In the last couple weeks I've been working my way through the new documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War. I have viewed all or large portions of each of Burns' other epic multi-installment documentaries on subjects critical to America's identity, and in my opinion this is the first one to reach or exceed the standard set by The Civil War in 1990.
A fair amount of the story I knew; a lot I didn't know. Most of all, I've had trouble threading what I did know all together into a memorable narrative. This documentary is changing all that. Several big impressions or lessons from the film will remain with me for a long time, and that's with a few episodes yet to go. One piercing one, however, may not arise explicitly in the documentary itself, because it has to do with my generation, so-called Generation X.
I knew that the Vietnam War was a massive ingredient of "the Sixties" (1965-75), and I knew that the Sixties massively shaped life in America (and beyond) since. But I knew it only in principle, only as hearsay—it hadn't come home to me before how profound this impact was and where and how it plays out. The impact, simply stated, is that the Baby Boomers and their ways of interpreting and responding to the world have dominated American culture and politics for a solid half-century.
The members of Generation X are well-seasoned now, between our late 30s and early 50s with a smidgen of margin on either side—in other words, right in the marrow of our productive life. And yet we have had essentially no influence on the social-cultural-political world in which we have spent our entire lives.
I look at the last couple years with its welter of racial strife, civil violence, and demonstrations and counter-demonstrations centered on the national flag. In important ways and in volume it is not identical to unrest in the Sixties, yet it looks and feels eerily familiar.
I witness the gaping distrust and fear of government—at least when it is helmed by the wrong people (in the eye of the beholder). I saw a bitterly divided electorate grapple with a presidential race between two (near-)septuagenarian Boomers. I wonder if Generation X will be like the so-called "Silent Generation" that never saw one of its own elected president. If any Gen-Xer does manage to wedge him- or herself into the Oval Office between seven-plus terms of Boomer presidencies and the coming run of Millennial executives, that president will likely be an empty echo of the Boomers' Culture War- and Size of Government-shaped perspectives. Generation X's politics have been so shaped by that of our predecessors that we struggle to function any other way, and those who do think differently struggle to rise through party ranks.
It's not that Gen-Xers haven't shaped the world at all; Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google come to mind. And it isn't that there aren't any famous Gen-Xers; Hollywood has had a continuous hunger for good-looking, charismatic talent, including when Gen-Xers came of age. (Yet how many Gen-X megastars can you think of not named Matt Damon? Gen-X comedic personalities have done a bit better.)
My point is that the contours of our social-cultural-political landscape—the architecture and furniture of our broken national home—our clashing beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad, what somebody ought to do about it, and the words we use to talk about it—were shaped in the Sixties, largely in the crucible of the Vietnam War.
I wonder if Generation X is like Isaac in the Book of Genesis, who spent the first chunk of his life as the son of Abraham and the last chunk of his life as the father of Jacob. I expect that my generation will live the bulk of our lives in the Boomers' world and pass our remaining years in the Millennials', never living in a world of our own.
I am quick to acknowledge that, in an accounting of the tragedy of Vietnam, this gripe is and ought to be insignificant. The war had far, far worse outcomes for millions of people in two countries. I am grateful that I did not live through the Sixties and especially grateful that I was not touched directly or indirectly by that war, and I feel sympathy as I never have before for those who did. If enduring a national conflagration like that is what it takes for a generation to make its mark, I am grateful never to have had that dubious privilege. (See also the Great Depression/World War II generation.)
But at the same time, if I'm honest and admitting that my attitude isn't all that sanctified: as a person who has felt like he's been living as a stranger in someone else's country for most of his adult life—and more so all the time, with no end in sight—I feel kind of ripped off. It might have been nice to have an era to call my own.