Tuesday, July 1, 2003

Proud to be young Americans

Patriotism: Perceptions have changed since terrorist attacks

By Derrick DePledge
Gannett News Service

WOMELSDORF, Pa. - Tiffany Bevan was at her desk, waiting for the telephone to ring. Terrorists had just crashed hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but she kept thinking about the strange silence around her.

"The next day, our phones just blew up," recalled Bevan, 21, a commercial customer service representative at Valley Forge Flag Co.

Everyone wanted an American flag. "I started wondering why they weren't flying flags before," Bevan said. "I felt like everything was sort of hitting home for me."

Trauma, like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has a way of bringing out emotional extremes. The raw brand of flag-waving, chest-thumping, America-love-it-or-leave-it patriotism has been on vivid display in the United States since the attacks and the wars with Afghanistan and Iraq. But a deeper shift in attitude also seems to be taking place.

Young people, often derided as cynical or indifferent, appear to have growing confidence in government, the military and other public institutions, research suggests. While patriotism, like faith or love, is impossible to measure in degrees, many young people feel that their perceptions about the country have changed.

People between 18 and 30 had a significant role in protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the demonstrations drew a diverse cross section and never developed, like anti-war protests during the Vietnam era, into a broader social movement that challenged political and cultural norms.

"This country was born out of struggle and people fighting for their beliefs even when their beliefs were in the minority," said Matthew Leber, 28, director of the Nashville Peace and Justice Center. "For me, it's my patriotic duty to speak out against our own government because of my love for this country. So when I am against the war, I am still in support of our troops because I support a government that seeks justice through peace."

The all-volunteer military may contribute to a more benign view among young people regarding the armed forces and the government's decision to wage war. Young people are not expected to serve their country as they were during World War II and Vietnam. Without firsthand experience, many young people get their impressions about the military and civic duty from movies, television and the news media.

The Pentagon, aware that such a disconnect could hurt recruiting, is sponsoring an advertising campaign this summer with veterans explaining how the values they learned in the military have helped them in civilian life.

Still, public opinion polls and other research indicates that young people have a generally favorable attitude toward the military and other public institutions:

• A poll of college undergraduates taken for Harvard University's Institute of Politics in April found that students supported the war in Iraq by a 2 to 1 margin.

• An annual survey of incoming freshman undergraduates by the University of California at Los Angeles found that a record 45 percent agreed "somewhat" or "strongly" that military spending should be increased, more than twice the level of support compared with students in 1993.

• A CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll in June found that people between 18 and 49 had higher confidence than Americans over 50 in most major public institutions, although they had slightly less confidence in the military and the police than older Americans.

"There has been a surge in patriotic sentiment among young people," said William Galston, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland.

But Galston and other researchers have not detected a corresponding increase among young people in voting, decisions to join the military or civic activism. Volunteer levels among young people remain high, researchers have found, but many young people still see acts like voting as a choice rather than a duty.

"They think you can be a citizen by watching and applauding other people doing public work," Galston said.

Maybe time has softened her feelings, but Jeanette Law, 63, a sewing machine operator at Valley Forge Flag Co., said the Sept. 11 attacks had a much stronger impact on her than World War II or Vietnam.

"I just knew my father wasn't home," Law said of World War II, when her father was in the military. "But September 11 was devastating as far as anything goes. You wonder what the next generation will be like."

Janelle Kurtz, 26, who works in packing at Valley Forge, said she thought more about the meaning of sacrifice after watching families deal with children in the military who were sent off to Iraq.

"I supported the United States," Kurtz said.

Kurtz also said she understood the complaints of the anti-war protesters, especially the calls for a greater focus on domestic problems like the need to create more jobs and improve access to affordable health care.

"Everything is overshadowed by war," Kurtz said. "I thought President Bush would do more for young people by promoting more jobs. But it's just all about war."

Bevan, the 21-year-old customer service representative, has sort of surprised herself. She has a photo of the large American flag Valley Forge donated to ground zero in New York at her desk. She has determined that, unlike her parents, she is a Republican. She definitely intends to vote. She feels proud to be an American.

Outwardly, her life is not that much different than it was that September day at her desk a few years ago. But something inside her has changed.

"I think I became a little bit more aware," Bevan said. "I don't think we'll ever be back to normal."

Young patriots

Reporters at Gannett newspapers around the country asked young people in their areas to talk about what patriotism means to them. Here's a sampling of their responses:

"Patriotism to me is being faithful to your country. I think it died out for a while, but it came back with 9-11. I think now we're more patriotic because of that." - Joey Aycox, 18, Morristown, N.J.

"September 11 brought America together as a whole because we realize we're vulnerable. I think it made us have more distrust of other countries." - Kevin Lau, 19, Honolulu, Hawaii

"I'm proud to be an American because of all of the rights that we have. But I think Americans tend to take their patriotism too far. I don't see other countries really absorbed as much as America is." - Morgan Klarich, 18, Wausau, Wis.

"Being proud of my country and of my heritage as an African-American. When I was younger, my grandparents didn't consider the United States a great place to live because of race issues, but now that some of those attitudes and laws have changed, we are one nation under God." - Camille Bridges, 24, Muncie, Ind.

"Everybody should serve their county in one way or another, whether it's military service or volunteering in your community. I think people have a more open mind about freedom and what it means to be patriotic these days. I think we're more willing to serve our country in different ways." -Travis Wheeler, 20, Springfield, Mo.

"I was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. Being patriotic, to me, is basically trying to live the life that this country promises, living the dream life, to try and do the best you can economically while knowing your roots and where you came from. You try to assimilate but remember at the same time. I have had a lot more opportunities than my parents did, so I think we understand patriotism differently." - Octavio Vargas, 22, Salinas, Calif.

"Patriotism means, to me, loving your country. Since my parents came from Cambodia, freedom means to them a lot more than what it means to me. To me, freedom of education is very important." - Linda Van, 17, Olympia, Wash.

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