America’s Cultural Revolution
by Herbert I. London
In its coverage of the war in Iraq, the media discovered a story that I suspect will reverberate in the American culture for years to come: the impressive spirit, gallantry, courage, and plain-spokenness of the nation’s military personnel.
Author and columnist Michael Barone, writing in U.S. News and World Report, recently characterized the members of the U.S. military as “calm, terse, determined, brave, confident—above all, competent, able to vanquish the enemy and spare the innocent with astonishingly low casualties. And yet a few years ago most of these young men and women were typical American eighteen-year-olds, most of whom don’t seem competent at much of anything” (“A Tale of Two Americas,” May 12, 2003).
Barone explains this as a consequence of a disparity between what he calls “Soft America,” in which six-to-eighteen-year-olds are excessively indulged, and “Hard America,” in which eighteen-to-thirty-year-olds are calloused by competition and accountability. Though Barone’s categorical dichotomy is interesting, it does not explain a recently emerging national trend: the spread of “Hard American” values throughout the culture. The distinction between the American military culture and its popular culture is perhaps the most important one in America today.
Up From Vietnam
In large part, the Vietnam War generation either marginalized military culture, which puts an emphasis on discipline and bravery, or ignored it altogether. When public opinion turned against that war in 1970, generally positive attitudes toward the military soured as well. General William C. Westmoreland, for example, became a symbol for all military leaders, who were thought to be incompetent and deceptive. As unfair as this characterization was, it stuck.
The success of U.S. forces in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf War (1991), and the Balkans (1999) did little to alter the widely held negative impression of military culture. General Norman Schwarzkopf was able for a time to portray a military of competence and technical agility, but that impression faded quickly as newscasters focused on several sexual scandals within the military (such as Tailhook; the rape of a young girl by a sailor in Okinawa, Japan; the story of Kelly Flinn, an Air Force pilot who had an extramarital affair with a civilian), and skeptically asked why military leaders did not complete the mission in Iraq, why the Marines were so vulnerable at Khobar Towers, and why the USS Cole was open to attack. Clearly, these matters could be addressed without faulting the overall military culture, but all too often the stories served as a pretext for the media’s general disdain for the nation’s armed forces.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, a rather different critique of the military has been offered during the past few decades. In his book Twilight of Authority (1975), the late sociologist Robert Nisbet contended that the “lure of military society” is a result of the “twilight of authority in the civil sphere.” As Nisbet saw it when, “military power begins to envelop a population, its functions, roles and traditional authorities, a kind of suffocation of mind in the cultural sphere begins.” According to Nisbet, “the West’s first real experience with totalitarianism . . . came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson.” That experience was vastly increased with the passage of time, resulting in the “military industrial complex” mentioned by President Eisenhower and the evisceration of the American spirit of individualism, a casualty of the expansion of power.
Professor Nisbet contended that the attraction of war and the martial values associated with it was particularly strong in societies that have grown soft and self-indulgent. A military culture, he argued, exhibits valor, fortitude, and determination; therefore, after decades of drift, military exploits seem to represent a cultural regeneration. Nisbet argued that such a rejuvenation is in fact superficial and illusory. Like the philosopher William James in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” Nisbet recognized that the dominant values of military culture—such as valor, determination, organizational ability, and loyalty—are positive in themselves, but both authors believed that civil society was much preferable to war as a means of inculcating those values in a society. Both were skeptical of the notion that military values could in themselves have a salutary effect on civil society.
What Nisbet failed to consider sufficiently, however, is the possibility that such values might arise from a sincere desire of a large part of the population to live better lives, to do good while doing well. That, I think, is exactly what is happening today, and it is reflected in the young men and women of America’s armed forces. Undoubtedly, the military has become the embodiment of traditional American values—which had never been fully suppressed—and now serves as a counterweight to the relativism and cynicism endemic to the popular culture of the last decade or so. More significant, today’s military values could be a further catalyst for a cultural renaissance. Rather than “envelop” and “suffocate” the civil sphere, military culture can actually restore and renew it, a condition that I believe we are starting to observe.
Turn of the Tide
The recent war in Iraq has indeed—in my judgment—turned the tide. This cultural shift has been confirmed and accelerated by the journalists embedded with the troops. The minute-by-minute coverage offered the most realistic picture of war the nation had ever seen. What people observed was nothing short of breathtaking. The effect was partly a result of technical mastery, such as the synchronized bombing effort that commenced the combat; it was partly tactical brilliance, including the rapid force movement to Baghdad; and it was also a consequence of the virtuosic performance of Special Ops and special devices. Nothing however, could match the exquisite demonstration of courage, skill, responsibility, honor, and loyalty displayed by the troops. Only the most hardened cynic could resist being impressed by the military personnel representing this nation.
I recall channel-surfing to get different impressions of the war. Wherever I turned, it seemed there were reasonably articulate military voices defending their mission and speaking movingly of their duty to their nation. Typically the reporter, a product of the Vietnam era, would plant a microphone defiantly in a private’s face and ask, “Do you think we should be fighting in Iraq?” The private would calmly say something to the effect that, “Making policy is above my pay grade. I’ve got a job to do and a responsibility to fulfill,” period. There was rarely any equivocation. Moreover, these intelligent replies could be heard from all levels of authority, everyone from officers to twenty-year-old grunts.
