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 realized 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 neighborhood and foreign soldiers were doing this, then what would I be doing?”
Within a few months, “I was cocking my weapon at innocent civilians without any sympathy or humanity,” he says.
While home on leave he realized he was not going to be able to lead a normal life if he went back. His mom 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 who came of political age after Sept. 11, 2001.
Over time, efforts to balance the myth of US freedom on which they were raised with the reality of US power that they have been called on to monitor or operate causes a 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 whistle-blowers have emerged: Edward Snowden, 29, the former US 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later took his own life; and Jeremy Hammond, 28, who is facing federal criminal charges for allegedly publicizing the internal files of a private spying agency.
Just as the US’ military record abroad, complete with torture and “collateral damage,” has helped push a section of disaffected Muslim youth across the globe toward terrorism, so the violation of civil liberties and privatization of information has driven a number of disillusioned US citizens to law-breaking dissent at home.
In a 2008 book, The Way We’ll Be, US pollster John Zogby categorized this age cohort as First Globals. Tracking everything from views on gay marriage to propensity to travel, he described young US citizens aged 18 to 29 as “the most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history.”
Unfazed by social diversity at home, they held more open attitudes toward the rest of the world. They were far more likely to travel abroad than others, have friends or family overseas and be aware of international politics.
“[They] might not be more able than other age cohorts to point to Darfur on a map, but they at least know there is a Darfur and they care what’s happening there,” Zogby said.
The perpetual war and accompanying “anti-terror” security structure after Sept. 11, 2001, is all this generation has ever known. It has had a profound impact on shaping their views on US foreign policy.