I was born in 1954 which makes me, I suppose, a member of the post-Vietnam generation. Here is how the war directly touched my life: I registered for the draft when I turned 18, and the following year I was given the lottery number of six. I remember summoning forth in myself at the time some mixture of panic and self-pity, but given the capacities of a 19-year-old in that department it was pretty half-hearted. It was 1973, and I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to be called. I filed a perfunctory request with my draft board for conscientious objector status because that was what one did, and was turned down. As I recall, the draft board said that my application seemed to be born out of convenience. That was perfectly true—I didn’t object—and a few weeks later the draft was ended. That’s my experience with the Vietnam war.

But of course there is more to it than that. Mostly because of Vietnam and the attitudes it produced toward military service, of all my friends and acquaintances of my own age, only one has been in the armed forces. He left college to join the marines, and everybody said it was just because he was having an identity crisis. I grew up with a complete ignorance of and hostility toward the American military. When I was a teenager I assumed without even thinking about it that there was something wrong, even pathologically wrong, with anyone who was in the service. Soon after I started working as a reporter I was assigned a story about the army, and I remember the first officer I interviewed looking at me in amazement when I asked him which was the higher rank, captain or major.

There is more to it than that. Mostly because of Vietnam, I grew up regarding every American president in my lifetime as a war criminal. Eisenhower was a general—what further proof was needed? Kennedy got us into Vietnam. Johnson started the escalation and the bombing. Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war and then kept it going for five years after his election. Naturally this attitude on my part logically extended itself so that I also believed, as did my friends, that America could do nothing right; that it was a force of evil in the world; that, therefore, the country’s leadership was also stupid and venal (hadn’t it produced all those evil presidents?); and that the whole idea of order and authority was probably wrong, too. I can remember two political events in college that caused people to go out in the streets on warm nights, whooping and yelling with joy: the resignation of President Nixon and the fall of the government of South Vietnam to the Communists.

Unlike many older people, I am not someone to whom the idea that our country and its dominant institutions were deeply and fundamentally flawed was a dramatic revelation. It was what I grew up on. My first political memory is of the principal of my school calling an assembly to tell us that the Cubans might send missiles our way. My second political memory is of the principal calling us together again a year later to tell us that President Kennedy had been killed. I cannot remember having any perception of the Vietnam war other than that it was a bad war that we were losing. I cannot remember ever not thinking of the incumbent president as a failure. And I should stress that I grew up in a conservative southern city rather than some hotbed of chic anti-Americanism. Most of my childhood friends are now businessmen and housewives, radical by no stretch of the imagination. What makes us all enormously different from our parents is not the way we live our lives but the assumptions that lie behind the way we live—not patriotism but cynicism. Everything is pretty much the same on the surface. Underneath, everything is different. We have no center. Our parents did.

This is not completely the fault of Vietnam. For a variety of reasons, a setting was created in the years following World War II through which Vietnam’s ripples were able to move with particular force, more so than would have been possible a generation earlier. The affluence of the postwar years brought with it an optimism in which a major disappointment was likely to be especially keenly felt. The affluence—and, along with it, the absolute preeminence of large institutions in American life—made the population more mobile and much more suburban. As a result, the things that traditionally gave American life its center—religion, community, the extended family, and, as the years wore on, even marriage—all began to erode. Instead, the center became an idea about America. When events began to contradict the idea, suddenly there was nothing to fall back on.

So people like me assumed that the enterprise was not noble, rebelled against it for a time, and then joined it, not out of the sincere belief of our parents but because there was no other choice. That’s why today, although we’re better educated than they were, we vote less. It’s why survey after survey shows us to feel no loyalty to our employers. It’s why marriage and children scare us. There is no large example in our lives that shows us that connections like these produce anything but pain. So we stay loose and free and that way at least stave off being disappointed. How could anyone have actually believed in Vietnam? In a president? In the idea that the nation occupied some moral higher ground? Those who did certainly looked silly to us.

On the morning after the unsuccessful American raid on Iran in the spring of 1980, my editor at The Washington Post asked me to write a story about, as he put it, “how it feels.” He didn’t mean how it felt to me. He said it was a sad day for the flag and that I should try to find a way to convey some of that. So I went out and interviewed people standing in line for the White House tour, and made some phone calls, and did all the other things I was supposed to do, and when I sat down to write it, I couldn’t. That had never happened to me before, and it felt terrible, but the fact was that I didn’t know “how it feels” in anything close to the way I knew my editor meant it. The idea of an American defeat just didn’t have any special resonance for me. The America I grew up with was always a loser.

When that is the way you are, how do you conduct your life? What happens next? I can answer that best by an analogy. Let’s say you didn’t believe in love. You knew that other people did, but you simply didn’t. You could then go about your business accordingly, staying on the surface of things, avoiding deep involvements. This, in my analogy, would correspond to moving to New Hampshire or some similar locale that held the promise of escape from the passions of society; many of my contemporaries have done that. Or you could, to continue the analogy, decide to behave as if there were such a thing as love even though you didn’t believe in it, just because that is how the world is organized and therefore doing so makes it easier to get along. By that I mean, in the larger sense, that you could get a respectable job, remain perfectly normal in outward appearance, and in that way keep your lack of belief a little secret all your own.

Or, finally, you could, rather than assume that love really existed, merely leave yourself open to it as a possibility and let it come along, if it did exist. For most people, after all, it does sooner or later. In that way, if love—or, to draw out the analogy again, patriotism or commitment or belief—came, it would hit you with the drama of a brand-new discovery, the way the discovery that fire is hot must hit a baby. The baby is too young to know intellectually or instinctively that fire is hot, so to him it is a wild revelation and one that does him a lot of good. People like me are no longer babies, but verities that might seem equally elementary strike us with that same force.

Is it possible actually to care who is elected president? What the fate of our community will be? About our work? About love? About American hostages in Iran? To our great surprise, it is; and to our further surprise, caring deeply about those things lends to life a gravity and meaning that enriches it beyond measure. They must sound silly to older people, these little revelations of ours. They must make them think we’re spoiled brats, as I know many of them think many of us are. But to us they provide the only moral course by which to live, and laughing at them is like laughing at the joy an accident victim feels after his first halting steps.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.