Much As They Differ, Young and Old Agree: There Will Always Be Wars

March 31, 2003 | By Jeff Kunerth, Jim Stratton

The television above the bar already is tuned to the war on MSNBC when the first veteran pushes through the red, white and blue door and into the dark, wood-paneled cave of the VFW Post 2093 lounge.

One by one they find their seats in the numbered black-vinyl barstools.

There’s Lou, who is just coming off cataract surgery and uses a walker. And Ray, who wears a cap that says Tin Can Sailors and drinks orange juice on the rocks in a beer mug. And Mike, who comes here, by his own count, “nine days a week.”

Their fathers fought in World War I—the “War to End All Wars.” They fought in World War II and the Korean War. Their children served in Vietnam. And now their grandchildren—men and women who are the same age they were during World War II—are fighting Iraq for the second time in 12 years.

They are The Greatest Generation of the Greatest Nation on Earth, whose lives span six wars and an odd assortment of military actions. The majority see the war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as necessary and war, in general, as inevitable.

Those views are shared by many of the young people dubbed by some demographers as “The Next Great Generation.” It’s a generation that has seen less war but is no less skeptical about war and peace.

“As long as there are two men and one woman left in the world, there will always be fighting,” said Mike Gore, 77, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam during 25 years in the Army and Navy.

“There have always been fistfights, and there will always be wars,” echoes Douglas Carman, a 20-year-old University of Florida junior. “The only way there will be permanent peace on Earth is if no one survives.”

Yet some of the World War II generation remember thinking in their youth that war might become obsolete after the Allies defeated the Axis. It was such postwar optimism that gave birth to the United Nations.

“I thought it was the end of the wars,” said Dorothy Parker, 82, who lives in the Orlando Central Towers retirement high-rise. “They’re a waste of time and money and lives.”

But that was when they were young and naive and victorious. They think differently now, smarter in retrospect.

“We were hopeful that it would be the end of wars. But we were young. Then came Korea and Vietnam,” said Connie Osmun, 84, of Westminster Towers in Orlando. “I don’t think I’ll ever live to see peace in the world.”

Resigned to Wars

Many of the younger generation share that same sense of resignation: War is inevitable; world peace is a delusion.

But for Douglas Carman’s generation, the debate and discussion of the war don’t take place at the VFW bar. They reserve a room in cyberspace, logging on to the countless discussion boards and chat rooms buzzing about the war.

In their virtual lounge, a young professional in Utah debates the war with a college student in Gainesville or a young woman sitting at her computer in the Bronx. Online, you’ll find Generation Y engaged in a blizzard of opinions and musings but not much undiluted idealism.

“Humans live by conflict,” said Crystal McCree, a 20-year-old biology student at Mercy College in New York. “It’s our nature.”

Both Carman and McCree think it is likely that their children and grandchildren will, at some point, experience war. In that way, these 20-somethings sound very much like the 70-somethings having a beer in the VFW or playing cards at the Beardall Senior Center.

In one area, however, they are very different.

Unlike the generation that fought and won World War II, there is less confidence that America is indisputably “right.” The United States is strong and, to many, well-intentioned. But even young people such as Dan Vinton, who backs the war, wonder whether the country sometimes bungles its message.

Vinton said he fundamentally agrees with the regime-change goal. Saddam is a vicious dictator, he said, who has made life miserable for many Iraqis. But Vinton wishes the United States had cobbled together a stronger coalition.

“I support our government,” said the conservative, 28-year-old marketing director who taps into an MTV chat room from his home in Logan, Utah. “But I do wonder if more could have been done to satisfy our allies.”

Vinton said he would like to see a “more humble” United States—one that reaches out “to help other countries” while taking pains to ensure that effort isn’t misconstrued as “trying to take over.”

“I read Band of Brothers,” Vinton said, referring to the book about a company of World War II paratroopers. “And there’s a quote in there that says the ‘U.S. needs to be strong as hell and kind as Christ.’ That’s kind of how I feel.”

