When Darrell Anderson, 22, joined the US military he knew there was going to be a war, and he wanted to fight it. “I thought I was going to free Iraqi people,” he told me. “I thought I was going to do a good thing.”
Until, that is, he realised precisely what he had to do. While on patrol in Baghdad, he thought: “What are we doing here? Are we looking for weapons of mass destruction? No. Are we helping the people? No, they hate us. What are we working towards, apart from just staying alive? If this was my neighbourhood and foreign soldiers were doing this then what would I be doing?” Within a few months, he says, “I was cocking my weapon at innocent civilians without any sympathy or humanity”. While home on leave he realised he was not going to be able to lead a normal life if he went back. His mum drove him to Canada, where I met him in 2006 at a picnic for war resisters in Fort Erie.
Anderson’s trajectory, from uncritical patriotism to conscious disaffection and finally to conscientious dissent, is a familiar one among a generation of Americans who came of political age after 9/11. Over time, efforts to balance the myth of American freedom on which they were raised, with the reality of American power that they have been called on to monitor or operate, causes a profound dislocation in their world view. Like a meat eater in an abattoir, they are forced to confront the brutality of the world they are implicated in and recoil at their role in it — occasionally in dramatic fashion.
It is from this generation that the most recent prominent whistleblowers have emerged: Edward Snowden, 29, the former National Security Agency contractor, now on the run after passing evidence of mass snooping to the Guardian; Bradley Manning, who at 22 gave classified diplomatic and military information to WikiLeaks and now faces a court martial; the late Aaron Swartz, who by 24 was a veteran hacker when he was arrested for illegally downloading academic articles from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later took his own life; and Jeremy Hammond, 28, who is facing federal criminal charges for allegedly publicising the internal files of a private spying agency.
Just as America’s military record abroad, complete with torture and “collateral damage”, has helped push a section of disaffected Muslim youth across the globe towards terrorism, so the violation of civil liberties and privatisation of information has driven a number of disillusioned Americans to law-breaking dissent at home.
In a 2008 book, The Way We’ll Be, US pollster John Zogby categorised this age cohort as First Globals. Tracking everything from views on gay marriage to propensity to travel, he described young Americans aged 18-29 as “the most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history”. Unfazed by social diversity at home, they held more open attitudes towards the rest of the world. They were far more likely to travel abroad than others, have friends or family overseas, and to be aware of international politics. “[They] might not be more able than other age cohorts to point to Darfur on a map,” argued Zogby, “but they at least know there is a Darfur, and they care what’s happening there.”
The perpetual war and accompanying “anti-terror” security structure after 9/11 is all this generation has ever known. And it has had a profound impact on shaping their views on US foreign policy.
In 2007, 63% (significantly higher than any other age group) disagreed with the statement “I support my country, right or wrong”. In 2004, 86% thought “an imperialist power that acts on its own regardless of what the rest of the world thinks” was improper or somewhat improper, while just 3% thought the opposite. On the latter question, Zogby wrote: “No other group we studied, not Democrats nor self-described progressives, not readers of the New York Times, had a greater spread between the two extremes.” It is in this context that the defiance and determination of these young people must be understood.
This article originally appeared on: AlterNet