It may be true that the military itself has actually changed in the era of volunteer forces, but it is unquestionably clear that the public’s impression of the military has changed. This is clearly a well-trained force, hard, capable, resilient, and clearheaded. Whatever residual bad impression of soldiers remained in the culture from Vietnam died in Iraq. Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at Columbia, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society, and a consistent defender of 1960s culture, expressed this change of image in a New York Times article on May 28. “If you grew up in the ’60s, the military is to some degree tainted. I won’t say forever tainted. But it is tainted by its implication in the Vietnam War. And if you came of age in the last five or six years, the military looks a lot more like defense than aggression” (“Americans Put Trust in Nation’s Military,” by Robin Toner.)
This positive image of the military is particularly striking among the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers, argues David C. King, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard and co-author of The Generation of Trust: How the U.S. Military Has Regained the Public’s Confidence Since Vietnam. Those generations, he notes, have come to “trust the government, and especially the U.S. military, more deeply than Baby Boomer parents ever have.”
Of course, it is difficult to predict whether this effect will last. As I see it, however, this generation of fighting men and women is the cultural equivalent of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” The troops that returned from World War II were imbued with a determination to succeed. They recognized, or came to recognize, the fundamental greatness of the America they had fought bravely to defend. They were examples of a new breed that not only destroyed Berlin but also built Levittown. Their battle against tyranny led to a greater belief in and respect for the free market. They fought to destroy the Third Reich, and perhaps in doing so, gained a new appreciation of the U.S. Constitution.
Their children, however, were affluent beyond the imagination of their parents, and were coddled excessively. They weren’t asked to sacrifice; on the contrary, they were indulged to a point where they came to appreciate very little, if anything. As one wag of his generation put it, “You don’t know what hell is like until you’ve lived in Scarsdale.” Only a profoundly self-indulgent individual could make such a claim, even in jest.
It was hardly surprising, then, that the children of the Baby Boomers did not respect the rudiments of military culture—its respect for discipline, authority, and hierarchy. Instead, they sought freedom, egalitarianism, and leveling of all distinctions. Hence the defamatory labeling of veterans and cops as “pigs.” The self-indulgent progeny of affluence became all-too-willing victims of their parents’ laxity and failure to teach them self-restraint.
There was a huge social price to pay for the Baby Boomers’ self-indulgence: the abrupt rise of drug abuse, divorce, illegitimacy, corporate greed, and crime. Deviance was defined down, as the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted, but it was also defined up, in the sense that it became acceptable among elites as well as the underclass. Practically any act, however perverse, could be rationalized in the new environment of relativism—and this was true for the man and woman on the ghetto streets as it was for the swells on Rodeo Drive. Ironically, however, the ultimate effect of this descent into perversity was, and to some degree remains, a search for meaning. Even the self-indulgent will eventually ask: Why am I here? What purpose is there in my life? How can I leave my mark?
It seems clear that the men and women who served in Iraq have answered these questions for themselves and have found meaning in their lives. Right and wrong are not relative values for them. Saddam Hussein was wrong; George W. Bush was right. Most significant, these young people are models for the large generation of children coming up behind them. I recently met a young man whose wealthy parents thoroughly embody the spirit of the Vietnam era. To the astonishment of his folks, this fellow was eager to put off college enrollment to join the Marine Corps. College will come later, he said. His only lament was that he could not serve his country in Iraq. Does this make him an exemplar of an emerging national sensibility? It may be too early to answer with assurance, but I think so.
The generation that toppled Saddam Hussein from his pedestal might also be the generation that repairs the national psyche. The forces that liberated Iraq on April 9 might also be the force that recaptures the traditional American spirit. The soldiers that fought in World War II applied battlefield knowhow to the commercial world—with the help of the G.I. Bill—transforming America from a farm-dominated economy into the world’s leading industrialized society. It is possible that America’s soldiers in Iraq will take the spirit of liberation home with them and convert a culture of nihilism and despair into one of redemption and hope. It is possible that our military will be able to restore old-fashioned values to a culture that has been obsessed with trivialities for decades.
Surely what Americans observed on the Iraqi battlefield was a direct refutation of the ideas many had encountered in college since at least the late 1960s. And it now appears that the values we observed in our soldiers in the Iraq war are slowly creeping into academia, that great redoubt of relativism and anti-bourgeois activism. It is unlikely, for example, to be merely a coincidence that the University of California at Berkeley’s Republican club has more members at the moment—more than five hundred—than any other club on the campus. This is the same university where students rioted in 1964 in Sproul Plaza and cheered inflammatory speeches from free-speech activist Mario Savio. The times, it appears, are a-changing.
As I have noted, it is too early to tell how significant an impact America’s young soldiers will make on their nation’s culture. It is not too early, however, to recognize the positive indicators. President George W. Bush is as loved by those serving in the military today as President Clinton was detested. In American culture as a whole, despite all the signs of continuing paganism and debauchery, there are the intimations of a growing patriotism. Even overseas, I sense an increasing belief that America, notwithstanding her many critics, is indispensable in the pursuit of a better future for mankind.
It appears that America is moving in a positive direction today, and that the war in Iraq has pushed the phenomenon forward and put it in perspective. If the last three decades of the twentieth century represented a revolt in cultural thought, the first decades of the twenty-first century could well represent a restoration. The bumper sticker of the future is “Come home, America,” representing a powerful desire to return to the land of freedom and opportunity and to restore in the public imagination the exceptional characteristics that make this nation the most energetic and productive place on the globe. The military is clearly in the vanguard of this restoration. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the rest of the nation catches up.