March from Selma to Montgomery
Credit: Peter Pettus, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not fond of comparing generations to make political points or to satisfy a desire to express frustration, so I don’t write about “The Greatest Generation” or make a habit out of bashing baby boomers or comparing Generation X unfavorably with Millennials.  In our present circumstances, though, I think it can be inspiring to think about what other generations have lived through, if for no other reason than to remind us that things have been a lot more difficult in the past than they are now.

My father was fortunate to serve his time in the army between the Korean and Vietnam wars, but he certainly had colleagues who fought in both of those conflicts as well as World War II. A close friend of his did the beach landing at Anzio and fought up Italy’s boot. I met a relative by marriage in the 1990’s who had done five beach landings in the Pacific, each of them as terrifying as the D-Day landing depicted in Saving Private Ryan. He came home and farmed in the flatlands of Minnesota, and I’m not sure I’ve ever met a tougher or more weathered individual. At one point, he survived for two days by playing dead on a Pacific Island while Japanese soldiers walked around bayoneting anyone who seemed to still be breathing. On the third day, the Marines showed up and rescued him while collecting their dead.  Then he did three more landings.

My generation was spared these kinds of things. The main civil rights bills were all completed by 1968, a year before I was born, and the Vietnam War was completely over by the time I was six. The Supreme Court’s Roe ruling has been in effect since I was in my first year of nursery school.  I did lose my job after the 9/11 attacks and suffered some losses and financial hardships during the Great Recession, but that’s nothing to compare to what my parents’ generation experienced growing up during the Great Depression.

As unpleasant as our political battles have been over the last thirty or forty years, they simply don’t compare to the Civil War or the battles to end American apartheid or the way the country absolutely came apart in the 1960’s. No one has been drafted to fight in our wars.

Older generations than mine endured much worse with less complaint and more fortitude, and I find myself having to remind myself of this whenever I feel worn down and exhausted. What’s really bothering me, when I stop and think about it, is that I thought these prior generations bequeathed to us something more stable and enduring. I resent that their hard work is being squandered, and I honestly resent having to do the kind of hard work I thought they had spared me.

It turns out, my generation will get its time in the barrel after all. And the younger generations won’t ever know the kind of relative peace and calm we enjoyed for most of our lives.  What’s old is new again, and no one should kid theirselves that the battle will be shorter or easier this time around. It would be an excellent start to have a good midterm election, but that’s not guaranteed and it would only be a first step.

On climate alone, our children’s challenges will far exceed our own, and we’ll be fighting a 1920’s-era Supreme Court at every step along the way.

So, when you’re feeling shocked or fatigued and want to just check out, remember that you’ve had it comparatively easy up to now. The country has come apart more than once before, and so far the good guys have found a way to come out on top. This is a low point. With hard work, things start getting better from here.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at