Either … Or. Part 1

Is being a hawk or a dove an either/or question? Our generation, supporting the War on Terror but unsure of its methods, seems to think otherwise. Yet as young people decide how to respond to terrorism, they can look to previous generations’ responses to conflict for inspiration—specifically, the World War II and Baby Boomer generations’ responses to the global conflicts that characterized their times.

Take the World War II generation. The “Greatest Generation” of Americans encountered in their formative years the evils of Nazism and Japanese militarism. They did not waver. They did not equivocate. Instead, they did what any sensible society would do in the face of a barbarism that threatens civilization itself. They destroyed it.

Americans today don’t live in the “1000 Year Reich” or the “East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” for a simple reason. Our forefathers and mothers accepted hardship and sacrifice as things necessary to secure a better future for their progeny. When my Great Uncle lied so that he might take part in the Allied invasion of Africa, he was definitely not concerned with whether he was wearing the “in” pair of shoes or had the latest Frank Sinatra album. What was foremost in his mind at the time was: How can I help?

This shouldn’t be surprising, as today’s young people respond to global crisis in a similar fashion. Before the attacks on September 11 were over, students at Columbia University lined up outside nearby St. Luke’s Hospital offering to donate blood, contribute to the rescue effort, and provide food and shelter to the dispossessed. A twenty-four hour Red Cross relief station was set up in the center of campus where students gathered to discuss the attacks and pledge their support to the work being done at Ground Zero. Many expressed solidarity by attending candle light vigils and ecumenical prayer and remembrance services.

Our generation was unified in its resolve to rescue an injured city, and in so doing we drew on the lessons that the “Greatest Generation” had taught us. Their homeland, like our own, was brutally attacked in a surprise morning raid. But there are a few differences.

While the number of casualties in 2001 is still disputed, even the lowest figures are greater than the number of lives lost on Dec. 7, 1941. What’s more, the proportion of civilian to military deaths from the September 11 attacks remains staggering, a reminder of how the face of war has changed over the course of sixty years.

Still, when Americans were faced with these tragic events, the twin virtues of grace under pressure and unity of purpose bridged the generational divide. In both cases a society was mobilized against an external threat that had hit close to home.

Yet, if our response to catastrophe resembled our grandfathers and grandmothers, our response to what was borne out of September 11th—the War on Terror—resembles that of another generation: the Baby Boomers.


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