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I Drank IPAs During the War, Son

Those who didn't go to Vietnam once expressed guilt. Today's pointless conflicts are unlikely to inspire the same—or much of anything at all.
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What did you do in the war, Daddy? That saying, taken from, of all things, the title of a 1966 comedy film, has become a kind of refrain for those who didn’t serve and are wrangling with their civvy inadequacies.

The young man who regrets having missed out on a war—how easy to do when you’re safe at home!—is a common type throughout history, right up there with the king done in by hubris and the monk who quietly saves civilization. Its most succinct expression is found in Brideshead Revisited, when Sebastian suddenly blurts out to Charles, “It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war.” The pair were too young to have made the cut for World War I, and Sebastian’s comment betrays both a trace of guilt and a desperate bravado. It also proves portentous, as his wish ultimately comes true, at least for Charles.

Wind back the clock a couple millennia and you find a generation of peacetime Greeks regarded as soft by their elders who had fought during the Greco-Persian Wars. That judgment, and the eagerness by the young to prove themselves, helped touch off the tragic and dirty slaughter of the Peloponnesian War. Fly all the way forward to the 20th century and you find another conflict that inspired restlessness in civilians. Vietnam, perhaps because America lost, perhaps because it was such a cultural tremor, haunted not just those who did serve but those who didn’t. Two essays make this point well, both of which riff off of that same 1966 movie.

In the first, “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” published in Washington Monthly in 1975, James Fallows describes the day in 1969 when he and dozens of other students from Harvard and MIT headed to the Boston Navy Yard to be evaluated for the draft. The largely well-off crowd brandished notes from doctors, chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/NLF is gonna win,” and threw their urine samples in the faces of orderlies. Fallows, then six-foot-one, had managed to starve himself down to 120 pounds. As he rode away with his deferment, he saw buses pulling in that were carrying the working-class sons of Chelsea, those who would never think to fake an ailment, who would ship off while the Cambridge students slept in.

The second essay comes from Christopher Buckley, son of William F., and was published in Esquire eight years after Fallows weighed in. Its title is “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Well It’s Like This…” Buckley notes that, unlike with Fallows, his own deferment was actually legitimate—he had bad asthma. Yet that didn’t keep away the guilt, the status consciousness, even the envy. “I blew up neither physics labs in Ann Arbor nor Vietcong installations,” he writes. “I just vacillated in the middle.”

That’s a long syllabus for what’s supposed to be a reflection on the wars of today. But I hope the point is clear: Those who miss out on combat—not all but some—can really feel like they missed out. And even if Fallows’ and Buckley’s regrets weren’t necessarily representative of their generation—Buckley’s essay was attacked by his fellow Boomers for being precious and militaristic—the sentiments were still very much there. The question for my fellow Millennials is why the war on terror has failed to evoke similar feelings, why those of us who didn’t serve feel not guilt or even relief but nothing at all.

* * *

I almost enlisted. It was not long after the attack on the Twin Towers and I had a fierce patriotic sense that I ought to have some skin in the game, so to speak. It did occur even to my audacious adolescent self that the military might have less than a burning need for a scrawny kid liable to get maimed in a football backfield let alone a combat zone. “He’ll be just fine,” insisted two Buick-sized Air Force recruiters, after my wonderfully blunt Massachusetts mother asked whether I was too skinny. Listening to them talk of nothing but pumping iron as we drove to the base where I took the ASVABs, I wasn’t sure I believed them.

All this came amid the burst of civic duty that followed 9/11, the likes of which this nation hasn’t seen since and may never see again. Yet for the vast majority of Millennials, myself ultimately included, it was off not to Iraq but to the college classroom. Save for initially and briefly, our wars never inspired the same sense of shared experience that previous ones had. “Let Freedom Ring” might have blared from the radio, but there was no draft and little pressure to get one’s ass down to a recruiting office. Supporting the troops became a catchphrase, a means of vicarious do-gooding. Our Men and Women in Uniform were brave; now pass the wine already.

