Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?
This flower-bedecked poster slogan from the '60s will surely be haunting the Army's "values stand-down" day on Friday, May 20, when the service branch's 7,500 recruiters and their COs take the day off for a little ethics force-feeding.
The Army's — the whole military's — desperation is showing. None of the four branches is meeting recruitment goals as a brutal, unpopular war drags on, and the recruiters, who are all under heavy pressure to snare two warm bodies a month for this lost cause, are getting outed in the media for appallingly unethical and illegal practices.
These practices, according to the New York Times, CBS News and other sources, include advising potential (bottom of the barrel) enlistees about how to circumvent drug-screening tests and create fake high-school diplomas, how to pass the physical (one overweight young man was given laxatives and the advice, "Don't tell your parents"), along with blatant threats and even, apparently, abduction.
Neighbors of Ever Jandres of Encino, Calif., recently wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman charging recruitment malfeasance and asking him to look into the 24-year-old learning-disabled epileptic's mysterious disappearance, Mark Crispin Miller reported online at News from Underground. A spokesman for Berman confirmed that the congressman is "very concerned" about the matter.
Jandres, who is Salvadoran and has a borderline low IQ, was apparently "befriended" by a local Army recruiter, who invited him to come with him to Arizona for three days to observe basic training. Five days later, his distraught mother (who speaks no English) got a phone call from her son, who told her, hysterically, that he was on a military base in South Carolina. He was now in the Army, he said, and wasn't allowed to stay on the phone longer than a minute. Family members' and friends' attempts to get any information from the Army have been fruitless.
We're fighting a war that many of the most ardent supporters want no part of, personally - any more than does anyone else of sound mind and the least claim on a future - so the recruiters are battling rationality itself as they struggle to sell inner-city teenagers on the glory of serving in occupied Iraq and signing themselves over to an organization that will essentially own them, body and soul, for the duration of their hitch or longer. Small wonder the recruiters are forced to bend, break and occasionally shatter the rules to get anybody to sign up.
However much ethical restraint they'll now be temporarily forced to incorporate into their basic spiel (no laxatives!), one thing's for sure: They won't begin telling prospective recruits the truth.
"We have to understand that one of the things that happens in war is, truth dies," said Ray Parrish, a Chicago-based counselor for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who left a well-paying job with full benefits to work with GIs returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
And he's hearing the same expressions of disillusionment, anger and betrayal that he heard when he counseled Vietnam vets and battled the VA to get them their rights. He's seeing the same shattered psyches, the same wrecked lives, the same post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The first vets over there are the ones having the worst time," he told me recently. "During the invasion part of the war, there was very little thought put into pulling the trigger and a lot of innocent civilians were being killed. The ones who pulled the triggers are the ones who are having the car accidents now."
Values stand-down or no values stand-down, the recruiters will not begin telling teenagers anytime soon about post-traumatic stress disorder; high vet suicide rates (among Vietnam vets, it has been estimated to be triple the number of names on The Wall); or today's equivalent of Agent Orange, depleted uranium, which, when breathed in, can devastate health over the long term and, especially cruel to young couples, cause birth defects.
Supplying this information is the job of the counter-recruiters, and the fact that they're out there is one of the most important stories of the war. The vets themselves are the counter-recruiters, telling the truth to high school students.
This is the way back from post-traumatic stress disorder - the way for shattered men and women to redeem themselves and rejoin the human race. "It's part of the healing," Parrish said. "That's what the vets are doing - making sure the recruiters don't sell at all."
Suppose they gave a war and nobody came? This is what we're witnessing, slowly, one wised-up teenager at a time.
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer.
© 2005 Robert C. Koehler