Columns » Boomer with Attitude

Out of the Nest

... and into the fire

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My daughter will graduate from high school on Monday. Recently, the Army called for at least the third time, trying to recruit her. Both of these things make me uneasy. I'm not worried about my daughter going off to college. She's very bright, has multiple talents and will be well-prepared to make her mark in the world. What I'm uneasy about is the state of that world a few years from now, when she's ready to jump in, and how it will impact her future and that of her entire generation. That's where the Army calling our house comes in.

In a way, I shouldn't be concerned about the calls, since there's no chance my daughter will enlist and join the bloodbath in Iraq. What worries me is what those calls reveal, like a veil being lifted, about the world our so-called leaders are creating.

The Army got my daughter's phone number from CMS. High school seniors' contact information has to be handed over to the military now -- one of the more under-publicized aspects of Bush's No Child Left Un-recruited, um, Behind program. In other words, under Bush, schools are obligated, under threat of losing federal funding, to treat their students -- our children -- as potential cannon fodder. Parents can opt their kids out of that part of the deal, which we thought we had done, but apparently to no avail.

This invasion of schools is only one of the signs of how desperate the military is to pump up its withering recruiting efforts. Faced with the fact that young people seem curiously unwilling to be killed in a disastrous war, the Army has steadily lowered its standards for new recruits ("40 years old, can barely read, and just got of jail? Sign here!"). In Portland, OR, a family is suing the Army for recruiting their autistic 18-year-old son who didn't even know there was a war going on. Nearly every time you go to the movies these days, there's a commercial for the National Guard featuring young people who just love-love-love being in the NG. I can hardly look at them up there on the screen, most of them not much older than my daughter, smiling down in their crisp uniforms, probably naïve enough to really believe that if they're shipped to Iraq, they'll be "fighting for freedom," rather than for whatever muddled excuses are swimming around in Dubya's brain this week.

The Army's desperation could serve a useful purpose, though, particularly if Americans note the glimpse it offers into the future cost of maintaining the American empire -- that cost being, of course, the dead bodies of our young. Nearly two decades after the collapse of our last big-dog military enemy, the US still occupies more than 700 military bases in about 130 countries -- and that doesn't even include the US garrisons in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel or Kuwait.

Remember at the end of the Cold War when everyone said we'd soon benefit from a reduction in spending for all those humongous weapons systems? They called it the "peace dividend." Didn't happen, did it? That's because, as is painstakingly documented in the recent documentary Why We Fight, or James Carroll's new book House of War, weapons manufacturers and their Congressional toadies -- the folks Bob Dylan once called the "Masters of War" -- are essentially running our government these days. We spend more on the military than all other countries in the world combined and, maybe more importantly, nearly 60 percent of federal research money goes to the defense industry. It's too bad the visionaries who founded this country, and who warned against America becoming an empire, can't climb out of their graves and tell us what they think.

Our outlandish spending on weapons has given us a military that boasts overwhelming firepower but is ill-suited for occupations, as has become painfully clear. What's even scarier is that it has drained our resources and left us financially unable to deal with some very serious problems -- problems that will, sorry to say, prove much more real than Saddam's phantom weapons. Unless we find a way to loosen the grip of bloated defense contractors, we can forget funding alternative sources of energy, fighting global warming, repairing our mess of a health care system or even adequately maintaining our infrastructure. Other countries that sink a much smaller percentage of their wealth into weaponry are already ahead of us in all these areas, and are beginning to pull away. That's quite a come-down from the days when the US led the world in technological innovation.

I realize that every generation has misgivings about how the next one will fare, but, to my eyes, we truly seem on the verge of a major shit storm. My parents had plenty to be concerned about when I graduated high school: Vietnam, race riots, colleges in turmoil, etc. But having made it through the Great Depression and World War II, they knew that, overall, things had actually improved and, like most of their peers, they assumed that life would be better for the next generation than it had been for them. Now that it's my turn to be the elder, I'm just not seeing that.

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