Next Conflict Will be in Good Hands

October 11, 2002 | By Ruben Navarrette

Think you have considered America’s impending war against Iraq from every possible angle? How about taking a measure of the generation that will be called on to do the bulk of the fighting?

It should come as a comfort to know that many of the estimated 22 million Americans now between the ages of 13 and 20 seem to have their heads screwed on straight.

That is a relief, especially since the oldest members of this new generation could head to the Persian Gulf soon. The senior military officers in a possible attack against Saddam Hussein may be baby boomers; the junior officers, from the generation that followed. But the men and women on the front lines will be a whole new breed. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, who have built a cottage industry by commenting on generational issues, the war and, for that matter, the future of the country are in good hands.

The way Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss see it, today’s adolescents are optimistic, duty-minded team players endowed with strong values and a can-do spirit. All that helps position them to live up to the example of the celebrated World War II generation.

Private Ryan meets PlayStation 2.

The new breed got to be good kids by watching their elders go bad, insist Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss. It is a most interesting idea. Like every generation, they rebel against their parents. And since most of their parents are baby boomers, that rebellion is taking the form of doing things that boomers rarely did at their age—like respect their elders and put trust in government.

Now, all that these youngsters need is a name of their own.

In 1997, ABC News conducted an online poll asking teenagers what they wanted to be called. The possibilities included the unimaginative “Generation Y” and the “Echo Boom.” The most popular choice was “The Millennials.” The moniker implies a generation ready to make its mark on the next century. (For the record, my favorite choice came in second: “Don’t Label Us.”)

But labeled they are, and like several generations before them, they also are the subject of a recent book by Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss. In Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, the authors claim that the kids who took their first rides in minivans marked with bright yellow signs warning “Baby on Board” are destined for great things—just like the World War II generation.

Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss don’t go so far as to say great generations are necessarily great at making war. But many of the attributes the authors attribute to Millennials—like teamwork and a can-do-spirit—could be useful on the battlefield.

Add a sense of purpose to that list. Having spent their overscheduled teen years pressured to succeed, to get good grades and to win early admission to select colleges, many Millennials say they are aching to accomplish something with their lives and make the world a better place.

Already having done their share of community service at home, many of them are searching out opportunities to make a difference around the globe.

A military campaign against Iraq would make a difference. A majority of Americans now are convinced that simply ignoring Saddam Hussein and his weapons agenda is a bad idea. A recent ABC News poll found public support for a first strike against Iraq running at 2-1.

The World War II generation—which, like the 18- to 20-year-olds of today, also suffered the humiliation of seeing America come under attack - rose from the wreckage of Pearl Harbor and helped rid the world of a global menace.

Ousting Saddam Hussein gives Millennials their chance to do likewise. In time, perhaps someone will prove that the Iraqi leader had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks. But for now, it is damning enough that this rogue feeds a climate in the Middle East and elsewhere where terrorism and violence are considered legitimate tools to advance one’s cause.

That is unacceptable, and the best time to say so is right now.

Not all Americans are convinced that Millennial troops are ready for battle. Some say that being one of the most cared-for and watched-over generations in recent history has made these youngsters soft—too soft to endure the hardships of war.

I disagree. The first test for the Millennials came in Afghanistan, and they passed with flying colors. They are likely to do just as well in completing their next assignment: toppling Saddam Hussein.

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