The Long View 2005-08-05: Generations & Revivals

Social survey data continues to show the trends John noted twelve years ago: young Americans are more prudish and conformist and statist than the Baby Boom generation.

Generations & Revivals:

Here is a bit of Marine Corps propaganda from a Captain B. Quinn about the Americans who are actually fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, A generation transformed. It appeared in the International Herald Tribune:

For all the mistakes in planning that have been made in this war, and all the acts of heroism that have (or more often have not) been reported, this war is transforming young Americans. We are forming a new "greatest generation" that will counteract the obsession with one's self that has characterized the last few decades...If the policy makers and politicians choose the right path, if they spend our lives wisely, this global war on terror will be a Normandy, and not a Vietnam. Through the actions of our service members and the sacrifices of our Maloneys, we are transforming Iraq. As we return home, we are also transforming the face of America.

Just because something is propaganda does not mean it isn't true. One notes that, even now, young Iraq vets are starting to get the same kind of deference that World War II veterans got in the aftermath of the war: my own city councilman is of their number. The number of new veterans is relatively small, of course, but the kind of change in the social weather that Captain Quinn is talking about does seem to be a real phenomenon, as David Brooks observed on the New York Times yesterday:

The number of drunken driving fatalities has declined by 38 percent since 1982, according to the Department of Transportation, even though the number of vehicle miles traveled is up 81 percent. The total consumption of hard liquor by Americans over that time has declined by over 30 percent.

Teenage pregnancy has declined by 28 percent since its peak in 1990. Teenage births are down significantly and, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the country has also been declining since the early 1990's.

Fewer children are living in poverty, even allowing for an uptick during the last recession. There's even evidence that divorce rates are declining, albeit at a much more gradual pace. People with college degrees are seeing a sharp decline in divorce, especially if they were born after 1955.

...I always thought it would be dramatic to live through a moral revival. Great leaders would emerge. There would be important books, speeches, marches and crusades. We're in the middle of a moral revival now, and there has been very little of that.

I cannot help but observe that these developments are eerily consistent with the scenario in Strauss & Howe's Fourth Turning, except for the vexed question of whether the Crisis Era they predicted began with 911. Actually, the fit is so eerily consistent for both the articles I quote that one must ask whether the authors were influenced by S&H's books. Be that as it may, though, we should recognize that all this youthful rectitude does not bode at all well for Movement Conservatism in the United States, if by that you mean the conservatism of low taxes and private initiative. The military virtues are not libertarian virtues; a generation that rode to power on the back of a great national effort is not going to think of government as something that needs to be kept off their back.

There is a great future for the cause of moral orthodoxy that the Republican Party has monopolized. However, the monopoly was granted by the Democrats, who continue to shoot themselves in the foot on this class of issue. This situation is not going to continue.

* * *

The connection between war and the character of a generation is hardly new. Consider, for instance, this passage from John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Inaugural Address, delivered on January 20, 1961:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

These words were spoken long after the great crisis of Kennedy's generation had been successfully resolved, and of course some years before Kennedy's coevals came close to driving the country over a cliff. Kennedy was elected "to get the country moving again," but this address suggests that his instincts were profoundly conservative. We might contrast this generational self-consciousness with that of Ernst Jünger, the German Hemingway, who was one of a number of veterans of World War I who believed that their experiences had made them a people apart. John King says this in his doctoral dissertation on Jünger, Writing and Rewriting the First World War: Ernst Jünger and the Crisis of the conservative Imagination, 1914-1925, particularly in connection with In Stahlgewittern [Storm of Steel]:

In their combination of commitment to their cause and technical expertise, this new race is said to blend instrumental rationality and passion...They thus represent a synthesis which would appear to represent an imaginary instance in which the two opposing aspects of his interpretation of the War could be sublated and the subject re-centred. His final step with this 'new race' is to make it into the new subject of history, casting it as the collective subject of that future action upon which Jünger pinned his hopes for a redemption of the War.

Jünger lived an amazingly long time (to 104!), during which his ideas underwent many modifications and improvements; he can be defended, and even admired. However, one cannot avoid the impression that something was not hitting on all eight cylinders in the heart of the early postwar Jünger, and the same seems to have been true of his whole generation. One of the great questions of Alternative History is whether this mutation occurred because World War I had gone badly for Germany, or whether there was some misfire in Germany culture that would have manifested itself even if Germany had won.

What is at stake for the United States in the War on Terror, and perhaps in a war with China a few years later?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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