour or two, others as many as eight. Now we put down our gear and take off our uniforms and look around and find ourselves on that alien planet called America and wonder what to do now. We are not part of whatever this generation is called. We're it's aliens. Prodigal son's returned home. Very alien, very different.
No, The 9/11 Generation isn't special in and of it's self. But 1% of it is, because unlike our peers we don't consider ourselves special. We've been part of a team. Today we're banding together, taking care of each other as we did in war. In a way we're the newest wave of refugees from Iraq or Afghanistan - the places that have dominated every segment of our lives these last ten years.
You hear about the suicides ...which are indeed tragic... and other bad news; but not so much about the double amputee in the TIME article who BUILDS HOUSES WITH NO LEGS. We are taking our rightful place in America. We're running for Congress, starting businesses, we're in your neighborhood. Our peers whine about everything, they are slow and weak and complain constantly when they don't get a trophy simply for playing. But we're out there, under the radar now. Different. Alien. But like our Greatest Generation Grandfathers we might save you - though there are considerably fewer of us.
So is this over all, the Second Greatest Generation? Probably not. But we veterans - the tiny 1% might be. Maybe what America needs to save it, are a few veterans? Why not, they certainly did after WWII? Perhaps the Military loss is America's gain?
Soon thousands of disciplined, hard working, courageous, focused young people will be injected into the labor force or graduate college on the Post 9/11 GI Bill. America is a wreck and it's only going to get worse... but we veterans have seen failed states and anarchy and worse. This bad economy and chaos doesn't scare us. We've fixed broken countries before in far worse condition. We've carved Forward Operating Bases out of bombed out Iraqi buildings and Afghan mountains under fire. Ascended ladders unarmed and under fire to erect concrete barriers, burned our own biological waste, worked for four or five days without sleep, filled sand bags, killed people, buried our dead friends, and done back breaking manual labor in 140 degree sun. We don't have an "entitlement mentality," our greatest gift is our "NO EXCUSES" mentality. We've learned to do, and do it quietly, without thanks or complaint. We've learned the world isn't fair, and not to quit. In short, the war gave us the tools our peers lack to make it in this economy, or any economy. We reshaped the most volatile piece of geography on Earth, the United States should be easy in comparison.
So will whoever gets elected in 2012 save us? Maybe. But don't trust to that. Trust to that small, tiny 1% of young Americans. I have had the chance to witness them do things that defy imagination, both in work and in heroism. Wait to you see it in your neighborhood.
Maybe that's why we are startled by gratitude in the season of peace. To have pulled Saddam Hussein from his hole in the ground brings the possibility of pulling an entire country out of the dark. In an exhausting year when we've been witness to battles well beyond the battlefields--in the streets, in our homes, with our allies--to share good news felt like breaking a long fast, all the better since it came by surprise. And who delivered this gift, against all odds and risks? The same citizens who share the duty of living with, and dying for, a country's most fateful decisions. Scholars can debate whether the Bush Doctrine is the most muscular expression of national interest in a half-century; the generals may ponder whether warmaking or peacekeeping is the more fearsome assignment; civilians will remember a winter wrapped in yellow ribbons and duct tape. But in a year when it felt at times as if we had nothing in common anymore, we were united in this hope: that our men and women at arms might soon come safely home, because their job was done. They are the bright, sharp instrument of a blunt policy, and success or failure in a war unlike any in history ultimately rests with them. For uncommon skills and service, for the choices each one of them has made and the ones still ahead, for the challenge of defending not only our freedoms but those barely stirring half a world away, the American soldier is TIME's Person of the Year.
Time - 2003.
TIME may NOT have got the date on our return home right, but truer words were never spoken.
It's been a lot longer than any of us thought, and it's still not completely over. But now we are beginning to come home - and we bring with us our skills, our discipline, our hard work, and our heroism. It's as if all that was good in the post 9/11 Generation were encapsulated in this small band of brothers... the 1% that can change the tide... coming to a neighborhood near you. Things for America, are looking up.
(You can read Free daily at John Galt for President)