A Purpose for Our Generation

“I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free … And I’d gladly stand up next you and defend her still today. Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land. God bless the USA.” — Lee Greenwood, Proud to Be an American.

Partially prompted by Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, there has been considerable recent interest in understanding and honoring the generation that endured the Great Depression and fought World War II. Leaving aside fruitless arguments about which American generation was really the greatest; there is much to be learned from that generation which fought the last great war.

Like them, we have recently experienced the jarring experience of having destruction rained upon America soil by foreign enemies. In 1941, over 2400 people were killed in a surprise attack from the Empire of Japan. Almost exactly sixty years later, on September 11, 2001 significantly more Americans were killed in a series of deadly terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. We need not dwell on the particulars of the two events other than to say in both cases foreign powers threatened Americans on American soil. This attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon constitutes the moral equivalent to the attack on Pearl Harbor for our generation. From successful the defeat of the Axis Powers by the “Greatest Generation,” there are important lessons to be learned on how to conduct a war.

Moral Clarity

Wars never arise in a vacuum. Many times the grievances of both sides have some merit. Germany was humiliated and treated unfairly by victorious powers after World War I. Although Japan was waging a war of aggression in Asia, American embargo of oil threatened a critical Japanese import.

Nonetheless, once Germany attacked its neighbors and once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, we had the moral self-confidence to realize that those other issues had little relevance to our aggressive conduct of war. Moral clarity was the recognition that World War II represented the real clash of good against evil, of freedom versus tyranny. Moral self-doubt was not allowed to become the enemy of action. Moral clarity meant that the cause we were fighting for was worth the sacrifice of both material well-being and human life. Engagement in the war was not an optional endeavor or a responsibility that could be avoided when the chore seemed too difficult.

In our case, moral clarity means acknowledging that the anger and desperation of Islamic extremists, which provide fertile ground for exploitation by evil opportunists, may have some legitimacy. Moral clarity also means having a sufficiently calibrated moral sense to recognize that such complaints do not justify the deliberate targeting of civilians, even women and children.

Moral clarity means realizing that the leaders of these terrorist groups seek to return to an age of fear and tyranny. They are striking out against not only Americans in particular, but the Western values of freedom, individual rights, commercial exchange, affluence, ethnic and religious diversity, and secular government. Our battle too represents a real clash of the forces of light against the forces of darkness. Moral clarity means appreciating that fidelity to our values requires resolve in the pursuit of this war on terrorism. There is no other morally responsible option.

Singularity of Purpose

When the country commits itself to a specific purpose, it implies that other purposes become subordinated. Winston Churchill, explained that during World War II he had “only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler…life is much simplified thereby.”

In our case, this does not mean American values should be jettisoned in pursuit of victory. But it does mean that we do not permit concerns about taxes or deficits or fuel prices or other inconveniences to deter our single-minded pursuit of victory. To use the words of John Kennedy with reference to the Cold War, “Let the word go out to friend and foe alike. This nation shall support any friend, oppose any foe, pay any price, and bear any burden to insure the survival and success of liberty.” This past week, we have just learned of an additional price.

Americans Are Americans

While the “Greatest Generation” may have shown us what is meant by moral clarity and singularity of purpose, they unfortunately also showed us the ugliness of racial bigotry. Japanese Americans, in particular, were all considered security risks and many were placed in internment camps during World War II. Because Japanese-Americans looked different from the majority of Americans, they were treated with far greater suspicion than German- and Italian-Americans.

Writing this week in the Washington Post, Muslim Reshma Yaqab lamented that every time he hears of a terrorist incident, he prays two prayers. The first prayer is for the victims and their families. The second prayer is that the perpetrator is not a Muslim.

Part of our present challenge in the pursuit of terrorism is to avoid assuming the same bitter and angry intolerance that consumes our enemies. There have been a number of reported threats directed against and vandalism of Arab owned stores and mosques. The overwhelming majority of ethnic Arabs and Muslims in the United States are good and honest people who contribute to their communities as they work to achieve the American dream. Most came to America to embrace not eschew American values. Undoubtedly, there were Islamic victims among the dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These families are no less saddened by their losses.

After the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, we perhaps deserved a short respite from history. Over the last decade, we could afford a little self-indulgence in pursuit of our private lives. We were awoken from this diversion on September 11, 2001. Each generation has its challenge. We now have a higher collective purpose to pursue. This challenge will define our generation and the kind of world we will leave our children.

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