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Uncle Sam Really Wants You



With the situation in Iraq deteriorating and the willingness of Americans to serve in the armed forces declining, a little-known Army publication called the "School Recruiting Program Handbook" is becoming increasingly important, and controversial.

The handbook is the recruiter's bible, the essential guide for those who have to go into the nation's high schools and round up warm bodies to fill the embarrassingly skimpy ranks of the Army's basic training units.

The handbook declares forthrightly, "The goal is school ownership that can only lead to a greater number of Army enlistments."

What I was not able to find in the handbook was anything remotely like the startlingly frank comments of a sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga., who was quoted in the May 30 issue of The Army Times. He was addressing troops in the seventh week of basic training, and the paper reported the scene as follows:

" 'Does anybody know what posthumous means?' Staff Sgt. Andre Allen asked the 150 infantrymen-in-training, members of F Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment.

"A few hands went up, but he answered his own question.

" 'It means after death. Some of you are going to get medals that way,' he said matter-of-factly, underscoring the possibility that some of them would be sent to combat and not return."

That's the honest message recruits get once they're in. The approach recommended by the recruiting handbook is somewhat different. It's much softer. Recruiters trying to sign up high school students are urged to schmooze, schmooze, schmooze.

"The football team usually starts practicing in August," the handbook says. "Contact the coach and volunteer to assist in leading calisthenics or calling cadence during team runs."

"Homecoming normally happens in October," the handbook says. "Coordinate with the homecoming committee to get involved with the parade."

Recruiters are urged to deliver doughnuts and coffee to the faculty once a month, and to eat lunch in the school cafeteria several times a month. And the book recommends that they assiduously cultivate the students that other students admire: "Some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist."

It's not known how aware parents are that recruiters are inside public high schools aggressively trying to lure their children into wartime service. But not all schools get the same attention. Those that get the royal recruitment treatment tend to be the ones with students whose families are less affluent than most.

Schools with kids from wealthier families (and a high percentage of collegebound students) are not viewed as good prospects by military recruiters. It's as if those schools had posted signs at the entrances saying, "Don't bother." The kids in those schools are not the kids who fight America's wars.

Now, with the death toll in Iraq continuing to mount, it's getting harder to sign up even the less affluent kids. So the recruitment effort in the target schools has intensified. Recruiters, already driven in some cases to the brink of nervous exhaustion, are following the handbook guidelines more rigorously than ever.

"If you wait until they're seniors, it's probably too late," the book says. It also says, "Don't forget the administrative staff. ... Have something to give them (pen, calendar, cup, donuts, etc.) and always remember secretary's week, with a card or flowers."

The sense of desperation is palpable: "Get involved with local Boy Scout troops. Scoutmasters are typically happy to get any assistance you can offer. Many scouts are [high school] students and potential enlistees or student influencers."

One of the many problems here is that adolescents should not be hounded by military recruiters under any circumstances, and they shouldn't be pursued at all without the full knowledge and consent of parents or guardians.

Let the Army be honest and upfront in its recruitment. War is not child's play, and warriors shouldn't be assembled through the use of seductive sales pitches to youngsters too immature to make an informed decision on matters that might well result in their having to kill others, or being killed themselves.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

— Bob Herbert
New York Times
2005-06-16
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?emc=tnt&tntget=2005/06/16/opinion/16herbert.html&tntemail0


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