With a Grain of Piquant Salt:
Have you heard about the greatest generation? This is the generation which was born around the early part of the 20th century and fought in the Second World War. These are the people who fought because it was the right thing to do and went on after the war to build one the most prosperous societies known to mankind. The next big war, Vietnam War, produced what I would call as the bewildered generation. Between drugs, peace, liberalism, a whole generation was lost to society but just when life was settling down, 9/11 happened. It is too early to say but between 9/11, Afghanistan, the Bush Administration and Iraq, a new generation is forming which will define America for the next thirty years at the least. I call it the angry generation.
Surprised? Well, yes, so was I when I read the book We were One by Patrick K O'Donnell (ISBN-10: 0306815737). This is a fascinating book about the Marines of the 1st Platoon, Lima Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment and its operations in Fallujah primarily over a period of few weeks in November / December 2004. The book ends with the following sentences which I am taking the liberty to quote. 'The individuals I met in Iraq, especially in the Marines of 1st Platoon, showed me clearly that they truly do constitute the next Greatest Generation. Make no mistake about it; America's best is in Iraq. After surviving the battle, I made an oath, a blood oath, that I would tell their story'. Quite an emphatic statement, no? But I am moving too far ahead as usual.
My first introduction to the Greatest Generation was predictably via a book. It was a fiction book, by Leon Uris, called Battle Cry. This was the story of a bunch of volunteer Marines, who had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and fought across a variety of islands in the Pacific. The book is also about their loves and hates, their lives and deaths. It is a brilliant book and I have read and re-read that book a zillion times. Then I read about the economics, history, sociology, science, education etc. of post war America and then I slowly understood what the term 'Greatest Generation' meant. It is difficult to explain, perhaps more of a term to be felt. These marines were in the Marine Corps for years on end and therefore formed a bond between themselves, inside the Corps and most importantly, with society that was crucial to them being great.
If somebody has to explain it, then it will never work, but perhaps one has to empathize to feel what this term means. Walk around one of the great American cities and observe the tall confident buildings, travel the highways and witness those ribbons of concrete wrapping the country, observe the factories and witness the bodies at work, walk into a campus and see the minds at play. All these were due to the Greatest Generation. This is a broad generalization, but I do hope you understand what I mean. War, in this case, brought the country together and gave rise to the Greatest Generation.
But the Vietnam War tore a hole in the fabric of American society. Between the late 1960's to 1970's, cold war, hippie culture, drugs, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and the 1973 oil shock, the country seemed to emerge a bit confused and a bit bewildered. The American Army was in literal shock, society was a bit disorientated as well, and that is why I call the generation which lived through and participated in the Vietnam War as the bewildered generation. Individuality was celebrated, societal thinking was out, under-classes started to develop, corruption flourished, the legal system started to jam slightly, the political class started to stink a bit more, and the economy was creaking under the oil shock. The generation did not know what to do because the old certainties had gone away, the economic levers did not work, unemployment had risen, insecurity was high, politics was dirty, society as a construct was weakening, divorce rates were rising and so on and so forth. People were bewildered, they did not know what to do or how to react. That's why I (again, a very broad generalization here) call them as the bewildered generation.
It took the late 80's and 90's to get going again. The fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the cold war, the peace dividend, the rise of the internet and the computer, globalization, Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton all meant that there was a buzz around the country, things were starting to happen again. There was hope for the future and people walked around with a spring in the step, a song on the lips and a smile on the face.
It took 9/11 to shock America. I think almost everybody across the world who was an adult on that day remembers the shock and horror as the twin towers collapsed. As somebody said, America lost its innocence that day and I add, anger was born. I am sure you would have read about how USA waged war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. And till then, the world was with USA, but the Iraq war drove a coach and horses through the international support for USA. But what happened to the common American? Not the Americans who are in big city New York or Washington, but in the small town America which Senator Obama calls as 'bitter'. These people, to paraphrase his words, 'cling to guns and religion" as a result of economic uncertainty. The people that Alexis de Tocqueville believed were the bedrock of democracy in America.
This is where O'Donnell's book comes in. It talks about a platoon of Marines who go through house by house, clearing out the whole stinking nest of Jihadis / insurgents in Fallujah. The author actually accompanied the platoon through the operation, had bullets whizzing past his ears and stepped into blood shed by dead Marines. He is one of the very rare breeds of historians, called as combat historians. This is as opposed to the embedded journalists who live in relative comfort and safety. He sat by while RPG's blew up doors and rockets exploded houses. He witnessed drug addled Jihadis who would simply not die despite being literally peppered with bullets. He witnessed men who relied on each other and fought for each other, the platoon, the Corps and for their country. You might be thinking, but Iraq was an illegal war and Bush is not liked etc. etc. But that has nothing to do with these Marines whose job was to go from house to house, clearing them out.
For those who might know, house to house fighting is the most expensive and most grinding of all types of fighting. All the advantages are with the defender and almost none with the attacker. Presence of civilians means that the attackers are fighting from the beginning with one arm tied behind their backs. In other words, the probability of death or injury is very high and this is the important bit, they know it. But despite this, they keep on waking up each day and fighting. O'Donnell talks about how they feel, what they talk about, what makes them cringe and what makes them laugh. Why they started to smoke and how they dealt with the calls back home. And underlying this entire book was the constant reminder of 9/11 and how that drove each and every Marine. It was the shattering of the hope and innocence which gave rise to the Angry Generation. So what happened to this platoon? It took very heavy casualties, was shattered totally after the battle, went back to a hero's welcome, but every grunt came back for his next tour of duty.
And this is where I step out in the future and make a guess-estimate of what this angry generation will do to USA and the world. Well, for one, I think USA will become more insular and isolationist, but at the same time it will be more unilateralist than it has been historically (George Bush's presidency was a blip). That anger will make it take steps which it will not let the world influence. That anger will make USA become more protectionist in its treatment of the outside world. It will become more and not less religious and it will definitely become more conservative.
And believe you me, there is no point in telling this angry generation that it is wrong or USA is wrong in its foreign policy or what have you. It does NOT matter to the common American, those Americans for example who are in the Marines. This is not a polemic but my firmly held belief that the people we are going to be faced with in America are mostly going to be people like these Marines. If one has to frame public policy or try to understand America, it should know these people. The fact that they are backed by an immense country with huge assets, people, technology, universities, economies, companies, is almost incidental but not unimportant. But at end of the day, it is the man. I firmly believe that the American in the making is in the Angry Generation.
All this to be taken with a grain of salt!