Another war -- and the baby boomers' hopes dashed

Steven Stark

January 24, 1991|By Steven Stark

IT IS PERHAPS the peculiar conceit of every generation that it will transform history. The Civil War generation felt that it was eliminating racial oppression from the nation. The World War I generation thought it was fighting "the war to end all wars."

If there was ever a generation that embraced this conceit, it was the baby boomers. Born between 1946 and 1959, these 50 million Americans have lived in a culture that has tended to cater to their every whim. Because they constitute such a large demographic group, the ideals and marketing preferences of the boomers often have been synonymous with those of the culture at large. If we boomers think the world revolves around us, it is because, in a consumer culture, it does.

The baby boomers have many defining characteristics -- their embrace of rock music, their distrust of authority and their belief that "the personal is political." But perhaps more than anything else, what has defined the baby boomers in the popular imagination is an antipathy to war, shaped by the Vietnam experience. That's why the war in the Persian Gulf comes as such a shock to much of this generation and why it may be a pivotal event in redefining the nation's consciousness.

After all, the reasoning went, the generation before us lived through so many wars that it accepted the inevitability of armed conflict. That generation also admired its military heroes, as the election of Dwight Eisenhower showed.

In the popular mind, the baby boomers discredited the idea of a "good war," as Studs Terkel described World War II. And in the years following Vietnam, as the boomers gained some political power and the Cold War ended, some members of this generation and others began to make another unspoken assumption: Because of the revolution in consciousness the baby boomers had led, this country would never be involved in a large-scale war again. Now those hopes have been --ed.

What does it mean? First, it means that popular conceptions of the boomers may have been flawed. Sure, there are millions of baby boomers who share an anti-war ethic, but a generation is never monolithic. During Vietnam, it was a well-publicized elite which tended to wear peace symbols while a majority supported the war, at least initially. The biggest selling Vietnam record of the '60s was not "The Fixin' to Die Rag" but "The Ballad of the Green Berets." Similarly, massive cultural conceptions to the contrary, polls today show the baby boomers supporting the use of force against Iraq in roughly the same numbers as the rest of the population.

Second, our war with Iraq destroys the myth of baby-boomer exceptionalism. For three decades now, this country has labored under the illusion that the boomers were about to change history; "Great Expectations," after all, is what Landon Jones called his defining book on the boomers.

While no one would deny that this generation has changed the way people look at work, family, the role of women, or even some aspects of war -- no small achievements indeed -- we are hardly experiencing the revolutions in politics and culture many expected this generation to lead. In fact, a lot of polls indicate that, if anything, people think things are worse off today than a generation ago. And now, despite protests that recall the Vietnam era, comes the Persian Gulf war.

What's more, as war begins, a new generation -- symbolized by our young soldiers -- moves to the forefront, superseding the baby boomers.

It began with promise. Most generations do. But this generation seemed to believe its own hype and cling to its promise longer than most. It was called the Love Generation, the Vietnam Generation and the Woodstock Generation. In the '70s, it was the Me Generation. Maybe now someone will call it the 47-votes-for-an-embargo generation. But it's unlikely. With war at our doorstep, it's hard to look at the promise of the Big Chill Generation in the same way. Sad to say, the Chill is gone.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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