The Desolate Generation

Influence of the Beat Generation:
The Desolate Generation

    The Beat Generation was a short-lived, but all encompassing generation.  Their vision and voice have spread throughout history, opening up in pockets of progressive culture, and inspiring movements that’s effects are as relevant to the culture as the Beats themselves were.  They were a frayed youth settled in America during a turbulent era.  Human rights were changing in leaps and bounds; we had passed through two World Wars, and were also involved in the Korean War when their writing and experiences with life were developing.  They were also active through more war later on in their careers.  Because of their sentiment and questioning of authority they have been a valuable source of inspiration, and a guide to changing the way people think for modern day veterans.  The veterans I speak of are modern Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, mainly those who oppose the war, speak their minds, and incite change in American policy.  I will call this group the Desolate Generation.  It started in America with the Lost Generation and writers like Ernest Hemingway, on to the Beats, and now settling in veterans of modern combat. As the world changes, and wars shift, as the enemy is unknown, and the ideals of a nation are blurred, those who have fought and seen the disgusting reality of war, and the inner workings of government, hold onto the same ideas and influences of the Beats.

    des·o·late \ˈde-sə-lət, ˈde-zə-\, adj.
    1: devoid of inhabitants and visitors: deserted
    2: joyless, disconsolate, and sorrowful through or as if through separation from a     loved one
    3 a: showing the effects of abandonment and neglect: dilapidated
b: barren, lifeless c: devoid of warmth, comfort,     or hope: gloomy
    synonyms; see alone, dismal (Merriam Webster Online)

