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Selling the mall generation on the likelihood of war

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker

September 23, 2001

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THE PEARL Harbor generation had its famous "rendezvous with destiny." This generation had its famous rendezvous at the shopping mall. The Vietnam generation was blindsided by a war that was never exactly declared. This generation, blindsided by terrorists, has had war thrust in its face - first by its foes, and then by its leaders.

We will now begin to observe the tricky psychology of fighting a difficult war. George Bush's Capitol Hill speech last week had separate audiences: not only the Congress, not only America's friends and enemies - but those Americans who will go to war, or watch their children go.

Sixty years ago, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, military recruitment centers were mobbed. The country had been viciously attacked, and patriotism (and its tricky cousin, peer pressure) swept the land. We entered World War II to an orchestration of Franklin Roosevelt's stirring "date which will live in infamy" language and "Remember Pearl Harbor" sloganeering.

When did the Vietnam War begin for America? Nobody could precisely answer that question then - or now. The kids getting hauled before their draft boards by the thousands wondered, "What am I doing here?" Nobody had made the case clear to them that the country was directly threatened - and nobody had seized a moment to rouse enough patriotic fervor to carry us over the rough spots.

That was George W. Bush's intention last week. He was rallying a nation while its sense of outrage was fresh, not only reminding us of the attack but patting us all on the back for our sense of American pluck, puffing up our self-image and giving us our first role models by showing us the heroes already in our midst. He was offering us a sense of national purpose. It's the thing that was never done in Vietnam, and we paid a terrible price for it.

We have come to regard the World War II folks as "the greatest generation." For certain, it's the generation that understood the national threat, and responded with its blood. We regard the Vietnam years as the country's time of inner antagonism: While some went off to war, many others openly fought it. The country's good intentions were blurred by official government lying, and then by unexpected body counts televised every night at suppertime, and then by the sense that the killing was never going to end.

George Bush attempted to deal with such things last week. He warned of a "long struggle," and then of "a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen." He said it "will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat."

But those are just words. In the emotion of this hour, do such warnings convey meaning? John Kennedy stirred the country with his promise to "pay any price, bear any burden" to ensure liberty. But those who thrilled to the language didn't translate it into the ordeal in Southeast Asia. By the time we realized we were truly entangled, Kennedy was gone and his words seemed to belong to some other era, some other way of looking at the world.

We have a short attention span in this country. We have young people whose social awareness has never extended beyond the mall, beyond the concerns of a swell wardrobe, beyond the feeding of their own egos. When told of the dramas of previous generations, they stifle a collective yawn.

The Pearl Harbor generation had been hardened by the Depression when war arrived. Those people understood tough times. The Vietnam generation grew up with the threat of nuclear war, with the rallying cry for civil rights, with the experience of the Cuban missile crisis. That generation had a social conscience.

But one generation went willingly off to war, and the other didn't. This generation of young people has never known national adversity. Their battles have been fought on television. From the safety of our living rooms, was the Persian Gulf war great fun, or what?

George Bush seems the unlikeliest of leaders - but, to another generation, so did Harry Truman. The failed haberdasher, they called him. But he made the toughest of all wartime choices. Now, all the jokes about Bush's shallowness, about his tarnished election, about his inability to articulate, are done. He's all we've got now.

He gave a stirring speech. Of the terrorists, Bush said, "We have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. ... And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends, in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

We know, of course, that this wasn't Bush's language. So throw a bouquet to his speech writers, who put the right words in his mouth. But recall this, too: Of the "murderous ideologies," he mentioned "fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism." But not communism.

The commies seem to be on our side now. Osama bin Laden used to be on our side. The world is a very complex and confusing place. The other night, George W. Bush attempted to show us, as clearly as he could, why we must go to war. He was shifting a nation's emotional energy into gear.

Now we will see if this generation will stick it out.