9/11 United a Nation and Morally Fractured a Generation


Each year on September 11, pundits and politicians reflect on the bravery and terror forever linked to that fateful day. Also retold is the story of how our response to the attacks united the nation around the ideal of “what it means to be an American.” Bob Schieffer of CBS News described it this way: “Sept. 11 was a dark day. But the time after became one of our finest hours, because we put aside those things that set us apart, and recognized that for all our differences, we  were – first of all – all Americans.”

On Sept. 11, I was a military officer assigned as an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Ten minutes before my first class that day, a plane impacted the World Trade Center. I scrambled to my classroom to find 40 cadets uncharacteristically silent, and glued to the television. We watched as the second airplane hit the second tower, and another impacted the Pentagon. One cadet finally interrupted the silence and said, “Captain Haynie, this is going to change everything, isn’t it?” I responded, “For all of you, forever.” 

The cadet who spoke up in my classroom that day was a member of the millennial generation.  Alternatively coined the “ME” generation, this generational archetype has been characterized as entitled, narcissistic, and less civic-minded than their parents. Maybe so, but that certainly wasn’t true of the millennials who looked back at me on Sept. 11. Months later, most of them would be commissioned as military officers, and deployed overseas to fight our wars. 

More than one million of the millennials went to war in the years that followed Sept. 11.  In some regard, Sept. 11 was for the millennials something akin to the “Sorting Hat” at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School (a metaphor most millennials will understand). That day would divide an otherwise homogeneous generation into intra-generational cohorts: Those who volunteered to serve a nation at war, and those who benefited from the service of others. Thus while Sept. 11 may have united a nation, it may also have morally fractured a generation. 

I say this because never before have we experienced such a stark intra-generational divide between those who served, and those who did not. Only a small fraction of the 80 million millennials living in the U.S. served in uniform after Sept. 11. A consequence of this unequal burden sharing is illustrated by the fact that an overwhelming number of Americans indicate that Sept. 11, and the wars that followed, had little impact on their daily lives – at all.

I’ve come to believe that there is nothing more isolating, divisive, and even sinister than disconnecting the burden of war from the citizenry.

I make this suggestion because while I’m no longer wearing the nation’s uniform, I now direct an academic institute focused on the post-service concerns of the nation’s military veterans. In this role, I am a witness to the implications of such inequity, when it comes to enacting Schieffer’s notion of  “what it means to be an American.”

Consider Kyle’s story as representative of this theme. 

Kyle was 15 years old on Sept. 11. From his home in New Jersey, he could see the smoke coming off the towers on Sept. 11. He told himself he’d enlist on his 18th birthday. During his six years of service, he deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. Last year, Kyle decided to leave the military, and a family friend asked me to talk to him about college. 

Kyle was gung-ho about school, like he is about everything else in life. More than that, he was excited about reconnecting and “plugging back in” to simply being a 25-year-old civilian – and college was a means to that end. Kyle jumped in with both feet, getting involved with sports and student government, and excelling academically. 

But last month, Kyle told me that he’s not going back to school in the fall. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I desperately want to make this work, but I just don’t fit in … my classmates, my friends, they just don’t understand where I’ve been, who I want to be, and how to help. What’s worse,” he said, “They don’t seem the least bit interested in learning about my service.” 

Like many millennials who were “sorted out” by the events of Sept. 11 and who went to war, Kyle doesn’t easily or always fit in. This doesn’t mean he’s bad, broken, damaged, or dangerous.  It means his life experience is different from the majority of his generational cohort.  Importantly, his differences are born of the fact that he subjected himself to moral and personal risk, on behalf of those that he now perceives as indifferent to his situation. In truth, this burgeoning intra-generational divide grows wider and deeper with each year we move further from Sept. 11. 

Not only an individual travesty impacting Kyle and those like him, this divide also represents a threat to the social, economic, and security concerns of the nation. The past 12 years represent the first sustained test of our chosen system of national defense, wherein we rely upon volunteers to defend our national interests. This divide threatens the sustainability of this volunteer model.  The social and psychological distance inherent in this divide also threatens to pit a generation against itself in our public forums, exacerbating political gridlock in a way that many millennials find reprehensible. Put simply, as the millennial generation rises to leadership, bridging this intra-generational divide is central to enacting the promise inherent in Sept. 11 as a unifying opportunity the nation.    

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a nation, as a society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.” Jefferson’s moral imperative demands an engaged citizenry, and assumes personal accountability for the welfare of those who wore this country’s uniform. I hope the “ME” generation proves the sociologists wrong, and selflessly acts on the opportunity to demonstrate to Kyle “what it means to be an American.” I hope this because it’s how we’ll heal our souls, and the soul of our nation.

Return to Laura’s 9/11 Veteran’s page