So while World War II defined the Greatest Generation and Vietnam hounded the Boomers, Afghanistan and Iraq were more incidental for Millennials. Ask about our formative experiences and you’re more likely to hear tales of the Great Recession or 9/11 or student loans or Donald Trump or Covid-19 or ’90s nostalgia than war in the desert. It is possible I’m overstating things here. I grew up middle class in the North whereas most of America’s warriors come from the working-class South and West where the cultural buy-in was stronger. But even then, I think it’s fair to say that my generation reached a point when the wars ceased to be something you did or even dodged. They were just…there.

So far as military service goes, when patriotism peters out, the need to get a job takes over. Enlistment trends have always tracked as close to economic indicators as they have to the popularity of a given mission. But the repeated lowering of U.S. Army recruitment standards during the Bush administration alone demonstrated the persistence of the class problem Fallows noticed. The portion of Army enlistees with a high school diploma sank from 94 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2007. And as the war in Iraq grew less popular, recruiters increasingly targeted poorer areas in order to meet their quotas.

Today, it isn’t just that America’s service members tend to come from the same tax brackets and geographic regions; it’s that they tend to come from the same families. According to a New York Times investigation, 79 percent of Army recruits have a family member who served and for 30 percent it’s a parent. Why have our wars gone invisible? One reason is this glaring inequality, that those who fight tend to cluster together and in places that go unnoticed by our Acela corridor media.

* * *

Several years ago, I was at a party in my hometown and got to talking with an Iraq veteran. He told me how disenchanted he’d become with the war and how widespread this feeling was among those he knew. This was in 2014 and the Islamic State had just taken Fallujah. I asked him what he thought of that, expecting him to be angry. Instead he just shrugged. Not angry, he said. Just accepting of the inevitable. He characterized his attitude and that of other vets he’d talked to as all right, well, that happened.

Even for someone like me who had turned against the wars long ago, it was extraordinary to hear a veteran talk this way. I’ve since heard other vets express similar opinions—and the evidence is hardly just anecdotal. A Military Times survey from 2016 found that substantial majorities of active-duty troops were opposed to “nation-building efforts” in the Middle East and North Africa. That aligns with a Pew Research Center poll from 2019, which found that 64 percent of veterans said the Iraq war was not worth fighting, while 58 percent said the same thing about Afghanistan.

Our wars abroad aren’t especially high-casualty. Much of the fighting is now done via drones, aircraft, and proxies (another reason it’s become invisible). Yet in spite of that (relative) security, most of the armed forces still think these campaigns were a waste. And while Americans have often been adroit at supporting the troops even if they oppose the wars, that delineation is starting to crumble too. Public trust in the military plunged last year, and while the reasons aren’t entirely clear, surely it’s not unrelated to our two decades of failed nation building.

It isn’t just the class divide, then, that’s removed these wars from my generation’s consciousness. It’s that even those fighting them tend to feel disillusioned. What Millennials have done, quietly and not always consciously, is to give up on, and move on from, what was supposed to be the patriotic calling of our time. It may be that in the long run those shrugs and averted eyes, those sighs of all right, well, that happened, those eyebrows arched skeptically towards the Pentagon, prove even more impactful than the furious slogans and pee cups of the 1960s and ’70s. Either way, it’s a stunning indictment of those who were charged with managing our wars overseas.

As a civilian, it’s not for me to take offense on behalf of the military, but there is one thing that makes me bristle. I’m tired of hearing that “Millennials (sometimes it’s Gen. Z) have known nothing but war.” This statement is usually meant to condemn the length of our overseas commitments and it means well. But it also makes it sound like our childhoods blared with nightly air-raid alarms, like we were donating scrap metal and rationing tins of meat. We were not. It may technically be true that the Millennials are a war generation, but most of us didn’t experience it that way. The sacrifice was too unevenly spread, the missions too strange and remote, the commitment too impossible.

Still, it may be that one day Millennial civilians have to answer the same question that so many who came before us did. What did you do in the war, Daddy? I drank IPAs and played “Candy Crush,” son. And how many others did the same only to think so little of it today.

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