What Happened to the Greatest Generation

As of today, we have officially been fighting the war in Iraq longer than we fought in the Second World War. This is rather a sobering thought when you think about the large amount of anti-war sentiment, combined with the general sense of failure in Iraq. The recent midterm elections suggest that many Americans are hoping for a change in the situation in Iraq. Only time will tell whether or not the Democrats will take steps to pull troops out of Iraq.

Walking through San Francisco the other day, Cap’n Raspberry and I were talking about the greatest generation, and hope. The conversation was spurred by the proliferation of 1950s style diners in the City, which are altars of hope and bygone days. Although neither of us was around for the 1950s, we see the decade iconized all over the place. It seems like it could have been a decent time to be around: the economy was good post-war, people were friendly, everybody had puppies and kittens apparently, cars and housewives and all sorts of things that seem quaint and antiquated now. Now we have everyone in the household working and electronic devices and pointless wars.

We were pondering what broke the greatest generation, and what caused the sea change in American culture that led us to the state we are in today. I argued for two things: Vietnam, and the increase of technology. Vietnam seems like an obvious choice, because it was a time when the nation polarized on a major issue. Much of America woke up and began to speak out more, be more active in their society even if it meant challenging idealist values.

But technology, too, has been a major blow for society even at the same time that it is a boon. Cellphones and laptops have become so ubiquitous that I think it is difficult for many of us to remember when we didn’t answer phone calls in the middle going to dinner with our friends, didn’t disappear upstairs to check our email when we were entertaining guests, could go a few days without something. We’ve plunged into the depths of an instant gratification consumer culture, and I think it has profoundly changed us.

Perhaps the second Gulf War will mark another change in society. I suspect not, primarily because this generation is too lazy to do anything that cannot be accomplished in a few hours. Armchair revolutionaries all, with no hope of ever actually altering anything. Our apathy is fed by computers and video games, and most of us go about our days in a technology and drug induced stupor. It’s kind of a tragedy, really, the waste of all these minds.

I sometimes wonder if the collapse of public support for the war is due to the fact that it has dragged on so long. If we had been able to get in and get out in sixty days, I have a feeling that people would generally speak well of the war, of our decisive and collected move. Showing them who’s boss, you know. Instead, the war drags on and people become disinterested by and numbed to it. I suspect that most people don’t support the war because it has taken too damn long, not because people are dying or because perhaps we shouldn’t be there.

I think America wants its wars like it wants its food: instant, fast, can be eaten in front of the television. We’re so used to Rice-A-Roni that we’ve forgotten what home made risotto tastes like. War in a box. What kind of instant, modular world have we built for ourselves?