The woman who sat next to me during a recent Greyhound trip was a working class widow returning to Michigan from San Antonio, Texas, where she had traveled to attend her grandson's Air Force Academy graduation. She wore a sweatshirt that read "Air Force Grandma" in star-spangled lettering, and she clutched a cowboy hat, a parting gift from him.
I told her that I was an Air Force sister-in-law. When I asked why her grandson had chosen the military, she hesitated a moment and said, "He's a good kid. His father pushed him to do it because he was 22 and he didn't have a plan."
Some enlist in the military because it is a plan they have had for a while. But most enlist because, like my seatmate's grandson, they don't have a clear direction in life or there is trouble with the direction they've taken. A well-timed pitch from a recruiter seems to provide the answers. In the United States, where great value is placed on opportunity and personal freedom of choice, how is it that young adults feel their options in life are so limited, and why would they gravitate to an institution that suppresses their own individuality?
Teachers, parents and counselors work overtime to steer high school students toward promising futures, but real obstacles exist. College tuition rises as money for grants dwindles. Costs of living go up while living wages become less attainable. More college students juggle work, school and family responsibilities, lengthening the time they take to earn degrees. Federally funded programs that help guide high school students toward colleges and careers are facing elimination by the Bush administration.
Investing in war means less money is available to educate young people when, at the same time, more funds are allocated to transform young people into soldiers. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, the government is now spending approximately $16,000 per recruit just to recruit them. One hand of the government takes away options for young people while the other hand pushes them in the direction of the armed forces. It's a deadly maneuver.
I'd like to place all the blame on the Bush administration for maintaining this insatiable war machine that eats our young. But I think we all share responsibility. If we pay income taxes, recruiters are on our payroll. I have heard the same good-hearted school counselors, teachers and parents who are passionate about college also say that there are "some" kids who would be "better off in the military." Maybe there is a behavior problem, and they think more discipline would help. Or they think some kids "just aren't college material." Being a soldier seems a better risk than "a life on the streets."
Even students express similar sentiments. In an opinion survey of local public high schools in which students are asked to write down what they think about the Iraq war, recruitment in their schools and the possibility of a draft, the most frequent combination of views is reflected by this student's response: "The war is crap because we're fighting for nothing. The military recruiting is good because the people who want to fight for our country can. The draft is, well, it sucks."
Why is it O.K. for "some" kids to "choose" to be soldiers while others of us transfer our share of the risk onto their shoulders? Why is it O.K. to transfer the risk to any kids at all?
Near the end of my Greyhound trip, my seatmate quietly confided that the most difficult moment during her San Antonio visit had been hearing her son tell her grandson as they parted company, "Just keep on walking. Don't look back," and watching as the young man squared his shoulders and followed his father's orders.
We have a propensity in this country, and surely our current administration does, to keep our eyes on the future. Perhaps it's a brave and rather hopeful outlook, but it makes us disinclined to understand ourselves, our history and what we could learn from our mistakes. We also have a fondness for gambling, which is another way of ignoring the past in favor of unlimited if unrealistic possibilities of the future.
The Air Force Grandma and I both are gambling that our loved ones will not die in war. If we look at our gamble collectively, however, there are no odds in our favor. If we are really a human family and a global village, we know that our loved ones include Iraqis, Afghans and every soldier we send into battle.
A recent NY Times article on military recruitment described the guilt consuming one Army recruiter who had learned that 3 soldiers recruited by his station, one by him personally, had been killed in combat. He wondered if he would be considered responsible for their deaths.
We all recruited those young men. How could we have forgotten that children are our only future?
Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and is an associate member of Veterans for Peace in Austin, Texas. Her columns have been published in the Austin American-Statesman and Common Dreams. She can be reached: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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