In Florida, awhile back, Senator John McCain said, "I'm sorry to tell you, my friends, but there will be other wars."
Who's supposed to fight in these wars? Not our current military, which is stretched to the limit. Not me or my generation; we're still busy fighting over the Vietnam War and the domestic cultural shifts that arose because of that bloody conflict. We've been doing that for 40 years now, partly because of the disrespect directed toward the soldiers who were sacrificed by the "Greatest Generation" for dubious causes and because of the fight over what determines "patriotism" when you find your country is engaged in an immoral conflict. American participation in Vietnam ended in 1973 but not before 58,000 men, average age 19, perished.
The terrible costs of Vietnam were never resolved at home. We decided it was better not to talk about such unpleasantness and went on a decade-long disco and cocaine bender instead.
I swore that when I grew older, I would never say, "When I was your age ..." to a young person. But I will anyway. When I was your age, we were at war. A despised president put us there. Then an attractive candidate emerged who was adored by the young. He was a champion of the destitute and the downtrodden. Bobby Kennedy promised to end the war and bring our soldiers home in order to concentrate on the growing domestic unrest exploding in every major city. The similarities between 1968 and 2008 are striking, with two exceptions: 1) The draft was feeding my peers who weren't able to take refuge in college into a meat grinder; 2) the voting age was 21. Despite being only 20, I had been drafted and was emotionally invested in Kennedy's candidacy. You can imagine how crushed we were when he was murdered in Los Angeles.
Deeply dispirited, my generation chose to withdraw from politics, ensuring the election of Richard Nixon, five more years of war, and 20,000 more dead American soldiers.
There are a lot of "what ifs" in this life. Young people voting in large numbers then could have literally saved lives. My generation, which once believed we were going to transform the world, blew it — big-time. Nixon's bag of "dirty tricks" soon turned people cynical about their government, and "wedge politics" were used for the first time — and they worked. We have been divided ever since. You can help change that now, if you remember two things: Assume nothing — this race is far from over — and do not discount the importance of your actions. Go to the polls as if your single vote were going to determine the outcome and bring a friend with you.
You've seen the best and the worst of my generation. We gave you Bill Clinton, a brilliant policy thinker and communicator who couldn't keep his pecker in his pants. Then we gave you George W. Bush, a moral absolutist and former drunk who took this country to war because his Nixon-worshipping neocon staff convinced him that it was the Lord's will. To paraphrase JFK, it's time to pass the damn torch already. We have lived too long with prejudices that the young have never had to experience, and it clouds our thinking. Can you imagine that I never sat in a classroom with a non-white person until college? We desperately need to alter our nation's course, but I wonder if the young are aware of the potential political clout that they possess. Being too young to vote in 1968 — when my ass was personally on the line — changed me. I am one of the laziest men walking (it took me 28 years to complete my bachelor's degree), but I have never missed voting in a single election since. Now, it's your future that's at stake.
It's this simple: If young people come out in numbers and vote, Obama will win. If they don't, he won't. And history is not on your side. Young people might have saved us from a second Bush term, but registering on campus is not the same as going to the voting booth. In every election since Nixon, young voters have disappointed those candidates who depended on them. Just ask Al Gore. If you don't know where your polling place is, you can call or Google your local Election Commission. Don't wear your campaign gear or some zealot will make you turn your T-shirt inside out. And bring an ID and prepare to do battle with those who would challenge your rights. You have the power to decide this election, and if we do it right this time, you also have the ability to recapture a lot of forgotten dreams. If I could, I would come and beg each of you individually — please vote.
Randy Haspel writes a blog, "Born Again Hippies," where this column first appeared.