A friend recently asked me what I would tell a young man thinking about enlisting in the military. (He had in mind his son.) I would tell him this, which I wish someone had told me:
Kid, you are being suckered. You are being used. You need to think carefully before signing that enlistment contract.
First, notice that the men who want to send you to die were draft-dodgers. President Bush was of military age during Vietnam, but he sat out the war in the Air National Guard. The Guard was then a common way of avoiding combat. Bush could do it because he was a rich kid who went to Yale, and his family had connections.
He dodged, but he wants you to go.
Vice President Cheney, also of military age during Vietnam, also didn’t go. Why? When asked by the press, he said, “I had other priorities.” In other words, he was too important to risk his precious self overseas. He dodged, but wants you to go.
If you take the time to investigate, you will always find this pattern. The rich and influential avoid combat. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton do not send young men to Iraq. The editors at magazines that support the war, National Review for example, didn’t fight. They are happy to let you go, though. The reason for the All Volunteer military was to let the smart and rich avoid service and instead send kids from middle-class and blue-collar families. It works.
In talking to recruiters, you need to understand what you are up against. You are probably nineteen or twenty years old, full of piss and vinegar as we used to say, just starting to know the world. Which means that you don’t yet know it. (Do you know, for example, what countries border Iraq?)
You are up against a government that hires high-powered ad agencies and psychologists to figure out how to lure you into the military. Over many years they have done surveys and studies on the weaknesses of young males to find out what will get them to join. They know that young men, the ones that are worth anything anyway, want to prove themselves, want adventure, want to show what they can do. Everything a recruiter does is carefully calculated to play on this. They go to recruiting school to learn how.
“The Few. The Proud.” You don’t think that came out of the Marine Corps, do you? These phrases—“An Army of One,” “Be All You Can Be”–come from ad agencies in New York. Nobody in those ad agencies, I promise you, was ever in the Marine Corps. New York sells the military the way it sells soap. It has no interest in you at all.
Recruiters know exactly what they are doing. They are manly, which appeals to gutsy young guys who don’t want to be mall rats. They are confident. They have a physical fitness, a clean-cut appearance that looks good compared to all those wussy lawyers in business suits. They invite you to come into a man’s world. They promise you college funds. (Check and see how many actually ever get those funds. Read the small print.)
And of course the military is a man’s world, and it is an adventure, and it does beat being a mall rat—until they put you in combat. Driving a tank beats stocking parts in the local NAPA outlet—until they put you in combat. Days on the rifle range, running the bars of San Diego far from home and parents, going across the border into Mexico—all of this appeals powerfully to a young man. It did to me. It beats hell out of getting some silly associate degree in biz-admin at the community college.
Until they put you in combat. Then it’s too late. You can’t change your mind. They send you to jail for a long time if you do.
Combat is not the adventure you think it is. Know what happens when an RPG hits a tank? Nothing good. The cherry juice—hydraulic fluid that turns the turret—can vaporize and then blow. I saw the results in the Naval Support Activity hospital in Danang in 1967. A tank has a crew of four. Two burned to death, screaming as they tried to get out. The other two were scalded pink, under a plastic sheet that was always foggy with serum evaporating from burns where the skin had sloughed off. They probably lived. Know what burn scars look like?
The recruiters won’t tell you this. They know, but they won’t tell you. Ever seen a guy who just took a round through the face? He’s a bloody mess with his eyes gone, nasty hole where his nose was, funny white cartilage things sticking out of dripping meat. Suppose he’ll ever have another girlfriend? Not freaking likely. He’ll spend the next fifty years as a horror in some forsaken VA hospital.
But the recruiters won’t tell you this. They want you to think that it’s an adventure.
Other things happen that, depending on your head, may or may not bother you. Iraq means combat in cities. Ordinary people live there. You pop a grenade through a window, or hit a building with a burst from the Chain gun, or maybe put a tank round through it. Then you find the little girl with her bowels hanging out, not quite dead yet, with her mother screaming over what’s left. You’d be surprised how much blood a small kid has.
You get to live with that picture for the rest of your life. And you will live with it. The recruiter will tell you that it doesn’t happen, that it’s the exception, that I’m a commy journalist. Believe him if you want. Believe him now, while you can. When you get back, you’ll believe me.
A lot of things in America aren’t what they used to be. The military is one of them. The army didn’t always use girl soldiers to torture prisoners. For that they had specialists in the intelligence agencies. You won’t get assigned torture duty, almost certainly, because the Army got caught. Ask your recruiter about it, just to be sure.
Don’t expect thanks from a grateful nation. Somebody might buy you a drink in a bar. That’s about all you get. Many will regard you as a criminal or a fool.
Wars seem important at the time, but they usually aren’t. Five years later, they are history. About sixty thousand GIs died in Vietnam. We lost. Nothing happened. It was a stupid war for nothing. Today the guys who lost faces and legs and internal organs back then are just freaks. Nobody gives a damn about them, and nobody will give a damn about you. A war is a politician’s toy, but your wheelchair is forever. If you want adventure, try the fishing fleet in Alaska.
Think about it.
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