Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My life, around, alongside, and up against the Iraq war

I feel a bit mean-spirited doing so, but I've got to respond to Elizabeth Dickinson's post on Foreign Policy, "My life, under the Iraq war." Dickinson's essay is all about the ways that 9/11 and the U.S. intervention in Iraq have influenced our generation (she's writing about people in their late 20s, and I'm 30, but I think the generation is big enough for both of us) and more specifically our thinking on foreign policy and security. There's been some buzz about the subject of generational thinking lately, most of which sprang out of Dan Drezner's recent post entitled "How do millenials think about international relations?" Here's the gist:

I wonder whether the current generation of millennial twentysomethings will develop a worldview about international relations that transcends party and clique. If that happened, it would profoundly shape the contours of American foreign policy starting next decade.

As I think about it, here are the Millennials' foundational foreign policy experiences:

1) An early childhood of peace and prosperity -- a.k.a., the Nineties;
2) The September 11th attacks;
3) Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;
4) One Financial Panic/Great Recession;
5) The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.

Then again, I'm looking at this through my own irony-drenched Gen-X eyes.

I've got a few problems with the argument being made, not least of which the general assumption that global political and economic events have impacted all (or event most) members of a specific age cohort in a similar way. It's hard enough to make this argument about a particular ethno-linguistic group, or a socio-economic segment, or even holders of the same nationality. For me, it seems totally unwarranted to assume that "twentysomethings" have taken a set of stock lessons from the events of the last decade on account of the fact that we had a similar number of years behind us when we experienced them.

It seems like Dickinson has accepted Drezner's thesis (or perhaps I should say "hypothesis") that common experience of the same historical era should result in a reasonably consistent or homogenous worldview across an age group. But we don't expect Baby Boomers or Gen Xers to share a worldview, do we? Is it only our youth that makes people believe the so-called "millenials" are too unsophisticated to cobble together a worldview from a priori philosophical positions (or theory) rather than some formative experience? I don't know, maybe I'm taking this a little too personally.

It's only fair to give you Dickinson's disclaimer (with which she closes the essay) up front:
Of course, I am but a subset of my demographic group, and no one authorized me to speak on behalf of my peers. But like the generation that grew up in Vietnam, we will be the Iraq generation. What that means is not yet clear, but it begins now. It's day one of life with no Iraq War.
I suppose this means that we're not supposed to take this effort to summarize the thinking of a generation as an effort to summarize the thinking of a generation. I think it's nonsense, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention her having asked. Let's take a look at what it is, exactly, that our generation is meant to have learned from the war.
1) We are starry-eyed multilateralists. For those of us who were just learning what activism meant when the war was launched, the lead-up to the Iraq War in the U.N. Security Council was front and center. . . as a result, my generation has grown up respecting the United Nations, seeing it (and institutions like it) as offering a more just world. . . We are a generation of idealistic multilateralists -- and despite its flaws, we want our country to work with the U.N.
Except when we're not, and we don't.

For a great many American young people, Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the comparative advantage of leading a "coalition of the willing" in which one country directs operations and others fill in niche capabilities over a UN or NATO intervention in which U.S. priorities are subverted to the bureaucratic nightmare of alliance politics and national caveats. The Iraq War could also be taken as the ultimate repudiation of multilateral diplomatic pressure, seeing as the American invasion was pitched by our government as a matter of last resort after the failure of a series of UNSC resolutions. Iran and North Korea, too, underline the UN's fundamental impotence.

Dickinson can argue that the Iraq experience has molded young Americans into "idealistic multilateralists," but I can just as easily point her to the many aggressive unilateralists whose presumptions about limitations on American power have only been confirmed in their own minds by the events of the last eight years.

2) We care about civilian casualties. Credit this one to the countless scholars, journalists, and writers who have chronicled what it meant to be an Iraqi living through the Iraq war. But credit it also to Abu Ghraib prison, where we all saw the worst of war. And to the renewed emphasis on winning hearts and minds that American learned the hard way when Iraq and Afghanistan took turns for the worst.

If this observation is right, my generation could reshape public perception of warfare. For most of history, conflicts have been judged by the toll taken on one's own force with less regard for the local population.

Except when we don't.

