A lot of abuse is being heaped upon the heads of Baby Boomers these days. If most of the abuse-heapers were Republicans, then perhaps I could write it off as coming from people who will need a new reason for the supposed bedevilment and ruination of America, since Obama will be leaving office in about eight months. Such does not, however, seem to be the case.
I notice this abuse because, having been born in late 1947, I am at the leading edge of that segment of American society. Leading edge, but not a leader; much less a formulator of Boomer philosophy or lifestyle (whatever that actually means).
As it happens, yesterday, 4 May, was the forty-sixth anniversary of the killing of students at Kent State University by nervous National Guard troops (so much for a well-regulated militia). Forty or fifty anti-war protesters had gathered on the campus, as had a couple of hundred student on-lookers. Things got out of control, or a kid in a uniform with a loaded rifle got scared, and people died.
I didn’t hear about this right away, because in May 1970 I was a twenty-two-year-old kid in a uniform with a loaded weapon, trudging to and fro across the rice paddy and tree line landscape of Quảng Ngãi province, Việt Nam. The same thing that happened in Ohio could’ve happened to me, though. Actually, it did happen, two years earlier and some ten miles away, at a place called Sơn Mỹ by the Vietnamese, and known to us as Mỹ Lai.
I wasn’t involved in either tragedy: the Kent State student killings or the Mỹ Lai massacre. Nonetheless, I and others of my generation were touched and influenced by what happened at those two places, two years and ten thousand miles apart.
Unlike almost all of the men in my infantry company in Việt Nam, I had dropped out of college in 1968 and volunteered for the Army. I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, about why I did that, but for now let me just say that I was idealistic and patriotic. I saw the war in Việt Nam as my generation’s war, and I felt compelled to help fight it. I felt an obligation, in fact, and nothing in my white, male, middle class, suburban Texas upbringing did anything to dissuade me from that.
I suspect that the anti-war protesters at Kent State that spring were also idealistic and patriotic (like young Bernie Sanders supporters are now). They loved their country, and were trying to do something to halt a great injustice.
The fact that, nine months into my year in Việt Nam, I decided to oppose the war by refusing to go to the field, and the fact that innocent people were killed at Kent State, does nothing to tarnish the idealism and patriotism of either me or the anti-war protesters of forty-six years ago, or the generation that we share.
While I do not fit the rapacious, self-indulgent profile of a bad Boomer, clearly there are others, many others, who do. A great many of them are investment bankers or lawyers or, worse yet, politicians. Well, a lot of families have children who do not grow up as you wish they had, so I can offer no apology to America for the errant behavior of such people.
Neither am I seeking a pat on the back, nor a gold star by my name, for not having gone to work for Goldman Sachs or seeking public office. While I understand that we live in a distinctly un-nuanced age, I seek only a bit of nuance in how we look at things such as the impact a particular generation has had, and is still having, on the quality and fabric of life in America.
The record is pretty clear that my generation was scathingly critical of the generation that preceded ours: the (annoyingly-named) Greatest Generation. They mucked up a lot of things too, and not just the misadventure in Việt Nam. Nevertheless, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Robert McNamara share that generation with John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, among many others.
Oh, I could get all old-and-wise here, and say something like, “Well, young fella, you’ll be old someday too.” Yeah. Not going there. Rather, I will leave you with the words of a song that came out in 1965, the year I graduated high school.
People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old
This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
Why don’t you all fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation
This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
Michael, very good read. Your recollection of the Kent State killings in 1970, while we were together in uniform in South Vietnam, brings to mind a couple of major events that we were not immediately aware of. During that time in ’69 & ’70, Woodstock and Apollo 13 occurred, both significant events in history that we only learned about weeks or months later. It was as if we were in a time warp as we fought to survive the war that we had found ourselves immersed in.
Thank you, Conrad. I appreciate your kind words. A time warp is a good way to put it. We always referred to America as “The World,” as if we were off on some alien planet. Which, in a way, we were.