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death.jpgThis book will change the way you think about national security and America's future.  Here is my book review published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Naval War College Review.  


Diana West, The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization  (St. Martin's Press, 2007).   


“Stop - before you hurt yourself!  Why?  Because I said so.”  A common diktat from a caring parent to child, about setting limits on behavior.  The historic role of grown-ups has been to nurture, protect, and teach fledglings about self-destructive behavior when they are too young to know otherwise.  Because as parents, we recognize what happens to rambunctious youngsters when adult supervision is absent.  Moreover, sometimes adults must remain in an adolescent’s life as they move into teen-age years and beyond - if only to provide occasional snippets of wisdom or afford a shoulder to cry on.  So how, then, is raising children the unifying theme of a book about the decline of western civilization? 

            The answer, as Diana West argues convincingly, is a direct correlation between decades of moribund moral norms, owing to vanishing societal maturity, and America’s inability to grasp the seriousness of emerging global dangers.  Like a child that keeps playing, unwilling to obey the call for bedtime, America is simply not paying attention to a world of growing challenges.  And worse yet, the author contends, there are no adults around to take away the toys.

            Of course West, an esteemed syndicated columnist and writer, is not the first to observe the decline of adult influence or the erosion of individual responsibility.  Nor is she original to excoriate society and lament the erosion of the nuclear family.  Nonetheless, West's meticulous assemblage of tangible evidence, superb research, insightful analysis, and application of theory to national security issues, make this book indeed extraordinary.

            According to West, the gradual "death of the grown-up" began not with the revolutionary 1960's.  Rather, directly following WWII, business visionaries saw the exploding generation of youth as future consumers with unparalleled financial potential.  Throughout the 1950's, the magic of the anti-adult was personified, according to West, by the likes of music's Elvis Presley, fiction's Holden Caulfield, and movie's James Dean.  It was fed by postwar consumerism and entertainment focused so exclusively on adolescents, that adult influence rapidly declined.  West quips that by 1960, "American culture was no longer being driven by the adult behind the wheel; it was being taken for a ride by the kids in the back seat." 

            Indeed, West offers a point of view echoed by other thinkers of "second thoughts" that the entire anti-war movement of the 1960's was less a concern about American foreign aggression as it was merely self-interest in avoiding military service.  Evidence the 1970 campus violence that forced me to carry an Army ROTC uniform in a paper bag.  One year later, the draft lottery quelled most opposition from college-aged adolescents who, like children, no longer “had to do” what they didn’t like.  The consequences of national immaturity became clear when a Huey helicopter lifted off from a besieged Saigon rooftop in 1975.  But by then, Americans were distracted by "Jaws" and dancing to "You Sexy Thing."  Jimmy Carter made good on his campaign promise to grant draft-dodgers amnesty in 1977, revealing that adult responsibility was dead in the White House as well.

            In a chapter called, "Parents Who Need Parents," West explores 1950's youth who became the grown-ups of the 70's and 80's.  Traditional concepts such as innocence and virtue, gave way to exposure and moral relativism in the absence of elders' mature influence.  Citing philosophers and using examples from modern educational theory, the author maintains that Americans learned to reflexively suspend judgment, embrace tolerance without limits, support openness and acceptance on every level.  These became the highest possible attributes of a postmodern Westerner.  In the end, "five or six decades of nonjudgementalism and multiculturalism took their toll on education and knowledge" as well as national self-esteem and cultural identity. 

            Remaining adolescently ignorant as they aimed to understand "the other," American's lost a sense of themselves.  Who they were?  Where they came from?  What they believed and why?  It therefore follows as no surprise, according to the author, that, when faced with terrorism on a global scale, America declared war on a tactic instead of the people and culture who use it.  Our biggest handicap, according to West, "a perilous lack of cultural confidence….our renunciation of cultural paternity (which is) a natural consequence of believing in our own illegitimacy." 

            A snapshot of popular news headlines suggests West is correct.  Frightened of and ignorant about Islam, Americans, 63% of whom National Geographic says can't find Iraq on a world map, are like kids without adults to advise them.  So they blissfully amuse themselves with self-absorbing distractions such as Hollywood drama, reality television, and who gets voted off the island.  Meanwhile, modern-day religious fascists plot their destruction.

            This book is intense, no-nonsense, challenging, and clearly written with emotional passion reflecting parental-like frustration with a child who "simply won't listen."  Since most readers, and the author herself, are products of post-WWII parents; you may become uneasy, as I did, when West's rapier finger pushes a personal button.  However, this is a must-read book since eventually, violent extremism will force America to shake off decades of immature adolescent behavior, reject self-absorption, return to traditional values, question the notion that good and evil are relative, face fears that must be conquered, and grow up.  As West aptly concludes, "a civilization that forever dodges maturity will never live to a ripe old age."


     Jeffrey H. Norwitz, Professor

     United States Naval War College