Sure, our generation is sensitive to human suffering. So too have been past generations, and I'd be surprised if they weren't a bit offended by the suggestion that twentysomethings are more interested in sparing the lives of innocents.

Dickinson would no doubt point to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and its emphasis on winning hearts and minds, on non-kinetic actions and the importance of development, essential services, and legitimate governance. I'd respond that the early days of the COIN-oriented Surge in Iraq saw a significant jump in civilian deaths (to correspond with a major uptick in the amount of ordnance delivered on targets in urban areas, both from airborne platforms and artillery), and that tactical directives intended to curb collateral damage in Afghanistan have gone into effect at a time when combined civilian casualties (at coalition and insurgent hands) are at a wartime high.

The COIN debate is swinging back in the direction of those who argue that effective counterinsurgents have historically made use of significant amounts of targeted violence, along with often brutal resettlement and population-control measures that in other circumstances would be considered human rights violations.

Sure, we care about civilian casualties, but so what?
3) We don't like haters. September 11 showed us for the first time that there are people who hate America. But the aftermath has also taught us that aggression can make more trouble than it solves. And as such, we want leaders who take the high road -- who speak calmly and understand the diversity of both our country and our world. But speaking isn't enough; we want activist presidents who go out into the world to seek change -- and aren't afraid to admit if and where they were wrong.
But who does, really?

And why did it take 'til September 11th? What about the USS Cole? What about Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? What about Mogadishu in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers came home in coffins, something I distinctly remember (as a 13-year old) seeing on the front cover of TIME?

And what of this "aggression can make more trouble than it solves"? If this is the case, why is support still so strong for the war in Afghanistan, a conflict with uncertain goals and an unclear linkage between operations and desired effects?
4) We are used to thinking of America on the decline. My generation is in many ways the "rise of the rest" generation. The splits in the Security Council were just the beginnings of the decline of American hegemony in the world. Now there are economic signs (a whopping unemployment rate), military signs (we finished in Iraq but didn't really win), and moral signs (granted I haven't been around Washington for terribly long, but do you remember the last time Congress was so divided?) But more than that, my generation has watched the rise of China and India. We've been abroad and we've seen the momentum that a country like Poland or Chile or Brazil has captured. And when we come home, that's missing.
I'll be honest and say that I don't have a huge problem with this one, though -- having lived in Poland for two years -- I would absolutely dispute the contention that these so-called rising regional powers have any kind of "momentum" that the U.S. fails to replicate. But yeah, most of us who have come of age in the dreaded "post-Cold War period" have some sense of what I'd call eroding unipolarity. Having said that, we also realize that the financial crisis is wreaking havoc around the globe, not just here at home, and that our economic and military competitors suffer similarly from scarcity and difficult resource choices. The "unipolar moment" may have passed, but that's no reason to believe that the U.S. must return to "normal" nationhood. The process has been a bit melancholy, even tragic, but the last decade has demonstrated the limits of military intervention and more generally of American power, and that may turn out to be a good thing.

You know what else has limits? The explanatory power of age-based demographic binning. Let's give it up. Stuff like this is tired, and it doesn't teach us anything. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Elizabeth Dickinson? Sure. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Duncan Hunter, Jr., who is 33 and probably doesn't agree with a single damned thing Elizabeth Dickinson wrote? Sure. We're not "the Iraq war generation." That generation may exist in the Army and Marine Corps -- a limited, more experientially and culturally homogenous grouping, and one that's been directly shaped by personal experience with that war -- but it doesn't exist in society. One of the great "lessons of Iraq" is this: people in a society as broad and rich and disparate as the U.S. will always find ways to disagree about what's best for the country and its security. Let's not contribute to polarization and acrimony by suggesting that there's one appropriate way to have experienced the last decade.


  1. "It's day one of life with no Iraq War." Oh yeah? Tell that to my former units still serving in MND-N. I'm guessing that the speech last night and ceremonies today have done little to change the fact that they are still a long ways from home in a pretty dangerous place that many people who want to kill them call home. Is it like the previous three tours they did when I was with them? No, things are much better. But a magic wand was not waved. You're delusional if you think any war is actually over when there's still violence and we have the equivalents of two divisions deployed.

