NEW YORK--It was 1982. I was 18 and snotty and wanted to see the world. And so, a few days after a brief chat with an army recruiter operating out of a strip mall on Stroop Road across from my local soon-to-be-closed municipal swimming pool, I rode the bus to downtown Dayton to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
The ASVAB was ridiculously easy. The math, I remember, was at about a fifth-grade level. My biggest challenge was remembering material that I'd digested years earlier. But the guys around me--they were all guys--were visibly struggling, sighing and staring vacantly at the acoustical tiles suspended from the ceiling. My mom's phone rang a few days later. It was my recruiter.
"I've got to tell you, we haven't seen scores like this in years," he said. "We can offer you an amazing career." If my fellow test-takers reflected the typical military applicant pool, I wasn't surprised these recruiters were impressed. Compared to some of the idiots I'd sat next to downtown, I must have seemed like a perfect cross between Einstein and Eisenhower.
"We can guarantee you a fast-track to full officer," the recruiter promised. "We'll station you anywhere you want. You can write your own ticket."
"What about this text in the enlistment agreement, where you say you can send me anywhere?"
"Oh, that's just technical. Nothing to worry about."
Uh-huh. He may have been lying about my "unprecedented" test scores, but I knew they'd send me to whichever unappealing war zone most suited their needs.
Still, I was flattered by their interest in me. I'd just finished a grueling freshman year at Columbia, where I was one of the dumbest students in most of my engineering classes. After having been ranked first in calculus during high school, it was a brutal fall from grace. The Army might be my chance to shine--a world where many of my peers were likely to be, well, stupid. Why keep working my ass off for a "C-" in thermodynamics because some brilliant Asian guy messed up the grade curve? Big fish, small pond, you know.
I asked the recruiter for a few days to think things through. Soon his higher-ranking colleague, in charge of finding cannon fodder for the entire state, took over his campaign of harassment. "We can offer you $5,000 for college when your first tour is over," he said. "But Columbia costs $13,000." He didn't have much to say about that.
Then I had a dream, perhaps inspired by some movie I'd since forgotten, placing me under a driving rain, obviously at boot camp, being ordered by a sergeant to perform an absurd number of push-ups. I hate push-ups. Finally, in clichéed form, I suggested that he have sex with himself. The scene flashed forward to my court-martial for insubordination. When I awoke, I knew that I wasn't suited for military life. I had always chafed under discipline, even when it was meted out by someone I respected. My response could prove disastrous were I to find myself ordered around by the wrong person.
As I write this now, at 42, I'm a different person. I know I could handle the same Army I shunned at 18. I've tolerated idiotic bosses and uncomfortable living arrangements and I understand that hierarchy is required to maintain a cohesive organization. I'm in better physical condition than I've ever been. I know when to keep my mouth shut.
Moreover, I know now that wars are fought for economic reasons. I'm aware that the military exists to open and protect markets for big corporations and to conquer and control regions with energy resources and conduits thereto. The United States, instead of promoting democracy, is the single greatest enemy of democracy and self-determination in the world, repeatedly supporting dictators and overthrowing elected regimes. And I know that wars kill. I've watched war transform sentient human beings into boxes of freight. If I enlisted now, I'd go with my eyes wide open, without risk of "Born on the Fourth of July"-style disillusionment.
But I'm smarter now because I'm 42. Eighteen-year-olds have no business entering the military.
On January 2 The New York Times profiled Katherine Jordan, an 18-year-old Army recruit from rural Kansas who, when she'd enlisted a year before, had doubted the war would continue. Now she was preparing to ship off to fight in Iraq. Reading her comments emptied a pit in my stomach. "I don't know the facts [about the war in Iraq] as much as I should," said Private Jordan. "What I know is that we're protecting our country still. We're concentrating on keeping insurgents away from the United States."
I thought of my flirtation with the Army when I was her age. As a history buff, I was better versed than Jordan about the nature of resistance movements. I was old enough to remember the old arguments about Vietnam, how we needed to fight "them" over "there" in order to keep them from coming here, and that those supposed dangers never materialized after the fall of Saigon. But I hardly knew anything about Middle Eastern history, Arabic culture, or Islam.
I was less naive than Katherine Jordan, but I didn't know enough to make an intelligent decision about whether or not the war against Iraq was justified, much less whether it was worth risking my life. I was a pretty smart 18-year-old. Which means nothing.
Most 18-year-olds have lived their entire lives in the same community. Few have traveled abroad, held a full-time job or been forced by experience to understand that death means that you're really gone forever and you're never coming back and your body rots away and everyone stops talking about you. Fewer still comprehend that wars that are pumped up as glorious soon turn sour, that people come home without arms and legs, that veterans are forgotten and disposable and frequently sleep outside.
Congress agrees that 18-year-olds aren't mature enough to drink alcohol. Rental car agencies refuse to lease automobiles to 24-year-olds. Surely military service, in which a citizen may be ordered to blast people to bits with heavy ordnance, requires more maturity than consuming a Miller Lite or piloting a Ford Focus down an Interstate highway. Conversely, soldiers take extraordinary risks. They should possess sufficient life experience to understand and accept those risks before being permitted to undertake them.
Congress ought to raise the minimum age of military service to at least 30. Not only do older recruits make better soldiers--ask any officer--they'll be more realistic veterans after the fighting ends.