Campaigns/Elections

The Hawks' Lost Generation

How 9/11 gave Bush the youth vote, and how he still managed to screw it up

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Northwestern University has a late-starting fall semester. In September 2001, when most college sophomores were fully ensconced in their new classes and larger dorm rooms, I was checking news online at my family's home in Wilmington, Delaware. I blogged what I saw on my primitive Web site; I picked my father up from his evacuated Philadelphia office; I fell into a bloodthirsty rage that gripped me for the entire 770-mile drive back to school, visions of a dead Osama bin Laden dancing in my head.

The rage didn't subside when classes began or Northwestern's weekly newspaper, where I was the news editor, geared up for the first issue of the year. We tried to cover the burgeoning anti-war movement on campus and came up with as much material as a Discovery Channel field team shooting footage of a Yeti or a Mothman. Doors were decked with American flags and retouched maps of Central Asia, with Afghanistan colored blue and dubbed "Lake America." If not for "aren't you a little old to be in college?" moles from Chicago's International Socialist Organization, there wouldn't have even been any anti-war protests.

I was seeing on a small scale what was happening across the country. People my age, Generation Y, had been transformed by 9/11 into flag-waving jingoes. For most of us, it was a rational step. Americans born after 1975 have known the United States only as a foreign policy juggernaut. We never saw our military enter a conflict that wasn't 1) humanitarian and righteous and 2) won without breaking a sweat. Our vision of American warfare wasn't Vietnam or Korea; it was the blockbuster 1991 Gulf War. Accordingly, polls taken after September 11 showed young Americans supporting military action against Afghanistan to the tune of 90 percent, with 46 percent in one poll giving the thumbs up to invasion even if we couldn't finger Al Qaeda for the crime. That "Army of One" recruiting campaign was wasted on us; we were already in the tank.

Left-wing journals and journalists spent much of 2002 and 2003 griping about the lack of a young anti-war movement. As the Bush administration ramped up for war with Iraq, I was part of the majority of under-30s who full-throatedly backed a new war. A Gallup poll taken before invasion revealed that 25-to-29-year-old men didn't merely support the war; they were its most hard-core supporters, clocking in at 71 percent "bombs away." Men between 18 and 24 registered at a robust 57 percent.

But the unfolding debacle of the Iraq war destroyed this support. During the first year of the war, support for the conflict and for President Bush dwindled. Military recruiters, whose paper trays creaked under the weight of new applications after 9/11, suddenly had trouble filling their quotas. Under-30s, who conservative pundits hopefully predicted would form a solid flank of the new Republican majority, became the only age bloc to back Sen. John Kerry solidly in the 2004 election (by 54 percent to 45 percent, according to CNN's exit poll).

Five years ago I was ready, like most people my age, to buy into any conflict America's leaders wanted to undertake. But ask anybody under 30 today if the invasion of Iraq was worth it, or if any war can be a cakewalk, or if you can trust politicians with your lives. Chances are they'll shout no as quickly as the most embittered baby boomer. That generation approached foreign entanglements wary of the Vietnam Syndrome; my generation, rattled by 9/11, has been afflicted by the Iraq Syndrome. And the country will be better off for it.