In November of 2015, shortly after the Paris attacks, a poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics revealed that 60 percent of millennials were in favour of the use of military force in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIL, yet only 15 percent were willing to serve in the military. Such an apparent double standard does not reflect well on our youngest adult generation. But rather than resorting to millennial-bashing, we might better understand these facts and more charitably understand this generation if we look at the context.
That millennials advocate the use of the military but avoid serving denotes a deep tension at work in how they process the question of military intervention. They are clear that something needs to be done about the atrocities committed by adherents of extremist ideology, and that that something very likely involves the military in some facet. But it is by no means clear to millennials exactly what military intervention should entail, or where, or for how long. So military service is, for many, a dubious proposition.
But it wasn’t always like this. So how did this come to be?
Culture Jigs: War in the Twentieth Century and Beyond
Millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 1998, entered adulthood in a post-9/11 world. There has been no shortage of discussion of their merits and demerits in the workplaces they’ve inherited from baby boomers and Gen-Xers. At their best, millennials are innovative and optimistic. They grew up alongside the Internet and have made this technology second nature, using it to create solutions for everything from engineering to investing to dating. At their worst, they are the generation of participation trophies and helicopter parents. They require a steady stream of affirmation and feel entitled to things they haven’t earned. And whether it’s toward institutions, community clubs, or even relationships, they are markedly noncommittal.
These blithely stated virtues and vices, despite how much we like to talk about them, are not enough to explain millennial ambivalence toward military service. What’s missing from such discussions is how millennials have both inherited and reacted against a set of assumptions and norms by which the role of the military in the world is understood.
Matthew Crawford’s notion of “cultural jigs” provides a helpful entryway into this current conundrum. As a case study, Crawford looks at our spending habits and asks how we became a society with excessive debts when just a few generations prior we were a society characterized by frugality and thrift. Crawford points out how, among other things, the invention of consumer credit helped to “rejig” a culture once held together by “mutually reinforcing norms” of frugality. Today, thanks to such rejigging, personal debt loads are a reality unthinkable to our forebears. The introduction of a new form of transaction reshaped how people thought about money and, more, the social pressures placed on acting (or not acting) in certain ways.
In a similar way, we can ask such questions about war: How did our cultural perception of military service change so drastically in just over half a century? Despite what the pundits might say, the answer is not simply millennial-bashing. Rather, we need to look at the cultural rejigging about what war and the military entail in the unique contexts of the twenty-first century.
As they process the question of how the military should be used today, millennials are uniquely without the advantage of having lived through the military engagements of prior decades. They are instead reliant on the resources passed down to them from parents and schoolteachers. In this top-down manner, millennials received working, shorthand answers to questions such as, What is the purpose of the military? and, How does it achieve that end? These are enormously complex questions, but the inherited jig shortened the concept to its essence: The military is made up of citizens willing to fight for the defence of the nation. Where we are threatened, we wield our military might because this keeps us safe in a dangerous world. Added to the core concepts of selfdefence and national security are the assumptions that we resort to armed conflict against political adversaries, often nation-states, in regions limited by political boundaries for a limited period of time.
Though the application of the jig will differ depending on the context in which it is applied, we can nevertheless use it to understand and evaluate the use of our military in past generations. The rise of Nazi Germany and the attack on Pearl Harbor led to a straightforward application of military power. Our involvement in Vietnam, on the other hand, was controversial because it was unclear to the public what exactly was so threatening in that region and how our military action constituted self-defence. So, even where the use of military force does not align with this jig, the tool is still useful for evaluating how the military should be used, and what a justifiable war looks like.
We can trace the development of the traditional, inherited jig through past generations by considering the political atmosphere in which each generation came of age. Members of the generation entering into adulthood during or after World War II, dubbed the “Silent Generation” for their reputation as withdrawn but hardworking people, would be understandably enthusiastic about the value of military force as a necessary political tool. In the throes of total war, the service of the Greatest Generation saved the Western world from the ambitions of conquering tyrants on either side of the globe. Democracy itself was at stake, but we were delivered by the sacrifice of our GI heroes. Who could doubt the greatness of a military that had become back-to-back World War champions? Of course the realities of the war and its aftermath were much more complicated and nuanced (as they always are), but one can imagine how this overarching narrative would be firmly impressed on the cohort of American teenagers back home who would come of age in the post–World War II era.
