I just finished watching Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ The Pacific, an HBO miniseries following a group of marines in WWII. And it was truly epic. Melodramatic and overwrought maybe, but the war in the Pacific was no jungle romp. As The Pacific vividly shows, it was unimaginably gruesome, traumatic, and relentless. The marines battled the unyielding and suicidal Japanese on malaria-infested, rain-ridden islands for months at a time. In one scene, a marine idly tossed rocks into a Japanese soldier’s open head, soupy with blood.
Yet, for all its cringe-inducing visual effects and messages of heroism, love, and friendship, I came away from The Pacific with just one feeling: the overwhelming pang of generational inadequacy. In the first episode, a marine at Guadalcanal mentions that his birthday had just passed. It was his 18th.
I finally understood the generational existential crisis. As A.O. Scott wrote recently (about Milo Burke’s novel “The Ask”) in the New York Times,
“Maybe not the glory of rushing a Nazi foxhole, or braving municipal billy bats to stop a war in Indochina,” he notes, trying to get a fix on what exactly he and his ilk achieved in their heroic youth, “but the privileged of our generation did what they could, like the rest of us.”
It’s hard to measure up to a generation that gave everything to defend the free world. It’s hard to live up to the fact that in 1945, some of us would have been at Okinawa; yet, here we are lounging around, playing Xbox and watching Lost. It is nothing short of inadequacy, a generational poverty of accomplishment.The Greatest Generation’s successors struggled through Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War. But, we didn’t save the world. We didn’t storm Normandy or watch our friends die. We browsed Facebook. I couldn’t shake the feeling.
As I ruminated, I stumbled on the answer. Its lack of immediacy was telling. Our accomplishment is ongoing and more subtle, easy to forget, but also impossible to. This wasn’t our crisis; we aren’t old enough to have mid-life crises. After all, A.O. Scott was writing about Gen X, born in the midst of Vietnam and too young to remember or to have taken part in it. Yes, this is their crisis of inadequacy: coming of age at the end of the Soviet Union and taking full advantage of the Clintonian “end of history” and Pax Americana. But we millenials—Generation Y, whatever—didn’t have that luxury. Peace and economic expansion collapsed suddenly, in front of our eyes. Peggy Noonan, rather perceptively, caught on:
I’ve been thinking about those who were children on 9/11, not little ones who were shielded but those who were 10 and 12, old enough to understand that something dreadful had happened but young enough still to be in childhood…Nine-eleven, he felt, changed everything for his generation. “It completely destroyed our sense of invincibility—maybe that’s not the right word. I would say it made everything real to a 12-year-old. It showed the world could be a dangerous place when for my generation that was never the case. My generation had no Soviet Union, no war against fascism, we never had any threats. I was born when the Berlin Wall came down. It destroyed the sense of carefree innocence that we had.”
We have our own war; it is not an existential one, but it is important and unlike any before. We live our daily lives, but we are at war everywhere at all times. The frontline is in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Times Square and Heathrow. It is less striking, less brutal, less sweeping, but more complicated and more nuanced. There are no islands to invade, but our enemies are everywhere. Gen X can have a crisis of confidence, but we should never let that feeling creep up. Our generation has its own heroes and its own fight:
He remembered after 9/11 those who rose up to fight terrorism. Even as a child he was moved by them. There are always in history so many such people, he said. It is always the great reason for hope.
The miniseries of our generation won’t lend itself to great television, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an epic to be told.