At Large April 2003

The Veterans of Domestic Disorders Memorial

How to remember the not-quite-greatest-generation

I've been admiring the plans for the World War II Memorial soon to be constructed on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It's a fit monument to the generation of Americans who endured a global depression that was only partly of their own making, fought to free mankind from totalitarian oppression by fascists and communists (when they'd gotten over being allies with the latter), and rebuilt the postwar world, even if they did rebuild it with seven-and-a-half-foot ceilings and cheap hollow doors. They have been called the "Greatest Generation," and they are, if you're not stuck behind them in the ten-items-or-less lane at the grocery store while they debate with the checkout clerk about the expiration date on a discount coupon for oleomargarine. And from what I can tell by the architectural renderings, the World War II Memorial will only somewhat ruin the Mall.

I am reminded of when, in the 1960s, my own generation did a much more thoroughgoing job of Mallruining during various attempts to end war, expand cosmic consciousness, crush capitalist-pig imperialism, meet girls, and score pot. I can't help wondering when we will get our own monument. Technically, I suppose, the Vietnam Memorial counts. Vietnam veterans were for the most part born in the same years as my friends and I. But those were the kids who when somebody yelled "Get a haircut!" got a haircut—or, anyway, the Army gave them one free. What about my part of my generation? What about the Veterans of Domestic Disorders? I know Vietnam was a tough and terrifying experience. But you should have seen the fights around the dinner table at my house. Dad went ballistic when he discovered that I'd joined a commune that was living in the basement rec room. And when the cops broke out the tear gas at the anti-war demon-strations, my friends and I had to tap reserves of strength and will that we didn't know we possessed, to run away as fast as we did.

We cared. My generation of Americans was the first to really care about racism and sexism, not to mention the I Ching, plus, of course, the earth. "It's important to preserve the earth's resources," I remember saying to Windflower, a pert blonde. "You and I will have to double up in the shower to get this tear gas off." Also, we were committed. I recall several people whose families had them committed to McLean.

We changed the world. Life has never been the same since that "youthquake" of forty years ago. Think of all the things we wouldn't have if not for the uninhibited freedom and creativity of the 1960s: Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream, Narcotics Anonymous twenty-four-hour help lines, Cher, the Volks-wagen New Beetle, comedians who use the word "bullshit" on network TV (after 10:00 P.M.), cats named Chairman Meow, retro sixties clothing fashions, retro sixties hairstyles, retro sixties music fads, herpes.

As a generation, perhaps we weren't the "greatest," but we certainly were the greatest surprise, when we returned from college drenched in patchouli oil, spouting Karl Marx, and wearing clown pants and braids in our beards. Members of the Greatest Generation pride themselves on all the tribulations they survived, but many of them never got over that one. Mercifully, most members of my generation did. It's been said that we never had to make sacrifices. Not true. Lots of us are awake by nine o'clock in the morning and have jobs.

We got married, had families, straightened out, got married again, had more families, straightened out (really). There can be no greater sacrifice than that a man lay down his lifestyle for others. And—"we are all one"—for himself, too, once he figures out that golf is more fun than hacky sack and decides he wants a Lexus. But that doesn't mean I won't pay fifty cents a cup extra to make sure that my coffee has been organically grown, and harvested in a way that does not cause political or economic exploitation.

My wife, a member of Generation X (and I'm betting that their monument will consist of a plastic sweater box from Target with a Brady Bunch tape inside), thinks the sixties memorial should be something that would allow members of my generation to contemplate the driving force behind the era. She suggests a mirror. I'd like it to be slightly concave, to produce an image that is slimming. My uncle Mike (Marine Corps, Iwo) proposes an enormous excavation with a donkey in it, although he puts that in somewhat different words. But the donkey might be misconstrued—many Veterans of Domestic Disorders being, these days, Republicans.

A competition should be opened, with invitations extended to the most talented architects and artists born from 1946 to 1964. (No burnouts who live in yurts or belong to crafts collectives, please.) I trust that this competition will produce something with dignity, grandeur, and a place to stash a roach if the Park Police come nosing around.

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke is an Atlantic correspondent.

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