Yet the following generations, specifically baby boomers and the elder half of Generation X, grew up in the relentless tension of the Cold War. It was the Soviet threat that gave shape not only to their political discourse and policy but also to their childhood experiences of school drills preparing for nuclear attack. As mutually assured destruction loomed overhead, the threat of communism spread amid a litany of mass killings and proxy wars. The virtues of military might and service could once again be clearly understood in such a dangerous world. The shorthand understanding, or jig, that military service is an effective tool of foreign policy, wielded for the defence of the nation and the security of its citizens, still seemed durable enough, but the stamina (and rationale) for these proxy wars was already beginning to erode confidence that this tool still fit a changing world order. One need only look at the McCarthyist paranoia of the 50s or the Vietnam protests of the 60s to see that a rejigging was already underway which (we can see now) would come to fruition after 9/11.
The early memories that shaped the millennial generation were, by comparison, otherworldly. The USSR was a thing of the past. Americans were delirious in their victory, to the point of taking seriously the postulation that the End of History had arrived, and all that was left for humanity to do was iron out the kinks in the final democratic cosmopolis. Adolescent millennials could eat their Fruit Loops in peace, ignorant of the decades of political and military manoeuvring that had brought it to them. For the years between the fall of the Soviets and 9/11, the main thing millennials would glean about the American military was that it had proved during the Gulf War to be the dominant military force on the globe.
But when the age of radical Islamic terrorism dawned on 9/11, the traditional jig by which we understood the military and its role began to fit much less comfortably. As we watched the towers fall, we found ourselves face to face with a new enemy. But unlike in past conflicts, this new enemy dwells around the world and within the civilian population. They communicate and mobilize online. National affiliation means very little to them, but ideological affiliation means very much. Thus this new enemy is no longer bounded in terms of political borders, but rather in terms of a religious ideological identity. They proved on 9/11 that they posed a legitimate threat to the lives of American citizens, and we, in accordance with the jig that had applied for generations, mobilized our military.
Teenaged millennials watched as the conflict evolved into the “Global War on Terror.” We watched year after year as the United States continued to send billions of dollars and thousands of volunteer lives across the globe to fight this nebulous force. And as this war spread across the region, it always seemed to be going in our favour. But it never ended. The terrorist organizations were on their heels, but the countries in which we fought were left in political disarray, and US presence was the only thing staving off anarchy, and thus terrorist resurgence. We became mired in a land war in central Asia—a classic blunder.
Why don’t we win anymore?
Within days of joining the Air Force, I learned that our favoured slogan is to “Fly, Fight, and Win.” We are proud to join a military branch with a heritage of victory in the air that allowed victory on the ground. Yet the slogan hails from victories of older wars. The problem today—and one could go so far as to call it a crisis—is that we’re not sure how to win. We’re not even sure what “winning” would look like in this conflict. We’ve been dropping bombs in the Middle East for fifteen years, and there’s no end in sight. Even if we completely owned and secured Iraq, the ideology and threat of terror would simply move elsewhere. We are at odds with the paradox that adherents to this ideology can bomb us, but we can’t seem to bomb them back.
Now, what does this have to do with millennials?
In a study published by the Cato Institute from June 2015 on millennials’ views of foreign policy, they were shown to be significantly less willing than older generations to resort to use of force in foreign affairs. This is not surprising, given their almost universal consensus that the war in Iraq was “a mistake and not worth fighting.” Furthermore, it was reported that in 2014 “almost 50 percent of Millennials responded that the United States should ‘stay out’ of world affairs, the highest rate since the Chicago Council on Global Affairs began asking the question in 1974.”
Our youngest adult generation grew up watching this war drag on and internalized the overarching narrative that military intervention, far from solving the problem of terrorism in that region, has only exacerbated whatever problem there was. Yes, there are real problems, but the military is the wrong tool to reach for. The intervention that they’ve witnessed has led to a longer war than any fought by their parents or grandparents. Of course something needs to be done about the mess in the Middle East, but the Hellfire missiles don’t seem to be working. By this view, intervention is like trying to fix our ant-infested home by patrolling the kitchen with a hammer. There is no end to it.
