My life, under the Iraq war

Last night, my best friend and I made a toast. Our generation has lived its entire adult life under the Iraq war. And everything — from the way that we see global affairs, multilateral cooperation, conflict, and politics — has been shaped by that conflict. What that has meant for our generation, the late 20-somethings ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last night, my best friend and I made a toast. Our generation has lived its entire adult life under the Iraq war. And everything -- from the way that we see global affairs, multilateral cooperation, conflict, and politics -- has been shaped by that conflict.

What that has meant for our generation, the late 20-somethings who were old enough to see their peers, family members, and many other young soldiers disappear into war, has of course varied from person to person. But here are some observations about how Iraq has colored the way we look at the world. 

1) We are starry-eyed multilateralists. For those of us who were just learning what activism meant when the war was launched, the lead-up to the Iraq War in the U.N. Security Council was front and center. I vividly remember Hans Blix's speeches before the panel; I remember Colin Powell's presentation as if it was yesterday. And I also remember the devastating critique of America launched in a speech by Kofi Annan, who at that point spoke for much of the world when he said that Washington had pushed too hard and too fast. So as a result, my generation has grown up respecting the United Nations, seeing it (and institutions like it) as offering a more just world. That's one reason, I believe, that the Save Darfur movement has gained so much momentum and was partially responsible for getting a peacekeeping mission authorized for western Sudan back in 2007. We are a generation of idealistic multilateralists -- and despite its flaws, we want our country to work with the U.N.

Last night, my best friend and I made a toast. Our generation has lived its entire adult life under the Iraq war. And everything — from the way that we see global affairs, multilateral cooperation, conflict, and politics — has been shaped by that conflict.

What that has meant for our generation, the late 20-somethings who were old enough to see their peers, family members, and many other young soldiers disappear into war, has of course varied from person to person. But here are some observations about how Iraq has colored the way we look at the world. 

1) We are starry-eyed multilateralists. For those of us who were just learning what activism meant when the war was launched, the lead-up to the Iraq War in the U.N. Security Council was front and center. I vividly remember Hans Blix’s speeches before the panel; I remember Colin Powell’s presentation as if it was yesterday. And I also remember the devastating critique of America launched in a speech by Kofi Annan, who at that point spoke for much of the world when he said that Washington had pushed too hard and too fast. So as a result, my generation has grown up respecting the United Nations, seeing it (and institutions like it) as offering a more just world. That’s one reason, I believe, that the Save Darfur movement has gained so much momentum and was partially responsible for getting a peacekeeping mission authorized for western Sudan back in 2007. We are a generation of idealistic multilateralists — and despite its flaws, we want our country to work with the U.N.

2) We care about civilian casualties. Credit this one to the countless scholars, journalists, and writers who have chronicled what it meant to be an Iraqi living through the Iraq war. But credit it also to Abu Ghraib prison, where we all saw the worst of war. And to the renewed emphasis on winning hearts and minds that American learned the hard way when Iraq and Afghanistan took turns for the worst.

If this observation is right, my generation could reshape public perception of warfare. For most of history, conflicts have been judged by the toll taken on one’s own force with less regard for the local population. I don’t think that pattern can hold. Wasn’t anyone else struck by the fact that about 4,400 U.S. troops perished in Iraq — and 100,000 Iraqi civilians did? Plus there’s the 2 million refugees who have fled. That’s not collateral damage; it’s primary damage.

3) We don’t like haters. September 11 showed us for the first time that there are people who hate America. But the aftermath has also taught us that aggression can make more trouble than it solves. And as such, we want leaders who take the high road — who speak calmly and understand the diversity of both our country and our world. But speaking isn’t enough; we want activist presidents who go out into the world to seek change — and aren’t afraid to admit if and where they were wrong.

4) We are used to thinking of America on the decline. My generation is in many ways the "rise of the rest" generation. The splits in the Security Council were just the beginnings of the decline of American hegemony in the world. Now there are economic signs (a whopping unemployment rate), military signs (we finished in Iraq but didn’t really win), and moral signs (granted I haven’t been around Washington for terribly long, but do you remember the last time Congress was so divided?) But more than that, my generation has watched the rise of China and India. We’ve been abroad and we’ve seen the momentum that a country like Poland or Chile or Brazil has captured. And when we come home, that’s missing.

Of course, I am but a subset of my demographic group, and no one authorized me to speak on behalf of my peers. But like the generation that grew up in Vietnam, we will be the Iraq generation. What that means is not yet clear, but it begins now. It’s day one of life with no Iraq War.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

Tag: War

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