Iraq's lost generation

September 19, 2004|By Stephen A. Myrow

WASHINGTON - The original lost generation, as termed by Gertrude Stein, consisted of a subset of Americans who survived World War I, the original modern war.

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald glorified its existence in the greatest American novels of the last century. After experiencing the brutality of war and postwar disillusionment, these men and their comrades exuded pessimism in the extreme and found it difficult, sometimes impossible, to overcome their futility with contemporary life.

Mr. Hemingway and his peers may have become the most famous lost generation, but they are by no means the only one.

When I studied in Moscow in 1990, the Soviet Union was breathing its last gasps of communism. Street life was bleak, with staples such as coffee and tea rationed and lengthy bread lines commonplace. On a train to Odessa, a couple of my classmates engaged two prematurely gray-haired Red Army officers. The soldiers complained that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was too weak and unleashing chaos. They yearned for life under a strong leader like Stalin. When confronted with the horrors of Stalin's purges, they shrugged and said, "Everybody makes mistakes."

This diatribe evidenced that these men were members of Russia's lost generation, that segment of society that had learned how to survive under the parameters of the Soviet regime and were psychologically unable to transition to life in the new Russia.

One could argue that, on first blush, life in the new Russia remains bleak even today. Terrorists operate freely from the breakaway Chechnya region, the nation's leader once again has consolidated power and the future of Russia's behemoth oil company, Yukos, is uncertain.

However, Chechnya remains ultimately under Russian control. The president is subject to democratic elections. And although the economy is far from being rooted in the rule of law, a new generation of kapitalists in their 20s and 30s have fully embraced entrepreneurship. Still, a couple hundred members of Russia's increasingly geriatric lost generation, no doubt including the two Red Army officers, call for a return to communism each year on the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Russia is just a decade and a half into its transition to democracy and market economy, and thus remains only at the median point in its concurrent transition of power from lost generation to next generation. Progress is neither steep nor linear, but the trend remains positive.

Today, Iraq is dealing with its own lost generation.

A senior member of the interim government remarked to me in June, "Every Iraqi has a piece of Saddam in him." As Najaf smolders, Fallujah seethes and the young men of the Iraqi Olympic soccer team express discontent with their mention in the U.S. presidential campaign, it appears on the surface that Iraq's future is bleak.

Nevertheless, there is another, more optimistic story to be told about the new Iraq. While living at the main port of Umm Qasr, I witnessed ships delivering fleets of Nissan pickup trucks and Iraqi stevedores offloading dhows filled with tires. These trucks regularly haul satellite dishes, outlawed under Saddam Hussein, which Iraq's budding entrepreneurs are now selling faster than they can pile in makeshift stalls at local markets. And the role models on the Cinderella story Olympic soccer team not only almost brought home a medal, they were free from the threat of torture or death when they failed to deliver.

Yet there are those Iraqis who learned to survive within the bounds of Mr. Hussein's brutal rule and remain psychologically incapable of transitioning to life in the new Iraq. These Iraqis include not only Hussein loyalists and radical Shiites, but also the employees of the Iraqi Water Co., the formerly exclusive shipping agent that is now forced to compete with private companies.

Almost weekly, middle-aged representatives of the water company still make their rounds at the port in search of fees from ships that are no longer their clients. Preferring to get by under the watchful eye of Mr. Hussein's secret police, the way the Red Army officers were willing to take the risk of being one of Stalin's "mistakes," these Iraqis do not advance their own vision for the future but rather cling to a past that contained hundred of thousands of its own "mistakes."

The cold reality is that some hearts and minds simply cannot be won. The real question is not whether Iraq will succeed. Instead of using the flawed short-term metric of the four-year American presidential cycle to measure progress, all you have to do is look at Iraq's next generation of leaders studying new textbooks in rebuilt schools to envision Iraq's promising future. Iraq's next generation will ensure success over the long term, albeit on a path equally gradual and nonlinear, if not more so, than Russia's. No, the real question is how to handle Iraq's lost generation during its decades-long transition of power to the next generation.

What mix of sticks and carrots will Iraq's leaders offer to its lost generation in the months and years ahead? The answer will determine how violent the transition to democracy will be and how long the violence will last. But make no mistake about it - by clinging to the past, Iraq's lost generation has lost its ability to affect the ultimate outcome of Iraq's future.

Stephen A. Myrow, former chief of staff of the Iraqi Coalition Provisional Authority's Transportation Ministry, is a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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