Where Have All The Causes Gone?

BARRING UNFORESEEN CIRCUMSTANCES, I WILL HAVE just turned 30 as the next millennium begins. When my grandfather was that age, he had lived through the Depression in the South, enlisted in the navy and spent four years at war in the Pacific; the day the bomb was dropped, he was aboard the USS St. George preparing for the invasion of Japan. One of the first things he did when he returned home to Tennessee was to sire my father, who was born in July 1946. By the time he had hit 30, he had watched the civil-rights movement unfold around him and had fought in Vietnam, carrying a 12-gauge shotgun in search-and-destroy missions as part of the Fourth Infantry Division in Pleiku. The toughest combat decision I've ever faced was whether to watch the networks or CNN cover the gulf war.

This is a fairly common story. People my age--those born between 1965 and 1976 (there are 40 million of us)--face a history gap. All the Big Causes seem to be settled. The country beat the Depression, defeated Hitler, stared down the Soviets and abolished Jim Crow long before we were on the scene. On one level this is wonderful: we are the beneficiaries of relative peace and prosperity, which beats the hell out of war or economic want. But as the century winds down, there is a sentimental longing for big things to happen. For us, history is a virtual thing, the stuff of A&E "Biography" episodes and downloaded speeches from the Richard Nixon Library Web site. Hollywood, ever sensitive to cultural appetites, is finding a market for our romance with the past: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are all making World War II movies.

But multimedia experience is pretty weak compared with what came before us. Every other generation in the 20th century faced common enemies and had cohesive ambitions. In the years after 1900, Theodore Roosevelt sensed a new role for America, and inspired--taunted, really--younger men like his cousin Franklin to embrace the world. TR had tapped into something powerful: many of that generation envied the men who had fought in the Civil War. One, Douglas MacArthur, spent his life trying to match the exploits of his father, Arthur MacArthur, who was 18 when he won the Medal of Honor at Missionary Ridge. Woodrow Wilson gave this generation--FDR, MacArthur, Marshall, Truman, Eisenhower--a moral frame for TR's cult of action. The young officers of World War I became the commanders of World War II. Their troops in the fight against Hitler were men who already understood sacrifice. The Depression had seen to that. Meanwhile, in Washington, FDR was making government sexy. There were the Brain Trusters from Harvard, and Hubert Humphrey quit pharmacy school to do relief work.

It was, obviously, a very different country then. Public schools and the draft united the middle class and the poor; money was important, but people from different backgrounds mingled more easily than they do at the end of the century. The famous example is the crew of PT 109. There, John F. Kennedy served with a refrigeration engineer from Macon, Ga., a machinist from Chicago, a Polish immigrant factory worker and a jazz pianist.

Even the usually self-indulgent boomers grew up with a sense of connection to real drama. They heard about the great battles from their GI fathers; a frequent playground query in the early 1950s was "What did your dad do in the war?" There was the cold war and the great civil-rights struggle. In the White House, LBJ was able to call on a seemingly limitless faith in government to fight segregation, launch the Great Society and escalate the conflict in Southeast Asia. The boomers marched on Washington, building their own myths, however "countercultural." Then things began to fall apart.

That's where we came in: during the falling-apart. The antiwar pro- tests and the crusade for racial equality had all died down; Watergate and malaise were the order of the day. And we tended to be more segregated by class than ever. An increasing number of us went to private schools, and the draft was phased out.

The problem is not our willingness to be moved by events, or causes. We love to hug trees, and how else to explain our rallying round the gulf war, or the series of Ribbon Crises, beginning with the yellow sashes of the Iranian hostage debacle to the white ones of Flight 800? The dangerous thing is that without epic scope, every news story becomes a "crisis," and "heroes" come cheap. (Remember Grenada, or Scott O'Grady?) The cumulative effect of such confected moments--and the media's appetite for instant drama never helps--is to trivialize just about everything.

Something will ultimately test us. Entitlements could collapse, a derivatives deal may bring down the markets, some rogue nation might fire a missile at Manhattan. Americans are never comfortable for long without a crusade; one is sure to be thrust upon us. Then it will be our turn, and how we do will be the first big story of the millennium.