16 million Americans served during World War II from a country only about 40% as populous as we are today. About half of all working aged men went off to war between 1941 and 1945. So if you were sharing a cab or sitting down for a business lunch or riding in an elevator in 1950, chances were, if you weren’t a vet, the other guy was. There’s a common opinion that what made the Greatest Generation so great was that they fought in the war. And though it’s hard to argue against the enormity of that accomplishment, saving the free people of the world from authoritarian imperialist rule, one could argue that the very next thing that American generation did was every bit as important. Maybe even more.
They went to work.
Vets returning home from WWII came home to one of the greatest eras of productivity the globe had ever seen. They found jobs in the new production economy where one out of every three dollars made in America was made by making something. They built the cars and the neighborhoods that created the American suburbs and the goods that created the American lifestyle most of us today recognize. It wasn’t just industry either. An eye popping 50% of WWII vets started their own businesses. The America they made never existed anywhere in the world in the pre-war era. While the rest of the world dug out of the rubble, America, already at the top of the economic heap, was spared by geography from the destruction of the war. So she hurled herself forward with the energy of a developing nation. And the greatest generation lapped the world.
That was then.
Today, there’s a very different generation of veterans in America. After 15 years of armed conflict, in a country now a little over twice as populated as the one that fought WWII with a war that spanned three times as long, the number of military aged men in the workforce that served in Iraq and Afghanistan is far less. About a quarter million women served too. But for the sake of comparison, we can look at the men and say what was once one in two, is now one in thirty.
There’s another common opinion in America today that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the one in thirty vets that served. I’m one. And I agree. But there’s something uneven about being such a rare commodity. There’s something that happens after a decade or so of being the only guy in a crowded room who served in a far off place doing far off things the other people in that room only saw in movies. You start to live with your eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror. Your whole life starts to orbit around the interesting and unique identifier of being a vet. And you start to think, a little bit too much, that the world should care more about you and what you have to say or what you have to offer than others. And that’s a problem.
What made the greatest generation so great was that when they came home from the war, they didn’t spend much time staring backwards at what they had just done-save the world. They didn’t come home and pine about a simpler America that made more sense to their “American” sense of self. One of farms and tradesmen and urban mills. One more familiar but with far less opportunity to make the world better. They moved on. They started families. And lives. And businesses. And they built the modern world. It’s hard to spend much time feeling like you’re owed something more when a dozen other guys on the block did the same as you did. It’s hard to link your unique identity to such a ubiquitous thing. So you go out and you make your next one.
Today feels different.
I may be alone here, but I’ve had enough of stern, oft bearded vets in videos with a tag line that sounds something like “this vets got a message for…” being lobbed over the Facebook wall by folks who mean well or seek to wear their political ideology in the form of patriotic military appreciation. Those are fine, I guess. And maybe a bit useful if the message that service takes commitment and sacrifice hasn’t quite sunk in somehow yet. But I feel like it has. And we’re starting to wander into a more dangerous territory of entitlement. And it’s time we vets dealt with a hard reality.
The war is over. It has been at scale in Iraq for seven years. We’ve had more troops in South Korea than we’ve had in Afghanistan for three years. It might start up again. But those of us that left the service of arms aren’t fighting it. The next generation will with a handful of our buddies hanging around in the senior ranks. And America’s focus and appreciation should rightly turn towards them if it goes that way. For the rest of us, it’s time to move on. And it’s time to stop focusing on the question of what the country owes us for our service. And time to start asking more important ones that actually have a chance at making our future, and in turn America, great again. Ask yourself this:
My generation started the war. I’m 40. We’re not kids any more. If our life is about that war, then we’re wrong. And we need to start doing something about it. It’s time.
If you haven’t already, go back to school. Use the greatest college funding program America has ever seen and get a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The world needs science more than ever before now. The slow growth economy that has so many of us wandering around in the wilderness telling stories about Ramadi is here because we haven’t figured out how to drive the next world altering innovation. Think locomotion or manned flight or nuclear energy. Think something besides just computers. We haven’t had one of those in 80 years. I still get from point A to point B in the same thing my grandfather did. And burn the same things for fuel. Science is going to save our country one day from being eaten by places like China and India who can make last century’s goods cheaper. So it’s time we started treating scientists and mathematicians with the level of gratitude we treat vets. Maybe we vets can help that along a bit by being both.
If that’s not your thing, go start a business. The mechanics of it are easier than ever. I started two last year. That’s what half of the greatest generation did. Today, less than five percent of vets are starting their own businesses. So, maybe we might want to try a little less pontificating of our stern values and start spending more time thinking of ideas for a start up. I get it. Talking about making America great again is easier and more gratifying in today’s social media world. But it doesn’t actually do anything.
If business ideas aren’t your thing, then ask yourself this question. How do the skills that you have help the machine? I don’t mean the figurative one that is a thriving America. Like the economist Tyler Cowen when he asked the same question first in his book Average is Over, I mean the literal one. The computer. How do the skills that you have help the computer? There’s a divide in America. It’s clear as day. It’s different than the political or racial or socio-economic one. It’s not urban or rural. Or north and south. But it’s there. And it’s widening. The most material divide between Americans today, is how you answer the question, how do I help the machine?
Can you build it? Can you design how it works? Can you analyze what it produces? Can you use it to do things better? Can you explain it and sell it? Can you produce it? Can you teach others with it? Can you entertain people with it?
Can you manage teams that do any of that?
If you answered yes to any of those, you will prosper for the next twenty years. If you answered no, then it’s likely that what you do has been replaced by the machine. And you’re going to have less opportunity than you would have in the past. It’s not fair. But that’s the deal. It’s how the free market that so many nostalgic Americans love, works. So go do that thing that your military training taught you. Adapt and overcome. Or piss moan and complain about the old days and get left behind.
The reality is a bit painful. America has plenty of money. The world has endless unskilled labor. We’ve got plenty of government. And plenty of people who protect and serve. But we don’t have enough people that can answer yes to any of those questions above or can enter into professional fields in science or will start their own businesses. So those that can will matter more to America during the rest of our lives than our past service will.
So remember your days in the past with the pride and honor you deserve. And mourn those we left behind. If you’ve got wounds that won’t heal, go get help. It’s never been more available. But if you want the future in the country you thought you were fighting for, it’s not the one in the rear view mirror. America isn’t going backwards. She never has. It’s time to move on to the next thing and get back to work. And remember that thing the military taught us.
No one owes us anything.