Wasn't it only yesterday that we ushered in the new millennium with such loud fanfare and high hopes? But, in only a matter of months, we are already engaged in the first war of the new era, one described as a "different kind of war" against secret enemies in unknown places. Doubtless there can be no high-tech knockout punch, as in the gulf war; instead we will need to gird ourselves for sustained combat against terrorism around the world.
Thanks to authors and actors such as Tom Brokaw and Tom Hanks, we have rediscovered the key to victory in the greatest war of the last century: the remarkable character of that generation of Americans. I know it firsthand because I grew up in one of its families. Character traits such as sacrifice, loyalty, teamwork, and deferred gratification came naturally to my parents after their World War II experience.
What kind of character might it take to win this new kind of war? And does this generation have what it takes? The early signs are encouraging. Who could not have been inspired by the character of firefighters in New York or the heroism of passengers on United Flight 93? Happily this year's fall colors include the red, white, and blue of patriotism, everywhere from storefronts to pickup trucks.
But to win this war, an initial outburst of heroism and patriotism will not be enough. When the book is written on this generation of Americans and its major war against terrorism, it will need to record that Americans reframed their character in several important ways.
This is truly the "now" generation. Through technology, basically everything we know can be zipped around the world in a matter of moments, and billions of dollars change hands in a nanosecond. Americans will want pictures of captured terrorists and shorter lines at airports very soon.
But can we reframe our thinking and recognize that a complex war such as this is not fought in minutes or hours but perhaps in months and years? If the opportunity before us is to rally the world community and eradicate the threat of terrorism, that will be a long-term economic, political, and military campaign. Can we reframe our frustration and understand that patience is part of our contribution to winning this war?
We are also the "me" generation, focused mainly on meeting our own needs. In the early days of this battle, there have been encouraging signs that we were breaking through to the "we" thinking that could win this war. Political leaders set aside their conflicts and stood together; ordinary Americans set aside their own personal safety and comfort to help others. We must remember that World War II was not won by soldiers alone but also by people back home who saved gasoline and built ships faster than ever before.
In short, this "different kind of war" is as likely to be decided by the content of our character as by the accuracy of our bombs. Let's be sure America is well armed!