What Does Memorial Day Mean to Millennials?

My future son-in-law, a millennial, lost two members of his platoon on these dates.
My future son-in-law, a millennial who served as a Marine in Iraq, lost two members of his platoon on these dates.

On Memorial Day, when we remember veterans who have died in service to our country, we would do well to remember that the Millennial Generation, our young adults, much maligned for their lack of commitment to American values,  have paid the ultimate sacrifice more than any generation since the end of the Vietnam War. Nearly 7000 Americans have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them millennials who volunteered for military service.

Unlike the Baby Boomer generation, who were drafted into military service, these young people have joined the military for a host of reasons, not the least of which is their belief in the freedoms we enjoy in our country. And unlike those who have served in the military of any recent generation, they are largely ignored rather than honored when they return home, even when they return to Dover in a coffin draped with an American flag.

Even the voices of those who survive are often buried below headlines about politicians who have never served but who get much media coverage for their speeches proclaiming their own patriotism and bashing those they perceive as less patriotic. Donald Trump, a boomer who received four student deferments and a medical deferment, received top billing on most news sites this weekend, with many column inches devoted to his speech at the Rolling Thunder rally. On the other hand, veteran Jennie Haskamp’s excellent article “I’m a Veteran, and I Hate ‘Happy Memorial Day’” appeared both last year and this year as a brief blip on the Washinton Post’s home page—easy to miss if you happened to log on at the wrong time.

No generation can be stereotyped as the greatest or the least among us. Every generation has its heroes, its villains, and its ordinary citizens. It is one of society’s ironies that those in control of power malign the younger generations who want revolution and change. Baby Boomers, usually defined as those born after World War I to about 1964, pride themselves on protesting the Vietnam War. But at the time, the young protesters were derided by the leaders of our country as hippies and slackers who enjoyed life here at home while those drafted into the military died overseas.

Born under the cloud of the atomic bomb, the first boomers grew up protesting nuclear proliferation, feeling helpless and foolish as they learned to duck and cover. Later boomers, those who graduated after the fall of Saigon in 1975, enjoyed the longest period of peace in our adult lifetime—a peace that some boomers were certain resulted from fear of our vast nuclear arsenal. The youngest boomers, who hadn’t reached their teens by the time the Vietnam War ended, viewed their own generation through the lens of history by the time they reached high school.

Barack Obama, a late boomer, chose to be the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima. (Carter visited after his presidency and Nixon before.) In a speech last week at the site, President Obama said this about those who died:

Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.

Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in a not-so-distant past. We come to mourn the dead, including over 100,000 Japanese men, women and children, thousands of Koreans, a dozen Americans held prisoner.

Their souls speak to us. They ask us to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.

Other boomers launched bombs of their own in response to the president’s speech. Donald Trump, among the first of the boomers, tweeted a question as to why the president didn’t mention Pearl Harbor in Japan, and in a campaign event he called the president’s visit “pathetic.” Sarah Palin, among the last of the boomers, called it an “apology lap,” saying that he was guilty of “dissing our vets,” and declaring, “You mess with our freedom, we’ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.”

All of this conflict commands much of the media’s attention. But where are the voices of millennials on this Memorial Day? And, in particular, where are the voices of our millennial veterans who come back to us forever changed? Even the voice of Phil Klay, a millennial who won the 2015 Pulitzer for his novel Redeployment, doesn’t appear today on the pages of the most noted news outlets, though he did have an opinion piece in the New York Daily News and a recent essay on the Brookings Institute’s website.

In his Brookings essay, Klay debunks the myth that silences the voices of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—that most of those serving in our volunteer military do so because they have no other options:

The demographics of the military don’t support the image—it’s actually the middle class that’s best represented in the military, and the numbers of high-income and highly educated recruits rose to levels disproportionate to their percentage of the population after the war on terror began. But this notion of a military filled with ne’er-do-wells who are in it only for the money is frustrating not just because it’s insulting or false—it takes the decision to put one’s life at risk for one’s country and transforms it, as if by magic, into a self-interested act.

Klay shows more wisdom in his essay than any politician I’ve heard in this election season. He concludes

No civilian can assume the moral burdens felt at a gut level by participants in war, but all can show an equal commitment to their country, an equal assumption of the obligations inherent in citizenship, and an equal bias for action. Ideals are one thing—the messy business of putting them into practice is another. That means giving up on any claim to moral purity. That means getting your hands dirty.

The boomers who have the loudest voices in this election season do not seem inclined to give up their claims to moral purity. But perhaps it is time for the rest of us to listen to the quieter voices of wisdom from every generation.

Perhaps, on this Memorial Day, it is time to hear the souls of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps it is time to listen to the millennials like Haskamp and Klay who have served and come home, and, as President Obama said, time for us “to look inward, to take stock of who we are and what we might become.” For that is the only way, on this Memorial Day, to ensure that those who died did not die in vain.

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