Generational Panic

January 07, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- Just a few months ago, it seemed almost certain that the president would be a man in his 70s for at least the next four years, with aides and cronies almost as, er, mature. It's shocking enough to find yourself in your 40s. The added shock of finding that suddenly the people running the country are also in their 40s is doubly cruel.

The moment of truth comes with another surprise: national leadership is apparently going to involve repeated decisions about whether to send younger Americans off to risk their lives in war. Only in the last year has it become clear that the end of the Cold War will probably introduce a new era of military activism. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, but we are.

When and how to use American force will be the foreign-policy debate of the next four years. But one question needs to be cleared up, if possible, in advance. Most of the 40-something generation has never fought in a war. Many took active steps to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Does that foreclose them from ordering a younger generation into battle -- especially to battles that seem ''optional'' compared with World War II and the Cold War?

This question arose during the recent election campaign. It will arise much more painfully every time the Clinton administration attempts to use American force.

Alan Tonelson, the 30-something research director of a Washington think tank, wrote recently in the Washington Post, in opposition to the Somalia mission: ''There is . . . something unseemly about politicians launching moral crusades and pundits cheering them on knowing that they and their loved ones will remain safely on the sidelines. And for Vietnam-era doves to join in is almost unforgivable.''

Measuring your life against your professed beliefs, and vice versa, is always a good exercise. Especially when the issue is risking others' lives. Is the Clinton generation prevented by its own history from making such a decision? Is the debate over the use of American force in the post-Cold War world short-circuited from the start?

The mere fact that one opposed the war in Vietnam does not imply logically that one must oppose other uses of American force. You can say ''no'' to Vietnam and ''yes'' to Somalia, just as there are those -- Cold War conservatives who now style themselves ''realists'' -- who say ''yes'' to Vietnam and ''no'' to Somalia. (See the Winter issue of The National Interest for a bracing set of essays from this point of view.) It is undeniably ironic that former doves now sound like hawks, and equally ironic that former hawks now sound like doves. But irony is not logic.

When it comes to war, middle-aged people make the decisions and young people do the fighting. That's how it works, unfortunately. The argument that therefore the decision-makers have no right to commit American force unless national security is fundamentally at stake ''proves too much,'' as the lawyers say.

Just as there will be disagreements about whether this or that ''merely'' humanitarian enterprise is worth the risk, there will be disagreements about when America's national security is truly at stake. The Vietnam debate was largely such a disagreement. Even World War II had its challengers on these grounds. Perhaps no one should be required to fight a war he or she doesn't personally believe in. Short of that, the one reason for reluctance to fight seems as good as the other.

Although proponents of a military draft have had the moral upper hand in recent years, it's worth noting the advantages of a volunteer army in this regard. Volunteer soldiers certainly haven't volunteered to be killed, and decision makers have no right to put them at risk promiscuously. But they have volunteered to be trained for a mission, and it's likely that many of them are pleased with the risk-to-moral-satisfaction ratio of using their skills in an enterprise like the rescue of Somalia, compared with other ways they might be expected to serve.

Over 90 percent of the Vietnam generation never saw war. In this, of course, it is no different from the 30-somethings and 20-somethings who follow, almost 100 percent of whom have never seen war. When their turn to lead comes, they will not have faced either the challenge of the World War II generation -- Will you risk your life for your country in an undeniably worthy cause? -- or the challenge of the Vietnam generation -- What do you do when your country is engaged in a cause you find morally repugnant?

Bill Clinton is not one of those who supported the Vietnam war -- or failed to oppose it -- and yet avoided service. Unless we are to have wars simply to prepare future generations of leaders to have wars, leaders without the experience of war will be our problematic but happy fate.

Meanwhile, those Republican college kids who taunted Bill Clinton as a ''draft dodger'' during the campaign: How many of them have enlisted, even in the peacetime army? Oh well, maybe we can put that argument off for a generation.

TRB is a column of The New Republic.

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