  2. Yeah, the Gen stuff is kind of lazy. It's fun in a meandering pop-culture way to think about being a Gen-Xer when I'm reading an article about art or movies or music, but it seems a bit sloppy to make more out of it.

    An example from my own Gen X experience? (Ha ha, see what I did there?) I went to see the movie Reality Bites when it fist came out in the theaters - with a fellow medical student. We wanted to know what it was like to be part of the "slacker generation."

    We were that serious about it. We kept reading about these so called "Gen Xers" in the NYT and Rolling Stone and figured it was something important.

    This is so not a new media commentary phenomenon.

  3. Hey Madhu! I hope all is well since we haven't talked in a while.

    And I totally agree - generation generalities are lazy ways to stereotype large swathes of disparate populations. Karaka Pend had a good post on this as well:

  4. The following kind of generational writing is okay, I think, because it's ABOUT JOHN HUGHES MOVIES. And, I mean, it's pop-culture. It doesn't have to be accurate, it just has to feel like it is.

    "This brings us to Ferris Bueller. Like all Generation Xers, his heroism lies in his anti-heroism. But not in the grand style of, say, a James Dean. Ferris is a master of the little things, sneaking around, grabbing moments. Egotistical and smug, he bears himself, nevertheless, with an essential modesty. He knows that he is living in someone else's world and he is content to pick at the carcass.

    Dave Kehr — a critic for the New York Times and a Baby Boomer — noted of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that the “adventures aren't particularly imaginative (they have lunch, see a Cubs game, go to the Art Institute).” Well, that's the whole point, Dave. Sorry, Dave, that Ferris didn't go on a Freedom Ride, or invent aerobics, or speculate on mortgage-backed securities. Instead, he has lunch, goes to a Cubs game, and looks at some art.

    In fact, the scene where Ferris, his girl, and his best friend look at some art nails every deep emotion that a Gen Xer ever had. The feeling of betweenness: Ferris and friends enter the scene holding hands with a long line of kids on a field trip. The yearning for experience: Ferris’ friend Cameron stands mesmerized in front of Seurat's famous “A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The quiet melancholy of it all: The soundtrack is an orchestral version of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want." "

    Okay, perhaps this is not the best comment for me to make to such a serious topic as the Iraq War, but I feel as Gunslinger does. It hasn't ended, and for some, it will be a life-long remembering. Witness MikeF's recent remembrances on Small Wars Journal.

  5. Yes, thanks Gunslinger. I missed this place.

    (I had to detox from the partisan stuff. It was making me into a person I didn't like. Anger is degrading.)

  6. Hey Guys,

    I wanted to check in since I haven't posted in a while. I wrote the SWJ piece as a reflection on OIF, not Iraq. It's not like there is going to be a grand parade and victory celebration. As Gunslinger pointed out, that conflict is still going on. I received a note from one of my old LT's who's now commanding up in MND-N,

    "Hey sir, right after I saw the change in mission on tv, I gave a safety brief to a patrol, we went out the gate, and the lead truck got blown the f*ck up. I guess some dudes didn't get the memo that OIF is over."

    I also wanted to pass on some encouragement as Gulliver seems a bit bitter. One reason that I like this site is that y'all try to transcend politics in subjects that are highly political. I appreciate that. So, keep up the good work.

  7. So now even the civilians who were at the Mall while the military was at the War for the last 8 years are having movie induced PTSD. What bovine scatology. It's this unending narcissism and navel gazing of the Millenials--dressing like you're in Call of Duty instead of actual combat; constant whining about weapons and cammies-for God's sake of course the M4 doesn't work or kill well, you don't clean it and rarely ever aim when shooting the truck loads of ammo you carry. Maybe the reason they're so pusillanimous is because the Millenials are so self actualized, they have no identity; or maybe because they weren't spanked; or allowed to fight in the schoolyard; or weren't forced to play sports they hated.

    Baby Boomers long for the Cold War when our childhood had a doomsday clock at ten minutes to midnight, bombers and missiles targeted our homes, Commies were the enemy of Freedom and the American Way (that was actually a philosophy--not a punchline), and it was really hard for a teen to get laid. When we joined, our helmets were steel, body armor wasn't, and urinalysis did more to clean out the dead wood than 12 months of performance counseling. Good Times...Good Times.


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