I have written numerous posts delineating the thesis that the post-war baby boom generation suffers from a surfeit of narcissism that leaves them peculiarly unable to place the good of others (society) ahead of their own needs and desires. My generation was the first in history which grew up in the unique circumstances of material wealth, relative peace, and the overcoming of childhood mortality from infectious disease; the end result was that each child was raised in ways which relatively insulated them from the vicissitudes of life that man has always been prone to. In part because we were protected by our parent's generation from the worst the world had to offer, we were left with fewer internal resources with which to approach a dangerous world. John Lennon famously "imagined" a world without war; unfortunately, wishing for peace does not create peace.
These thoughts have been sparked by a post at the Democracy Project; Bruce Kesler posted An Honest Confession by an American Coward by Pat Conroy. Bruce introduces the article:
Several of Pat Conroy's novels have been made into great movies -- The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline. He lives on Fripp Island , South Carolina. This article is a most touching piece, and most appropriate in this time when so many Americans appear to be confused over what great causes are worth fighting for... more importantly, what great causes are worth dying for. I know it is a long story, but you will not regret taking the time to read it.
It is a long article and I will not reproduce it here but urge you to read it in its entirety. It is a story of two young men who took divergent paths in the 60s and Pat Conroy finds himself deeply troubled by the choices he made:
I looked for some conclusion, a summation of this trip to my teammate's house. I wanted to come to the single right thing, a true thing that I may not like but that I could live with. After hearing Al Kroboth's story of his walk across Vietnam and his brutal imprisonment in the North, I found myself passing harrowing, remorseless judgment on myself. I had not turned out to be the man I had once envisioned myself to be. I thought I would be the kind of man that America could point to and say, "There. That's the guy. That's the one who got it right. The whole package. The one I can depend on." It had never once occurred to me that I would find myself in the position I did on that night in Al Kroboth's house in Roselle , New Jersey... an American coward spending the night with an American hero.
In my post Demographics & Narcissism, I wondered how we went from JFK to Grace Slick in 6 years:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Inaugural Address by John F. Kennedy - January 20th 1961
Steven won't give his arm
to no gold star mother's farm;
War's good business so give your son
and I'd rather have my country die for me.
"Rejoyce" from After Bathing at Baxters Jefferson Airplane, 1967
How did we journey, in the space of 6 short years, from JFK's famous speech to the Jefferson Airplane's drug-induced, summer of love, response? And what does this have to do with the Demographic changes we are seeing in our culture?
The dirty, little secret, more accurately, the hidden pang of anxiety and fear at the heart of the anti-war movement, is the question of our courage. Young boys and young men have traditionally had their mettle tested in the crucible of combat. Living a full life without ever experiencing conflict has always been the rare exception for men. A generation that was successfully able to avoid conflict is necessarily left wondering how they would have responded to danger. Were we motivated by cowardice in our opposition to the Vietnam War? It is inarguable that fear played a role in the anti-war movement. The proof was that once Congress did away with the draft, the opposition to the war dissipated with alarming speed. Without the threat of being drafted, few were motivated to battle to oppose a war that, until the moment the draft was repealed, was widely characterized as immoral, illegal, and based on lies.
Why is this important today? Defensive rationalizations and intellectualizations are used to keep us from knowing uncomfortable things about ourselves. In the 1960s, in order to avoid any feelings of fear and attendant anxiety over masculinity, the war effort needed to be demonized. The original idea of "speaking truth to power" required minimal bravery. The level of danger the anti-war protesters faced was a tiny fraction of the real danger truly brave people living under brutal governments faced in Eastern Europe, or that our military men faced in Southeast Asia. Yet in order to avoid feeling scared, the war protesters needed to see themselves as bravely facing a quasi-fascist regime (LBJ and then Nixon); our protests were heroic efforts to establish and support peace and justice. In reality , the protests were nothing of the sort and millions of Vietnamese and Cambodians paid the price of our rationalizations. By demonizing the war as based on lies, immoral, imperialistic, etc (which all had a grain of truth but were clearly exaggerations and hardly the exclusive reasons for our involvement in Vietnam) the logic of our defensive edifice required the eventual cut-off of funds to the South Vietnamese, who until the military aid cut-off were more than holding their own.
We see the same need to rationalize today in Iraq. The anti-war movement, as if to re-confirm their essential morality and bravery, continue to "speak truth to power" at no real risk to themselves. In order to avoid the deeply hidden questions, maintain consistency in their rationalizations, and continue to retroactively justify their anti-Vietnam War beliefs, the anti-War campaigners are willing to once again abandon people who trusted us. Millions of Iraqis will be killed but they will feel morally superior and will continue to support the edifice of rationalizations that have sustained their image of themselves as brave rebels since the glory days of the 1960s.
How much is it worth to stabilize a nation that has never known consensual governance and create an eventual democratic state in the middle of the most dangerous place on Earth? The reality is that our casualty rate in Iraq is minimal compared to past wars and the primary reason to abandon the Iraqis at this early date in their attempts to gain stability is a continuing need for too many Americans of a certain age (who unfortunately have great power over the image of the war) to maintain a defensive stance that has already caused untold misery and threatens to compound the misery once again. I do not mean to imply our conduct of the war has been perfect or that victory is right around the corner, but the only way we can lose this war is by abandoning the fight. Our enemies know this and count on it. We should not rationalize our failure of will as a triumph of morality; we did that once and it was the height of immorality.
[Dimitri Cavalli at the Brussels Journal has an excellent example of the kind of faux "speaking truth to power" that is emblematic of the anti-war baby boomer.]