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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

September 4, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 103




Tom Roberts 'Not what I thought it was going to be'

Tom Roberts NCR editor

The young man in the plane seat next to me was bursting with eagerness to get home. So eager, he just blurted it out, "I can't wait to get home!"

He's 19, from a suburban city outside of Kansas City, Mo., and he was on a five-day pass from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

I asked him how long he planned to stay in the Marines, was it a career?

He had thought about it, he said, but not after what he saw in Iraq. "It wasn't what I thought it was going to be."

I don't know what he expected. He said it was not only the violence he had seen in the campaign from Kuwait to Baghdad. "It was other things. The way things were done," he said, as he hooked up earphones to his CD player.

He said he had not intended to go into the Marines to go to college. That he really wanted to be a Marine. But now he might take the college route.

What would he tell someone at his old high school who was thinking about going into the service?

"I'd tell him to make really sure about what he wants to do. To make sure that's what he wants to do."

He seemed not to want to go into any more detail, and I didn't press him.

But I also couldn't help wondering how many more he represents, for how many others life in the military wasn't what they thought it was going to be.

Earlier this year, NCR did a cover piece, Feeding the Military Machine, documenting how the military was infiltrating deeper and deeper into our children's lives, setting up military schools that are part of regular school systems. If they solved, as the military recruiters claim, problems of discipline and life in difficult neighborhoods, they also clearly began to solve the problem of providing new recruits for the all-volunteer military.

Under the guise of the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, school districts are required to hand over lists of student names to military recruiters.

I presume that's how they got the name of my son, James, who just started college this year. I answered the phone for two of the recruiting calls. I started questioning one of the recruiters about his tactics and suggested that he ought to stay away from high school kids. He (I'm not kidding) asked me if I was a communist.

The next one, months later, was more willing to engage in a conversation. I told him I knew he was just doing his job but that I thought 18-year-olds had a lot of things to learn before they could make an informed decision about whether they wanted to learn what the military had to teach.

I suggested he confine his recruiting to 25-to-35-year-olds, people who had lived and learned a bit and could make an informed decision. He suggested -- not a bad idea -- that I write my congressman.

There are certainly compelling questions to raise about the legitimate use of force. I wouldn't want to live in a city without a police force. But I also have to wonder if we are, as a society, sending a horrible message to our most precious resource and gift. Increasingly stories appear about how difficult it is to get money for college, about young people weighted down under student loan debt. One of the few remaining avenues to college is through the military.

We spend over a billion dollars a day on defense. We are spending more than a billion dollars a week on the growing fiasco in Iraq. Maybe we've got some priorities mixed up.

Young Marines returning disillusioned from Camp Lejeune are going to spread the word that those video-game ads showing the sabre-wielding young soldier defeating the dragon of evil are a sham.

And what happens when they look around and wonder if there's anything else as important to us as waging war?

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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