The End of Youth

The National Archives & Records Administration

So. We are going to send them to war. And, unlike the leadership that told us the Vietnam War would be easy and quick, President Bush has been straightforward in warning us this one will be long and hard.

There may be a natural limit on what you can ask kids about war. They don't know about war. They may know how they feel now, but they have no idea how they will feel then.

They may have to change how they feel.

But I'm still very curious. My parents' generation was what we are now calling the "greatest generation." But they had no choice. With the Depression at their backs and Pearl Harbor in their faces, they went to war because there was no alternative. And yet they were heroic. They stopped Hitler. That's really all we have to know.

My own generation had the luxury of choice, and many of us chose to say no. I didn't go. My younger brother served. They trained him as a ship's cook. Then they sent him to Vietnam and put him in a surgical tent stitching up dying Marines. Later they put him in the "Hearts and Minds" program, carrying baskets of food and pharmaceuticals to the villages to get the Vietnamese to like us. I hear people saying we should do the same thing in Afghanistan, and I agree.

My brother came home from the war and committed suicide. We all have stories.

Last week I spent a day talking to students at Woodrow Wilson High School in East Dallas. This was my setup:

I stand in front of the room and tell them, "Pretend that I am from the government. I tell you that things have changed. Something new and very bad has happened. I have a bus parked outside this portable classroom. I want you to go outside and get on the bus. Males and females alike. We need you all. The bus will take you to basic training and then to battle. Some of you will die. But I am going to allow you to ask me some questions, and, based on my answers, you may make up your minds whether to go or stay. So what do you want to know?"

A thicket of hands shoots straight up in the air.

First question: "Who are we fighting?"

I tell them, "the bad guys, the people who attacked us in New York and Washington."

More questions: "Why do they hate us so much?"

"What did we do to them to make them do this to us?"

The arms in the air wave and vibrate like trees in a strong wind.

"Do you really need us?"

"Can you give us some logical reasoning why you want us to leave and be away from our families?"

A young man asks: "What are we defending? Is it pride, honor, freedom, respect or whatever?"

"Can we go home first and tell our families where we'll be?"

"How long will we be gone?"

"Will there be medical care?"

"Will we have to leave our friends?"

I watch them talk, because that's why I came. There are fascinating differences between these young people and my own generation. For one thing, the classes I am seeing today are more diverse than anything I experienced as a high school student. This particular school serves a broad cross section of the city's social fabric, from poor to affluent and of every ethnic stripe.

Their teacher, Alison Gower, scion of a prominent Dallas intellectual family, had invited me to come speak on any of several days, but I was only able to show up this day, which happens to be the day she teaches her advanced placement kids. So these are among the smartest kids in the school.

At one point, some young Latino men in the room are shaking their heads skeptically, wanting to know more about why they should consider dying for issues that don't seem closely tied to their lives.

"The only thing I'm scared about," a young man says, "is that I'm going to die before I can do all this crazy stuff I want to do."

But nobody jumps him for it. The others in the room turn their eyes and focus on him. They seem to be weighing what he has said. He wants to live his life before he dies.

I ask them what they would do if the enemy posed a direct threat to their own homes and families.

"What if they came up to you," I ask, "and they said they didn't like your face, and tomorrow they were going to burn your house down and shoot your mom. What would you do?"  

The words are barely out of my mouth when all of the young males in the room are stretched halfway out of their school desks shouting their answers: "Kill them first." "Fight 'em." "Get my shotgun and shoot them."

A black student says, "Everyone's making it seem like the Arabs are the only ones who are wrong, but Americans do bad things to people, too."

It's a lesson an African-American kid could hardly have failed to learn. But I watch the faces. My own generation, at the level of high school, would have taken this for an expression of disloyalty.

These kids shrug and nod, including the affluent white kids, to show that they know what she means. Her remarks are pondered by the others. They're all very courteous with each other, at least in Gower's room.

I'm not sure what all of this means, but I do know that these young people are much more socially limber than we could have been when I was in high school. They are accustomed to looking at the same scene through several lenses. They are much more sophisticated in that regard than we were, and I do think it makes a material difference in the questions they ask.

They also seem quite well-informed, and they are very interested in the details.

"In Afghanistan," a young woman says, "90 percent of the people don't even know who bin Laden is. We can't just go shoot the whole people of Afghanistan, because it wasn't the whole people who did this to us."

Another student says, "That makes us no better than they are."

But don't get me wrong here. These students are not saying that they will not get on my bus. If I had to guess, I think a majority of them today are leaning toward getting on the bus. But I have invited them to ask questions, and so they are asking.

A young man prefaces a question with an anecdote about an old person who spoke to him one day after the attack. The old person told him how the people of the World War II generation had lied about their ages to sign up for battle. The old person told him that his generation is too spoiled and weak to do as much.

I will assume the person who made this speech to this young man is up in years and may not remember things clearly. But the logic of war had to be taught to the greatest generation the way it will be taught to this generation. Someone had to do the wiring for them, linking world politics to their own back yards.

It's an eerie principle to remember today in this grand old school built in 1928, four years after the death of its namesake, who, understanding and hating war, committed us to one of the meanest in history.

On the night of April 1, 1917, President Wilson called a reporter friend to the White House to talk. A troubled president shared his deep concerns about what would happen if the United States declared war on the Central Powers and joined the Allies in World War I.

"It would mean that we should lose our heads along with the rest and stop weighing right and wrong," the president said. "It would mean that a majority of the people in this hemisphere would go war-mad, quit thinking and devote their energies to destruction."

The next morning Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

Finally, I asked the kids at Woodrow Wilson High School if they had noticed any difference in their parents since the attack. They were quiet at first, and then stories began to pour out of them in a jumble.

One said: "My mom and my dad, I don't see them as these really violent people, but my mom says we should go to war. For her to be disagreeing with me on something like that, it's weird."

Another said: "Every single day this week, it's 'I love you' all the time, and my mom writes me these special notes like in kindergarten, 'I love you,' like she's a mother bird covering me with her wings."

A third said: "My dad cried. I've never seen him cry."

A girl said: "You're looking for someone to tell you it's not going to happen, and they can't say that. I asked, 'Mom, is there going to be a war?' And she said, 'Yeah, probably.' I was waiting for her to say no."

One young man in a corner of the room is watching all of this thoughtfully. In remarks earlier, he has betrayed a detailed knowledge of events.  

"It's a little different for me," he says. "My mom is kind of emotionally fragile right now, so I'm trying to help her."

At the end of the class period, after most of the students have left the room, I find this same young man standing at my elbow. "I just wanted you to know," he says, "that if I were 18 and they drafted me, I would go right now."

I happen to know that this young man's father died recently and that he is the only male in his family.

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