Baby boomers seem to heed a natural impulse for international conflict

October 25, 2002 | By Mark Ellis

The generation running the country is ready to put the “boom” in “baby boom.”

Following a pattern traced over centuries, historian and author William Strauss thinks, the baby-boom generation is poised to drive the nation into war.

Peace and love will have to take a back seat.

“Boomers fit within the historical pattern…in which the generation born in the aftermath of nation- and empire-defining wars is inclined to steward society into the next war of that dimension or the next great crisis,” Strauss said from his Virginia home.

A war with Iraq could be a step in that direction. “Our point is we are on this path now and history will intrude on our daily lives more,” he said. “The forces (of history) are very powerful. They will command our attention.”

Other historians mark the trends of each generation but less willingly embrace the pattern of inevitability voiced by Strauss, 55, and co-author Neil Howe, 51—who have written Generations and The Fourth Turning, among other books.

A recent AARP survey comparing attitudes of the “leading-edge” baby boomers with the attitudes of 30 years ago shows a rising comfort level with military strength: Some 66 percent, up from 41 percent in the early 1970s, think military power should be increased.

A booming 90 percent think Americans will fight a war within 10 years, compared with 73 percent 30 years ago.

The AARP survey included the first wave of boomers, those born between 1946 and 1952. (Strauss places the baby-boom generation earlier, at 1943 to 1960, than most other historians.)

“There is something very boomer about this path” chosen by President Bush, Strauss said. “And there was something very boomer about the Clinton administration in its time. These are two men who have embodied the persona of their generation.”

The differences between the two presidents are typical of their peers.

The Vietnam War split the generation as well as the country.

“Boomers were anti-draft,” the historian said. “It’s far less clear that they were anti-war at the time.

“When there were battles with the police and battles with the National Guard, there were boomers on both sides.

“After-war polls showed that people of boomer age were more inclined than older or younger people to say the war should have been fought to win. Boomers, often by a significant margin, were the age bracket that most wanted to go to war in Desert Storm.”

Boomers, Strauss said, attach a “spiritual dimension” to war, casting conflict as good versus evil, with more interest in “destroying” than containing an enemy.

Sound familiar?

History shows that a generation not previously engaged in a global war has “an inclination to take risks” that could lead to one.

At least one boomer—Richard Herrmann, 50-year-old director of the Mershon Center, a venue for the study of international security and public policy, at Ohio State University—is “not aching for a big, global war.”

Each generation, in general, adopts a different attitude toward armed conflict, Herrmann said.

“People learn a lot from their first experience in world affairs,” he said. “That shapes everything that comes subsequently.

“The Vietnam generation is in power. The divisions of Vietnam are still evident, still pretty deep.”

Such a history influences debate on how the United States projects power—and how much it could “reshape the world in our image.”

“Nobody wants war,” Herrmann said. “There is a debate over how imperial we can be. A group around the president is proud to have an American empire. I understand what they’re saying: This is a moral mission for America.”

Some “hard-core” Bush advisers, who “may have been hawks in Vietnam to a large degree,” are pushing for a war, followed by a rebuilding of Iraq. The more moderate advisers, who “are not doves,” question the willingness of the American people to engage in long-term “nation building.”

“Frankly, the World War II generation is skeptical why anything in the Middle East is worth this kind of war,” Herrmann said. “They grew up fighting big-time enemies, genuine threats to the world. Saddam Hussein is not going to take over the world.

“I don’t think very many Americans are worried about radical Islam taking over America.”

Those who opposed the Vietnam war tend to think of a war with Iraq as “completely misguided American imperialism.”

In any case, Herrmann said, such a war is “more likely than unlikely.”

“The Bush administration is not afraid of this war, regardless what the general public thinks,” he said. “The general public is more ambivalent.”

The dangers of a war include “something horrible,” such as the unleashing of weapons of mass destruction in the United States and “long-term Arab anger.”

A government imposed by one country on another naturally struggles, Herrmann said.

“Maybe I’m affected by Vietnam. You have to have some faith in your government, but I’m skeptical.”

Wars help define generations, said Allan Winkler, a 57-year-old distinguished professor of history at Miami University in Oxford.

World War I left “a profound sense of disillusionment,” in that the world “had not been made safe for democracy,” he said.

World War II did the opposite.

“There was a deep-seated need to feel that we had fought this war against dictators to really create a world in which democracy could survive—and it did.”

These days, he said, aging military officers with World War II experience are “generally leading the opposition” to a possible war.

“Our president had no combat experience, was not involved in the active (Vietnam) war and has no sense of the brutality of war,” Winkler said. “That can lead to a more aggressive type of position.

“His father (the elder President Bush) took a somewhat more cautious approach. He had been active in World War II.

“It’s easier to go gung-ho if you haven’t been involved…in the trenches.”

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