I used to occasionally teach a course called "Famous Trials," which included 1969's People v. Shaw. Say what? This was the case New Orleans DA Jim Garrison brought against a prominent member of the city's business community who Garrison claimed was behind a conspiracy to kill Jack Kennedy. Last month marked the 48th anniversary of JFK's death. I hardly noticed. I knew it was time to let go the last time I taught my course. That was when one student began his paper on the case, "We'll never hear the end of these crazy conspiracy theories until everybody in your generation is wheeled into an assisted-care facility."
The same can be said of the Vietnam War. On the spectrum of war-avoiders, I rate around a "three." The guys who wangled medical deferments deserve "ones." Second come the boys who found slots in the military reserves: eight weeks of bootcamp, six months on active duty (not long enough for a tour you-know-where), then six years of weekend drills … sweet. I was too healthy to rate a "one" and too blue-collar to know anybody who could get me into a reserve or National Guard unit. And, so, I joined the Coast Guard.
Charlie Golf wasn't even a real military force in a way. The Department of Transportation was its home, not the Defense Department. Only a handful of Coasties ever went to 'Nam, and their only casualties, so far as I know, where drug overdoses. Even so, I came out a disabled, Vietnam-era vet. Sounds pretty macho, huh? I feel honor-bound to confess that I was never anywhere near Saigon. Instead I served my time in the federal building in Cleveland … a sufficiently dangerous posting, some might say. Like JFK's assassination, my little Patriot Game seems lost in the fog of a best-forgotten war.
As 2011 winds down, Uncle Sam likewise is winding down a decade of war on two fronts. The War on Terror has been fought and maybe won without arousing anything like the anti-war movement that rocked college campuses across the country in the late sixties and early seventies. The war has been fought by volunteers. No draft cards got burned. The younger generation has its challenges: financing college, finding jobs, but not going to war, unless they want to.
TIME magazine recently featured the new generation of vets on its cover, calling them "the new Greatest Generation." Not much older than Jack Kennedy when he was elected, Barack Obama is the under-thirty crowd's Great Black Hope. Or at least he was three years ago. The "Occupy Wall Street" movement (if a movement it actually is) attracts some youngsters, who might have marched for civil rights and against the war a half century ago.
I think the difference today is that, from returning veterans to OWSers, the big issues are education and jobs. World peace and civil liberties don't figure into the mix very much, as far as I can tell. If, as it seems, Obama's youth base has eroded, it's due to his failure to recharge the economy and open up new opportunities. While many young men of my era sought loopholes out of the military draft, our counterparts male and female alike are looking for some escape from the mortgages on their college diplomas.
Almost 50 years later, I still don't know who killed Kennedy or why we were in Vietnam. I only hope that, 50 years from now, my daughter's generation isn't wondering what became of the American Dream.
One of the greatest flaws of older generations in general has to be their inability to let go. (Of course, when you started calling yourselves "The Greatest Generation," what else did we expect?) The statement, "We'll never hear the end of these crazy conspiracy theories until everybody in your generation is wheeled into an assisted-care facility," is true. Think about it. JFK was assassinated in 1963; that's 25 years before I was even born, and yet I had an entire semester's course in high school that was based around discussing that single event. Please don't think I'm being flippant when I ask: why?
It's not that I don't find the Kennedy assassination, and all its related conspiracy theories, intriguing. I do. But that's the thing it's intriguing to me, and nothing more or less. While my grandmother can become weepy at the mere mention of the name "Kennedy," can tell me exactly where she was the moment she heard the news of his death, I myself have no emotional connection to him or to that historical event. I'm not discounting anyone's feelings or trying to change the way history is taught, but I think it's a little fruitless to try to force one generation's emotional ties onto the next. Ask me about the day Barack Obama got elected, on the other hand, and I can tell you exactly where I was and how that felt. But three years after Obama's historic election, no one, least of all the Greatest Generation, seems to care.
It's much like the way we're taught about literature in school. It's important to know the history, the foundations, of modern literature by looking at the classic game changers in fiction. But to bludgeon us over the head time and again with "classics" like The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, and The Awakening (which I have read no less than seven times in seven separate classes; now can you honestly tell me that's not overkill?) while eschewing all modern day classics simply seems wrong, not to mention lazy. In college, I was given the opportunity to take only a single class on modern literature and I was an English major. It's a shame, when so much great writing and art is being created right now. Yes, I want to know where we came from, but I'd also like to examine how far we've come.
While the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers are reading their Moby Dick and waxing poetic about how great everything used to be, the younger generations are adapting. Maybe we're not doing it perfectly, but the Occupy movement is evidence that something, some real change, is going on here. If our generation has any advantage, it's our ability to deal with change that will get us through this tough time in history, perhaps with little help from our elders. I might be wrong, but I don't think you'll see Millennials pining for the bygone American Dream in fifty years. My hope is that we'll have moved on to something better by then.
And who says the so-called "American Dream" was such a great goal to begin with? I've read Revolutionary Road and Fight Club outside of school, I might add, and both taught me a hell of a lot more than The Awakening ever did. The American Dream is over. We have Chuck Palahniuk now.