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How 9/11 has shaped a generation of Americans

The terrorist attacks have become this generation's Pearl Harbor – an epic event that has changed young peoples' view of the world and America's place in it.

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This trend has only intensified in the years since. The 9/11 generation is indeed patriotic, or at least defines itself as such, according to polls. But theirs is not the patriotism of the baby boomers, or even the World War II Silent Generation.

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They turned out in large numbers to celebrate in the streets on the night President Obama announced that US Special Forces had caught and killed Mr. bin Laden. Fifty-three percent of them agree with the statement "America is one of the greatest nations in the world," according to a Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year.

At the same time, they are not believers in "exceptionalism" – the notion that the US is No. 1, period. Only 27 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 agree that "America stands above all others," according to the same Pew survey. That's by far the lowest such percentage of any age group.

Historian and demographer Neil Howe, in a 2009 study of Millennial political attitudes, concluded that Millennials are wary of too much idealism when it comes to the nation's international role.

"Like older liberals, they believe that diplomacy and multilateralism are generally the best means to keep America strong and safe. Like older conservatives, they don't hesitate to use force when needed and support military service with patriotic enthusiasm," wrote Mr. Howe and coauthor Renee Nadler in the 2009 study.

Most of them have not served in the military themselves. In the days of the draft, Army (or Navy or Air Force) experience was widespread among young people. With the advent of the all-volunteer force, it has become concentrated in a smaller slice of the population.

But Millennials dominate the ranks of today's armed services. Over the past 10 years, some 5 million young people have worn their country's uniform, noted Mr. Obama in an Aug. 30 speech to the American Legion national convention.

This military 9/11 generation has paid a heavy price, deploying again and again to Iraq and Afghanistan, said Obama. Trained to fight, they've been forced by circumstances to become ad hoc diplomats, mayors, and development experts.

"Young captains, sergeants, lieutenants, they've assumed responsibilities reserved for more senior commanders and remind us that in an era when so many other institutions have shirked their obligations, the men and women of the United States military welcome responsibility," said Obama.

Raised in the era of the Internet and the iPhone, they've also adapted new technologies to the battlefield.

That's certainly the case with Isaac Miguel. Marine Sgt. Miguel is a tactical data network operator. He's set up videoconference equipment in Iraq and done computer-network security for forward bases in Afghanistan. He helps provide information capabilities that are unsurprising to Millennials – but a revelation to some in the top Marine ranks.

"There are a lot of older operators for whom anything we put out is new to them," says Miguel.

This generational disconnect can have effects on both sides of the age divide, of course. One day an older sergeant major told Miguel he'd served as a teletype operator. Miguel had to look that up to see what it meant.

"I had to keep myself from laughing," he says.

Miguel joined the corps in full knowledge that he would be sent overseas to a hot war. That's what marines do. That's what he wanted to do.

Miguel arrived in Iraq on the day of his first anniversary in the military. At the time, he was 19 years old. He was there for seven months, working out of Camp Fallujah and Al Asad Airbase, with an occasional trip to a combat outpost.

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