In the 1960s, history called the Baby Boomers. They didn't answer the phone.
Confronted with a generation-defining conflict, the cold war, the Boomers--those, at any rate, who came to be emblematic of their generation--took the opposite path from their parents during World War II. Sadly, the excesses of Woodstock became the face of the Boomers' response to their moment of challenge. War protests where agitated youths derided American soldiers as baby-killers added no luster to their image.
Few of the leading lights of that generation joined the military. Most calculated how they could avoid military service, and their attitude rippled through the rest of the century. In the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, military service didn't occur to most young people as an option, let alone a duty.
But now, once again, history is calling. Fortunately, the present generation appears more reminiscent of their grandparents than their parents.
I've spent much of the past two weeks speaking with young people (and a few not-so-young) who have made the decision to serve their country by volunteering for the military. Some of these men have Ivy League degrees; all of them are talented and intelligent individuals who--contrary to John Kerry's infamous "botched joke" ("Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq")--could have chosen to do anything with their lives. Having signed up, they have either gone to Iraq or look forward to doing so. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media have underreported their stories.
One of the excesses of the 1960s that present-day liberals have disowned and disavowed since 9/11 is the demonization of the American military. While every now and then an unrepentant liberal like Charlie Rangel will appear on cable news and casually accuse U.S. troops of engaging in baby-killing in Iraq, the liberal establishment generally knows better. They "support" the American military--at least in the abstract, until it does anything resembling fighting a war.
In search of a new narrative, 21st-century liberals have settled on the "soldiers are victims" meme. Democratic senators (and the occasional Republican senator who's facing a tough reelection campaign) routinely pronounce their concern for our "children" in Iraq. One of the reasons John Kerry's "botched joke" resonated so strongly was that it fit the liberals' narrative. The Democratic party would have you believe that our soldiers are children or, at best, adults with few options: In short, a callous and mendacious administration has victimized the young, the gullible, and the hopeless, and stuck them in Iraq.
But this narrative is not just insulting to our fighting men and women, it is also grossly inaccurate.
Kurt Schlichter is a lieutenant colonel in the California National Guard. A veteran of the first Gulf war, he's now stateside and commands the 1-18th Cavalry, 462-man RSTA (Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition) squadron attached to the 40th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The last media representative he spoke with before I contacted him was a New York Times stringer who wanted Schlichter's help in tracking down guardsmen who were "having trouble because they got mobilized."
In describing his unit, Schlichter says, "Our mission is to operate far out in front of the main body of the brigade to find and keep in contact with the enemy, report on its activities, and call in air or artillery fire on it. We are very lightly armed--speed, stealth, and smarts are our best weapons--and our Cav scouts work out of humvees or on foot." Their squadron motto is "Swift and Deadly."
Colonel Schlichter talks about the soldiers he commands with unvarnished admiration. He has 20-year-olds serving under him who have earned combat badges. As to why these young men are willingly and eagerly putting themselves in harm's way, Schlichter flatly declares, "The direction comes from themselves. They like to be challenged."
One of the soldiers in Colonel Schlichter's 1-18th is 28-year-old Sergeant Joseph Moseley. The outline of Moseley's story matches the liberal narrative of the "soldier victim." A junior college student, he served four years in the Army and then four years in the National Guard. During his stint in the Guard, Moseley got mobilized. He went to Iraq, where he had a portion of his calf muscle torn away by an IED. He has since returned to the United States and is undergoing a rigorous rehab program, which he describes as "not always going smoothly." It's virtually impossible that Sergeant Moseley will recover fully from his injuries.
Yet when asked about his time in Iraq, Moseley speaks with evident pride. He says the fact that he took the brunt of the IED's blow means he did his job. None of the men serving under him was seriously injured. When asked how he would feel about being characterized as a victim, Sergeant Moseley bristles. "I'm not a victim," he says. "It's insulting. That's what we signed up for. I knew what I was doing."
Tom Cotton is another soldier who knew what he was doing. When 9/11 occurred, Cotton was in his third year at Harvard Law School. Like most Americans, he was "shocked, saddened, and angered." Like many on that day, he made a promise to serve his country.
