Where were you on 9/11? What were you doing when you first saw that unbelievable footage of passenger planes crashing into the World Trade Center? At what point did the awful reality of that day dawn on you?
Sept. 11 is one of the most seminal events in U.S. history and for many people—especially those of us who have deployed and fought in Afghanistan or Iraq—it is the most seminal event to occur in our lifetime. Understanding Sept. 11 and its cultural impact is crucial to understanding almost every foreign policy and military decision that has happened since. Sept. 11 is critical not only to understanding policy, but also to understanding an entire generation: the millennials, or those born in 1982 through 2004.
At first glance, the idea may seem absurd. What does a group of Islamic extremists flying planes into buildings have to do with understanding a generation often knocked for being entitled and spending far too much time on their smartphones? What do al-Qaida’s actions on a beautiful Tuesday in September have to do with the new soldiers in my troop wanting to “friend” me, their troop commander, on Facebook? The answer isn’t obvious but with a little perspective, it makes perfect sense.
Almost everyone understands that the Vietnam War changed the country. Repeated disconnects between what citizens heard from the president and saw on the evening news called into question the reliability and trustworthiness of the U.S. government. For the youth who fought in Vietnam, questions about the purpose and the bloody cost piled up without answers and left a generation bitter and cynical about the government, the Army, the press—or all three. Understanding the cultural impact of Vietnam is a key to understanding the baby boom generation.
So, too, with 9/11 and the millennial generation. There have been other surprise attacks in U.S. history—Pearl Harbor comes to mind—but none has been so visceral, so shared, as Sept. 11. The entire country watched it happen in real time on television. People filmed the Twin Towers coming down, filmed other people’s reactions to the attack, and filmed their own reactions. Email and cellphones collapsed distances of both time and space. Everything was magnified, expanded, analyzed and looped. Sept. 11 happened in a continuous collective “now” that was not possible before the current age.
Many millennials say Sept. 11 was the day they “grew up,” even though most were in high school or elementary school at the time. Is it any surprise that the generation that came of age on that fateful day was permanently imprinted—for good and bad—by the experience?
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close describes the Sept. 11 experiences of one boy, but the book’s title is relevant to an entire generation. For millennials, the 9/11 attacks were a cultural moment magnified in their parents’ fear and shock and by the national media’s relentless focus. For the millennials, all history turns with that September day as its axis.
They are a generation steeped in what the Pentagon once called, in a moment of remarkable honesty, The Long War. Millennials are a wartime generation but unlike the silent generation (born mid-1920s through early 1940s) of World War II and the baby boom generation (born 1946 through 1964) of Vietnam, millennials have been bombarded with information about the dangers and messy realities of warfare and its aftermath. In World War II, news from the front was generally sanitized for public consumption; during the Korean War, it was much the same. Even Vietnam, America’s first televised war, had far fewer photos and videos of the average soldiers’ experience than are available today. Millennials have access to more combat footage on the U.K.-based video sharing website LiveLeak alone than their parents ever saw from Vietnam and, via other Internet resources, unfettered, uncensored and immediate access to soldiers’ attitudes and frustrations while deployed.
Previous generations like to bring up differences between service rates among the silent generation or the baby boom generation and millennials as an illustration that the millennials “just don’t get it.” But the criticism falls less on millennials than on baby boomers. Their political actions in both the streets and voting booths undid the draft and ushered in the all-volunteer force. Unsurprisingly, the baby boom generation’s participation in the military was 18 percent, compared to the silent generation’s 35 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
For Generation X, or those born in 1965 through 1984, military participation ranges from 5 to 7 percent, making millennials’ lower service rates—approximately 3 percent—not an anomaly, but part of the trend that began with the creation of the all-volunteer force.
Perhaps even more important, consider where Sept. 11 is in the millennial consciousness. At their generation’s defining moment, government leaders said everyone should continue with their daily lives as if nothing had happened—and keep shopping. So the country did. The millennial generation has continued to do as asked.
Boomers and Gen Xers also like to criticize millennials for being too involved in social media, for not understanding professional distance, and for wearing their emotions and desires too much on their sleeves—what the millennials might call “oversharing.” The millennial term for what previous generations consider too much information is particularly apt, though, because seen through the lens of 9/11, millennials are not revealing too much. Instead, they are sharing. During their generation’s moment, there was no such thing as “too much information.” Instead, the media shared stories of victims’ final phone calls, last acts—every intimate, personal detail that can be imagined. With an outpouring of shared grief and emotion as the millennials’ earliest cultural touchstone, is it any wonder they continue the practice?
Some have criticized the millennial generation as being too entitled, as acting as if they are somehow special in a way that previous generations were not. Why should they not act that way? Their generation’s first collective memory was of the world changing, of the beginning of an era of American cooperation and shared resolve that was not simply to defeat the enemy but permanently make us better, more thoughtful, more loving people. Their first cultural memory is “the day the world changed.” Is that any different than the dawning of the Age of Aquarius?
The millennial generation is accused of never growing up; “30 is the new 20” is not a reassurance but an indictment. This criticism misses the point that the generation “grew up” too young—on that fateful day in September, which the country collectively remembers in a shared outpouring of emotion and ceremony every year. The millennials are a generation stuck in time, at that point where their childhood disappeared into adulthood with flashes of flame and black smoke against a clear blue sky.
Want to understand millennials if you’re a Gen Xer, like me, or a baby boomer? Want to know why those “kids” in your troop or squadron or firm act the way they do? Before writing off an entire generation as entitled or overly emotional, think back to those days in September over a decade ago and the mood of the country—and look at yourself. The millennials, with all their faults and promise, will be staring back at you.