Geoff Hahn of Lake Mary is more critical. Like many of his peers, the 23-year-old college student says America’s decision to go after Saddam without the backing of the United Nations and in the face of opposition from much of the world smacks of arrogance.

Hahn can understand the point of view of Muslims who fear that America is on a campaign against Islam and trying to westernize the world at the end of a gun barrel.

“And that must scare the hell out of the Muslims,” Hahn said.

The latest Gallup Poll shows support for the war is lowest among people ages 18 to 29, the generation that is debating the war in chat rooms and fighting the war on the battlefields.

Nearly 40 percent of that generation polled said they oppose the war. Both Carman and McCree think President Bush has not convinced them that Iraq played a role in the attacks of Sept. 11. They concede that Saddam is corrupt and violent, but they’re uncomfortable making that the primary reason for going to war.

“There are plenty of other brutal dictators,” McCree said. “I’m just getting a bad vibe off it.”

There are those among the World War II generation who agree that the reasons for war in Iraq are unclear.

“I don’t think there should be a war,” said Theresa Otero, 75, of Orlando. “What are we fighting for? I don’t know.”

“No Choice”

Many of the older generation, however, see Saddam as another version of Adolf Hitler and war against Iraq as the moral obligation of the United States to save itself, and the rest of the world, from tyrants.

“We have no choice but to oppose evil,” said June Romesburg, 79, a resident of the Baptist Terrace retirement high-rise in Orlando. “As long as there’s evil in the world and people trying to take your freedom, you either fight the war or you give in.”

Seven of 10 people in Romesburg’s generation polled by Gallup said they support Bush and the war in Iraq. Only 25 percent oppose the war.

There is a strong sense among the older generation that once the decision is made to go to war, it is time to unite behind your president—my country right or wrong. Dissent, in time of war, is tantamount to betrayal.

World War II veteran Kenneth Short, 77, said he opposed the war before it began. But now that it is in progress, he supports the troops and stifles his misgivings.

“Even though you’re against something, once it starts, it’s time to keep your mouth shut,” he said.

The World War II generation has little tolerance for peace protests and antiwar demonstrations.

“I’m disgusted with the protesters. There was none of this crap and protesting against the war [during World War II],” said Henry Windeler, 68, of Baptist Terrace. “No matter what nationality you were, you supported the war.”

There are many 20-somethings who share the older generation’s sentiments about antiwar protesters. The message boards are filled with old-school young people who have embraced the same ideas held by their grandparents and great-grandparents.

They think many people their own age are too young and too sheltered to understand the big picture. These young conservatives tend to sound a lot like “Rick,” who posts regularly on a University of Florida Internet discussion board.

“Most college-age kids are so caught up in their liberal mind-set that they have no clue how dangerous the world is,” Rick wrote recently. “They shield themselves from the truth. . . Put me in the pro-Bush, pro-Operation Iraqi Freedom column.”

Douglas Carman, on the other hand, is fed up with those who equate opposing the war with criticizing U.S. troops.

“It’s ridiculous,” the UF junior said. “If you really want to support the military, bring them home.”

Shades of Gray

Such criticism of the United States is regarded by older Americans as evidence that young people lack the war-tested patriotism of their generation.

“We grew up with a love of God, country and patriotism,” Romesburg said. “I think our children are being taught to be more open minded.”

While the older generation tends to see war in black and white, like old newsreel footage, much of the younger generation sees shades of gray.

They are, in general, a generation less concerned about racial, ethnic and religious differences, according to Neil Howe, author of Generations.

Generation Y grew up in an era that promotes diversity and multiculturalism. The prevailing message in schools, the media and popular culture has been that the views of other countries, cultures and people are as valid as those in the United States.

As a result, many young people are less likely to see the United States as right and pure and other countries as wrong and evil.

Despite their different perspectives, there is some agreement among the young and the old that one war may solve a problem with a solution that provokes yet another war for yet another generation.

“The seeds for this war were sown at the end of World War II,” said Harold Schreiber, 83, who has family in Israel. “You’re not settling anything in the Middle East with the war in Iraq.”

Connections