So, it is not surprising that, if we were to say to millennials that they should serve in the military, many would respond with the signature question of their generation: “Why?”
Growing up in the most exciting age of technological innovation taught us to love problem solving. Google taught us to love fast answers. Recent history taught us that wars are supposed to last four to eight years, tops. Against these values and assumptions, the US military’s continued involvement in the Middle East is just baffling. The only sensible war is one that ends. The traditional understanding of military force is thus cast into doubt. How effective can the military be if it can’t win the war? Are they fulfilling the role of protecting the nation?
Against the traditional jig that the purpose of a military is to achieve national defence and security, millennials have developed a counter-jig which assumes that the military is ill-suited to meet that purpose. The question is not whether we should resort to armed force to protect ourselves; it is whether it can effectively do so in this twenty-first-century conflict. The old jig that helped us determine how to use our military no longer seems to apply, and we are left reeling.
Moreover, millennials tend to seek jobs in which they can identify with the end goal. Career for them is less a pragmatic opportunity to succeed and more an idealistic opportunity to be a force for progress. Here again, the prospect of military service is unappealing. For a generation that knows little other than war, it is not altogether apparent what the goals of the US military are in 2016 and beyond. Ostensibly the objective would be peace, but there is little evidence of moving toward that end anytime soon. Without conspicuous motion toward progress, there is little with which the idealistic millennial can identify when considering a military career.
Getting past (Justifiable) Millennial Cynicism
Yet there is danger that the modern counter- jig of military impotence is exactly the wrong lesson to learn. Military intervention has been immensely effective at crippling global terrorist networks. Yes, we’ve been dropping bombs for fifteen years, but they’ve been dropped on vetted targets— terrorists actively working toward spreading a toxic ideology and ending innocent lives. Many take for granted that our military should succeed with ease and don’t appreciate the wonder that, despite encryption methods and a million places to communicate online, our military has been able to stay ahead in the new cyber arms race and dismantle hidden organizations intent on causing violence. But many in the Internet age somehow assume that terrorism should have been a problem quickly solved, and thus have deemed our military effort a failure by reason of our continued presence in its epicentre fifteen years on.
The fact that we are still fighting today, however, speaks much more to the complexity of the terrorist threat than the efficacy of our foreign policy. This may not be a problem that we can solve with the military, but it certainly isn’t a problem we can solve without it. We’re rightly exhausted by the thought of bombs falling for fifteen years, yet the prospects for peace are not good if they stop altogether. This is the conundrum that our politicians face on our behalf.
The existence of extremist terrorism depends on little else than the ideology that spawns it and the Internet that propagates it, and neither of those things will go away soon. The reality that is slowly settling in on us is that the conflict in which we’ve been engaged since 9/11 will likely continue indefinitely in multiple forms. The continued involvement of the military somewhere in some manner is not a result of its failure, but rather a grim necessity in this new, globalized age of digitally enabled extremism.
While this outlook is bleak, it allows us to reframe the question of military service, and it is a small comfort that something of the old jig holds true. Use of the military is emphatically not an impotent effort doomed for quagmire. It is being stretched to solve problems we’ve never had to solve before. It is being used differently today than it ever has been in the past because there has never been a time like today. The evolution of the use of military force was foisted on us by the dawning of the digital age, much like post–World War I warfare changed with the entrance of machine guns, tanks, aircraft, and heavy artillery. The current and future conflict is neither a cold nor hot war, but a conflict that always simmers.
And in this seemingly eternal half-war, we are more than ever in need of millennials bringing their skill set to their nation’s defence. Attaining security has never been so complex. The answer lies not in the “bigger and stronger” mindset of outdated militarism, nor in the non-interventionism of the war-weary. Rather, we need fresh minds to approach the world as it is today and discover how a smarter and savvier military can make it better. There are lessons to learn from clumsy interventions of the past, but that lesson should not be apathy.
The best way to resolve the tension and ambivalence toward the military is to lean forward and own the conflict of today. The temptation is strong to label it hopeless entanglement and walk away, but progress will require the sincere effort and personal sacrifice of many. No generation asks for or deserves the problems left to it by its parents, but every generation is marked by its willingness and ability to overcome them. This investment will doubtless require all the innovation and creativity we can muster. It is a challenge uniquely suited to the virtues of the millennial generation.