Generation Gung-Ho

March 21, 2003 | By Ian R. Williams

In Millerton, N.Y., an old railroad village two hours north of New York City, 18-year-old Andres Vialpando rips tickets for “The Quiet American” at the local theater. Across the street, a group of concerned parents, holding candles and chatting earnestly with passersby, hold a candlelight vigil against the war in Iraq.

To Andres, however, the war remains a simple question of logistics. “I think Saddam should not be dictator of the country,” he says, “I don’t think he’s pushing Iraq in the right direction, and we need to do something. He needs to be taken out.”

Andres is one of the 42 million Americans aged 12 to 24, a collection of kids whose first historical memories were the Rodney King riots, O.J.’s trial, Princess Di’s death, Columbine and, of course, Sept. 11. The members of Generation Y—or the Millennials, if you prefer—are now doing what Generation X did 12 years ago: girding themselves for war. The political names are the same (Bush, Powell, Cheney, Hussein), but the kids are not.

In polls, Generation Y has confounded sociologists by espousing the same pro-war majority opinion shared by the rest of the country. In February 2003, a Gallup Poll reported that 58 percent of teens favored the war (for boys, that number jumped to 66 percent, the same as the population as a whole). “A lot of people are amazed these kids are as supportive as they are,” says Neil Howe, the coauthor of “Millennials Rising” and a social policy advisor in Washington, “because a lot of folks think young people always rage against war.”

For Justin Bock, a wiry 16-year old dispensing popcorn for elderly patrons at the Millerton Moviehouse, war was the obvious option. “It’s a simple decision,” he says. When asked about possible blowback from terrorists on our own soil, he said he thought Saddam Hussein was the bigger problem. “I’m way more worried of an initial strike by Iraq than any terrorist.”

These teens might support military invention simply because they’re so anxious to move on to other subjects. One 17-year-old girl declined to be interviewed about the war, moaning, “God, that’s all we talk about at school.” Indeed, classrooms around the country are studying history in real time. “In English we all wrote President Bush letters about the war,” says Ava Dweck, an eighth-grader from Millerton. “We all got the same letter back, with an 8-x-10 photo of Bush. It said, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for your country, so work hard in school.’”

Even elementary school students are mixing war with reading and arithmetic. Victoria Suber, a constantly smiling, vivacious sixth-grader from the sleepy mountain town of Jasper, Ga., says the subject rarely changes. “We talk about it all the time. That’s all we do in school. We had to watch the Bush press conference , and our teacher always tells us to make sure we watch the news, and sometimes we have to go to the computer to see articles about what’s going on.”

Victoria’s mother, 33-year-old Elizabeth, tries to keep it in perspective for her. “Last week, Victoria asked me if we were in danger. I told her that terrorists usually like to strike places where lots of people are gathered. Then she stopped and said, ‘How about Atlanta? Grandma lives there!’”

Howe cites results from Time magazine and the High School Class of 2000 Survey, saying no generation has ever had as much appreciation for their elders as the Millennials. Even if they find flaws with their leaders, this is a group that feels that their government has their best interests in mind. In polls, they often have greater trust in America’s institutions than their midlife parents.

“These are kids who are taught to think of themselves as being the sole purpose of community life in America,” Howe explains. “They’ve been surrounded by kinderpolitics, the idea that politicians are constantly saying, ‘Do it for the children.’” The recent list of governmental reforms for kids is endless: The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Labor, Treasury, and Justice Departments, and even the EPA have passed laws benefiting young Americans. “These kids have been taught, throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, that government is constantly trying to do great things for kids,” says Howe. “Why shouldn’t they like government?”

When asked how his friends at Webituck High School feel about the war, Andres says, “The general consensus is not necessarily pro-war, but they do support Bush,” he says, as he ushers people into the Millerton theater. “They definitely think Bush is a little dumb, but they definitely support him.” Rosie Williams, a 16-year-old attending Santa Fe High School in New Mexico, goes further: “He is aggressively stupid,” she says, “but I don’t think he’s a bad person.” Even 12-year-old Victoria is learning the politics of nuance. “Outside of school, we talk about it. You know, ‘I can’t believe this happened’ and ‘I wish Bush didn’t do this,’” she says. “But I like George Bush. He’s nice.”

Generation Yers aren’t just spending their time pontificating at home; they also make up the lion’s share of the coalition currently racing across the dark skies of the Persian Gulf. While the Special Ops forces are older Generation X vets, the median age on an aircraft carrier is just under 19.

Despite their youth, the new recruits exhibit the confident swagger of their predecessors. Awaiting orders to board a ship bound for the Gulf, 22-year-old Sgt. Jesse Sharron—just back from Afghanistan—talks in gruff, cocksure tones from his barracks near Wilmington, N.C.: “I’ve got guys who were straight-A students in high school, who joined because they wanted to. They had other options, they did well on their SATs, they could have gone to college, but they chose to fight in the military. Our military is 10 times smarter than it’s ever been.” Stats bear him out: 96 percent of military recruits have high school diplomas, up from 75 percent in the mid-1970s.

Of course, not all of Generation Y is psyched to fight; many are capable of deeply felt pacifism. “They’re still connecting 9/11 with Saddam Hussein, when there’s no connection at all,” says Rosie, who displays a level of political sophistication unusual for an 11th-grader. “Al-Qaida has nothing to do with Iraq. I feel like Americans are just being yanked around by the media. This is going to turn into something much bigger and much worse than anyone could have anticipated.”

“We all talk about this, and we all agree that it’s stupid and very scary, actually,” says Ava, while her mother holds a candle at Millerton’s peace vigil. “I think Bush’s decision to go in and occupy Baghdad will kill an unbelievable number of civilians.” Hundreds of miles away, Victoria fears the same. “I feel bad for the people there. I wish we had some way to help them.”

Sixteen-year-old Jasmine Wright, the lone female employee at the Moviehouse, speaks in hushed tones and wears a diamond nose ring. She takes exception to the gung-ho attitude of her make co-workers. “I don’t think that it’s fair that they’re only giving Iraqi civilians such a short time to get out of the country, and there are innocent people that are most likely going to get hurt or killed in the process.”

Rosie Williams, of Sante Fe, says her biggest fears are rooted in generational camaraderie: “The thought of my peers, the boys and girls I’ve grown up with and love, the thought of them fighting a war scares me to death.” Many her age share that sentiment: On March 6, 300 high schools and colleges participated in a nationwide Books Not Bombs demonstration coordinated by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. Hundreds of other schools planned their own rallies.

Yet despite the creeping uncertainty of the times, these kids remain bullish on the future. Says Victoria, “I think it will only be a short war. Then Saddam won’t hurt any more people.” Adds Ava: “We’ll get through it. In the very long term I think it will be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we did that. That was stupid.’”