And Cotton meant it. After fulfilling the commitments he had already made, including clerking for a federal judge and going to work for a large Washington law firm, Cotton enlisted in the Army. He jokes that doing so came with a healthy six-figure pay cut.
Cotton enlisted for one reason: He wanted to lead men into combat. His recruiter suggested that he use the talents he had spent seven years developing at Harvard and join the JAG Corps, the Armed Forces' law firm. Cotton rejected that idea. He instead began 15 months of training that culminated with his deployment to Iraq as a 2nd lieutenant platoon leader with the 101st Airborne in Baghdad.
The platoon he led was composed of men who had already been in Baghdad for five months. Cotton knew that a new platoon leader normally undergoes a period of testing from his men. Because his platoon was patrolling "outside the wire" every day, there was no time for Cotton and his men to have such a spell. He credits what turned out to be a smooth transition to his platoon's noncommissioned officers, saying, "The troops really belong to the NCOs." After six months, Cotton and his platoon redeployed stateside.
While in Iraq, Cotton's platoon was awarded two Purple Hearts, but suffered no killed in action. His larger unit, however, did suffer a KIA. When I asked Cotton for his feelings about that soldier's death, the pain in his voice was evident. After searching for words, he described it as "sad, frustrating, angry--very hard, very hard on the entire company."
He then added some thoughts. "As painful as it was, the death didn't hurt morale," he said. "That's something that would have surprised me before I joined the Army. Everyone in the Infantry has volunteered twice--once for the Army, once for the Infantry. These are all grown men who all made the decision to face the enemy on his turf. The least you can do is respect them and what they're doing."
Now serving in the Army in Virginia, still enjoying his six-figure pay cut, Tom Cotton says he is "infinitely happy" that he joined the Army and fought in Iraq. "If I hadn't done it," he says, "I would have regretted it the rest of my life."
Regardless of their backgrounds, the soldiers I spoke with had a similar matter-of-fact style. Not only did all of them bristle at the notion of being labeled victims, they bristled at the idea of being labeled heroes. To a man, they were doing what they saw as their duty. Their self-assessments lacked the sense of superiority that politicians of a certain age who once served in the military often display. The soldiers I spoke with also refused to make disparaging comparisons between themselves and their generational cohorts who have taken a different path.
But that doesn't mean the soldiers were unaware of the importance of their undertaking. About a month ago, I attended the commissioning of a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The day before his commissioning, he had graduated from Harvard. He didn't come from a military family, and it wasn't financial hardship that drove him into the Armed Forces. Don't tell John Kerry, but he studied hard in college. After his commissioning, this freshly minted United States Marine returned to his Harvard dorm room to clean it out.
As he entered the dorm in his full dress uniform, some of his classmates gave him a spontaneous round of applause. A campus police officer took him aside to shake his hand. His father observed, "It was like something out of a movie."
A few weeks after his commissioning, the lieutenant sent me an email that read in part:
I remember when I was down at Quantico two summers ago for the first half of Officer Candidates School. The second to last day I was down there--"Family Day," incidentally--was the 7/7 bombings. The staff pulled us over and told us the news and then said that's basically why they're so hard on us down there: We're at war and will be for a long time, and the mothers of recruits at MCRD and at Parris Island right now are going to be depending on us one day to get their sons and daughters home alive.
When I was in England last week, I talked to an officer in the Royal Navy who had just received his Ph.D. He was saying he thought the larger war would last 20-30 years; I've always thought a generation--mine in particular. Our highest calling: To defend our way of life and Western Civilization; fight for the freedom of others; protect our friends, family, and country; and give hope to a people long without it.
It is surely a measure of how far we've come as a society from the dark days of the 1960s that things like military service and duty and sacrifice are now celebrated. Just because Washington and Hollywood haven't noticed this generational shift doesn't mean it hasn't occurred. It has, and it's seismic.
Dean Barnett blogs at HughHewitt.com.