Author’s Preface: I wrote this a couple years ago, when neo-conservatives and media pundits alike seemed eager to marginalize my generation and its contributions. I never managed to place it then, but I think it’s still relevant today. An America that wages preemptive wars, keeps political prisoners, that tortures people (and waterboarding is torture), and in which we demonize disagreement is not the America I grew up in. We seem to have lost our core values and our equilibrium on 9/11—especially our traditional commitment to civility and our respect for divergent opinion. And that holds true in the political and academic spheres. (I took this photo at UC Berkeley in 1985.)
Some comedian from my generation--the fabled post-World-War-II-baby-boom generation—once observed that “it would be terribly embarrassing to have a coronary while wearing blue jeans.” His point, of course, was that we baby boomers were refusing to grow old gracefully. And his point was well-taken. We invented the youth culture. But, like it or not, our charter members are now over 60, and media pundits have challenged us to point to something else we’ve done for America.
If the World War I generation was the “lost generation” and the World War II generation was the “greatest generation,” what were those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War? I’ve got it: We’re the Peter Pan generation. We refused to grow up—that is, if you count an inability to reconcile the world the way it is with the world we were led to expect as a mark of adolescence.
But we can explain.
Raised in relative prosperity and nurtured by the great American myths that had seemingly been validated by the outcome of World War II, we “held these truths to be self-evident”: “Truth, justice, and the American way” is a redundant phrase, and America had always been, and always would be, on the side of right.
Of course, the civil rights movement, coming as it did on the eve of our Vietnam involvement, marked the beginning of my generation’s painful trek from innocence to experience. But the journey’s end proved to be Vietnam, where our American dream turned into a nightmare.
We found that the people we had been sent to save were not much impressed with us and really weren’t interested in being saved on our terms. We discovered that the search-and-destroy strategy we were employing was horribly disproportionate to the end we sought. (We were willing to destroy Vietnam in order to save it, but the acronym for “winning hearts and minds,” fittingly, is “WHAM”!) Worse yet, we learned that our government had been misrepresenting the war and had even lied to us about how and why we got into it in the first place.
As a result of all this, we developed bad attitudes. We complained, we protested, we whined, we resisted, and we overreacted. At times, we made things worse than they had to be. There was no excuse for the My Lai massacre, for instance, and the Kent State tragedy didn’t have to happen. But at least we took a stand. We dramatized what was wrong with our war, and we helped end it. That was no small accomplishment.
What the people who sent us to Vietnam forgot is that we were raised to believe that questioning authority was not just a right; it was an obligation. If that was a bad attitude, then maybe we could use some more bad attitudes today.
By the by, I’m now over 60, and I would be proud to have my first coronary in my blue jeans. It had to be said.