    This generation is riding on the currents of GenX and GenY.  Two generations that are preoccupied with pop culture.  These generations also saw the steepest declines in voter turnout since the 1920’s.  (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php)  I chose the word desolate because to me it defines what this generation consists of.  Upon returning the modern soldier is sent back to a normal life and finds it very difficult to cope with the reality of modern capitalist society.  Much like the beats, they burn off their frustrations through writing, talking, and more often through self-medication and drinking. “Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself, and asks nothing beyond itself.  Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.” (Marcus Aurelius, Mediations (2nd C.), 4.20, TR. Maxwell Staniforth)  Now juxtapose the word beautiful with ugly, and beauty with ugliness.  War is ugly.  The “Support Our Troops” mentality of suburban America is a factor that is good for the returning troops in some ways, but in others it emphasizes the importance of this quote.  These bumper stickers and ribbons grow stale, and for troops returning from multiple tours it only shows the shiny outside and hollow interiors of American society.  As we see low voter turn-out rates, it’s a rational thing to be upset at how little people know of the war, yet how much they think they know.  The war is in movies and on television, giving the public a sense of control, and this makes coming back from the experience a difficult one.  It gives a feeling of desolation and neglect to those who have seen and want these conflicts to end.
    “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”  Allen Ginsberg said this profound statement that is truer now than ever in American history.  I refer more to news media, mass media, and changing technology when I say this.  In the bustling American world, where people sit in coffee shops and don’t talk, staring at computer screens, and families sit in front of television screens in every room of the house, they are fed little sound bytes, and advertisement that pounds the subconscious to the core.  I see Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums strolling down the street, seeing those families, and saddened by the state of his people. “...colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets is each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness...” (Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums)  Without that fire, that experience Jack never could have written such profound, and simple things that ring true today.  The members of the Desolate Generation have more in common with the beats because they have that fire of experience, that exhilaration, and trauma which fuels them as people to go against the grains of society, to take the streets and yell, to fight for a better world, a more equal world with less violence, and greater understanding of culture and fear.
    These bands of desolate veterans in the modern world find each other, and outlets through various projects throughout the country.  Iraq Veterans Against the War is an organization driven to end the war and to help treat veterans dealing with trauma through writing and talking about experience, and how each of us does it differently.  There is also the Vet Art Project, which helps treat soldiers, and family members through art therapy, while getting veterans involved with members of the community to create a more diverse and educated public.  The only problem with these groups is that they are shadowed by media, and a docile society, who is not picking up on what is going on in their world.  These are the same battles that the Beats had to go through, along with the filmmakers that they influenced.  John Cassavetes broke out of mainstream film to make Shadows, and challenged the industry he worked for.   Without contributions like his the culture might still be stuck in a completely dominated entertainment industry.  This industry is instrumental in confronting the public with issues, such as war, poverty, and government abuse.  The Desolate Generation is learning to take the tools back from the corporations, and build on independent ideas such as Cassavetes.
     Like the Beats, the Desolate Generation challenges the American Dream.  They ask people to do something, and start by doing it first.  This most likely stems from the slacker generation of the nineties.  Where material things lost their influence, or at least a large group of kids lost interest in obtaining these material objects through a system offering little and asking for a lot.  It was a generation where kids didn’t want to end up like their parents, ground down by a nine to five job, living in a country of divorce, where most marital arguments are over money.  Those that joined the military, looking for escape, experience, and a jump-start at providing for themselves in a way that proves some kind of deeper worth to themselves.  Yet, the policies of the US government have created dissent and a richer distaste with corporate America, which seems to run the government, and the media. (http://projects.publicintegrity.org/wow/resources.aspx?act=contrib) It only takes a few seconds to find campaign contributions from war profiteers.  It takes a trip to the Middle East, and a talk with a Halliburton employee to see that they are paid five times as much as a soldier, to do less, and to be the support system, for a military designed to support itself.  This is one small area of abuse of power and conflict of interests that soldiers become aware of as they progress through their career. (http://www.rense.com/general46/hal.html)  War Profit Litany is a poem by Allen Ginsberg, about war profiteering during the Vietnam War, and retains its stance as much in these wars as it did in that one.
    William S. Burroughs had an honest idea when he said, “Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts.”  This is a possible explanation of the disinterest of the public, or rather the inability to change the aforementioned problems with capitalism and government.  It is possible people fear knowing too much because it becomes disheartening, and creates feelings of paranoia.  People also have their own agendas and causes, which they follow, while many follow none.  Many have lost all touch with any kind of spirituality, or morality beyond those advertised, and those nostalgic, attached to memory fading in and out of life through whims and pleasures.  The Beats searched for answers, like a sick man seeks a cure, just as the Desolate Generation searches for answers and the cure. 
    This brings me to some thoughts on the after effects of war.  Though not a Beat author, Kurt Vonnegut has many themes, which seem beatesque, and he also served in a major US war.  After watching the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war, in his compilation of works Armageddon in Retrospect, he says that he would have given his life to save the beautiful city of Dresden.  The guilt of a man does not seem to translate into American society at the time.  I recently interviewed a group of World War II veterans about war and the after effects.  The general answer for the question, “ How did you feel after the war?” was that they felt good.  Granted, these men and women ended a war, but there has to be a moment where we should think of the mass destruction of culture and large-scale loss of civilian life.  After two atomic bombs America had Japan on it’s knees, but two beautiful cities were demolished, and poisoned for years. “Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs met, became friends, and set up housekeeping together in New York City the year before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Their religious visions were conceived in its shadow and born out of their shared affinities.”  (John Lardas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001) It is possible that the Beats were affected by not only the fear and paranoia of a post-atomic bomb America, but rolling off of the karmatic effects of destructive action. “This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games.”  This quote from Burroughs is another example of growing dissent toward a society lacking communication and ability to change its natural ways.  It also comes back to the slacker generation of video game absorbed youth, growing more obese and non-committal toward life.  Where the Beat Generation and the Desolate Generation were and are driven to use communication as a leveling tool. 
    In Hemingway’s short story A Soldiers Home, he tells the story of a War Veteran named Krebs.  Krebs returns home after the war and is disassociated from society, unable to tell his story because it has been heard too many times already, because he comes home from the war after it is over.  The people have celebrated, and most soldiers had made it home already.  Krebs gets hassled by his parents to get a job, and to find a girl to settle down with.  Krebs is not interested in any American girls, he notices trends but seems very indifferent to everything.  He loses touch with society and has no outlet.  This is likely an account of Hemingway’s own experience, and was no doubt something read by the Beats, and seen as an accurate depiction of those outcasts of society, giving them the understanding of this outsider view.  The cycle is only continuing with today’s vets and Beat followers. 
    “…who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating
Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,” Ginsberg says in Howl.  It seems that he not only talks about the government contributing to Columbia University (where he, Kerouac, and Burroughs met), to work on the splitting of the Atom, but also of the lack of support for open expression, and societies fear of obscenity.  This irony parallels that of modern war dissenters.   You cannot force people to have open ears and open minds, Ginsberg knew that, and that you cannot change a system from the inside easily.  This is the plight of the Desolation Generation.  Though they are the seers and sayers, the eyes of the front, the hands pounding the hammer of democracy night and day, they only find voice inside the system when it is beneficial for the ruling groups.  The corporations and politicians use veterans for their pandering of goods, and political pamphlets.  Shaking hands and smiling faces are a façade.  The Veterans Administration is basically a bureau, which Burroughs so eloquently speaks of in Naked Lunch by saying, “Democracy is cancerous, and bureaus are its cancer.”  The VA is a government agency created only from the outcries of the lost generation, seeking retribution for being sent to war, and lost afterwards.  In the modern society the VA is falling apart.  Not only have they gotten in trouble for infecting vets with the HIV virus by cutting costs and reusing dialysis catheters, misdiagnosing and under-diagnosing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but also of shredding patient’s medical records and claim forms.  (http://cujo359.blogspot.com/2008/04/va-caught-witholding-information.html)  This is detrimental to the wellbeing and trust of the Desolate Generation, and a sad fact that few people realize. 
    To come back to the “Support Our Troops” mentality and falsehoods, the Desolate Generation is quite desolate, dejected, forgotten, and neglected.  This desolate landscape is similar to that which the Beat Generation must have faced during draft times, and the Vietnam War, where veterans were being called baby-killers and spit on in the streets.  The mentality of the veteran is complex and full of torment, ready to be released.  Ready to stand and expose society, in its crevices and forgotten spaces.  To shed light on the forgotten people, as the Beats did years before.  By turning pop-culture on it’s head.  By attacking people in their living room with strange ideas, music, and also making themselves targets for ridicule, which they rode out from as victors.
    In conclusion I believe the Desolate Generation is one built on the foundations of the Lost Generation and the Beat Generation.  It also grows roots out from GenX and GenY, and the modern media generation.  The fire that it takes to make change, make art, and challenge the norms and dreams of a society removed from its government’s actions.  These generations have found ways to put the ugly, the tired, and the offbeat right in the faces of Americans, and the world.


  1. Wow wonderful, powerful post Matty. So many things I agree with. I guess it comes from knowing and supporting troops in the war zones and hearing and knowing about everything they are feeling, seeing and trying to deal with their psyche.
    ‘War is bad in that it begets more evil than it kills.'
    I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity. How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?

  2. thanks wendie, sorry for the lengthiness of the post