By Bob Herbert
The New York Times
Most Americans will tell you that they believe in honest, truthful, straightforward, ethical behavior.
So here's a question: Should people who are being recruited into the armed forces be told the truth about the risks they are likely to face if they agree to sign up and put on a uniform?
Right now, that is not happening. Recruiters desperate for warm bodies to be shipped to Iraq are prowling selected high schools and neighborhoods across the country with sales pitches that touch on everything but the possibility of being maimed or killed in combat.
The recruiters themselves are under enormous pressure from higher-ups who are watching crucial components of the all-volunteer military buckle under the strain of a war that was supposed to have been won in a jiffy, but instead just goes on and on.
So the teenagers who are the prime targets for recruitment are being told just about anything to ward off whatever misgivings they may have. Need money for college? No problem. You want to go to a nice place? Certainly. Maybe even Hawaii.
A young man who recently registered, as required, with the Selective Service System received an upbeat brochure in the mail touting the military's 30 days of annual "paid vacation," its free medical and dental care, its "competitive retirement" benefits and its "home loan program."
There was no mention of combat, or what it's like to walk the corridors and the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where you'll see a tragic, unending parade of young men and women struggling to move about despite their paralysis, or with one, two or three limbs missing.
I am not at all opposed to the military. I was in the Army for two years, and I've personally known many people who have had long and honorable careers in the service. I've known many men and women who made almost unimaginable sacrifices - including, in some cases, giving up their lives - while in uniform.
But I think it is precisely because the stakes are so high that we should be straight with potential recruits. Instead we present them with a lollipopped, sugarcoated, fantasyland version of what life in the military is like.
In a segment on PBS's "NewsHour" last December, an Army recruiter said: "I joined because I was seeking some adventure, all right? And I've been to a lot of different countries - Athens, Greece, Ireland, Rome. Been to Egypt twice, to the pyramids. All sorts of fun stuff."
The Army actually has an online video game that it likes to brag is one of the "top five" on the Web. Geared to children as young as 13, it has more than five million registered players.
But war is not a game. Getting your face blown off is not fun. The fundamental task of the military is to fight and kill the enemies of the United States, and fighting and killing is a grotesquely brutal experience. Potential recruits should be told the truth about what is expected of them, and what the risks are. And they should be told why it's a good idea for them to take those risks. If that results in too few people signing up for the military, the country is left with a couple of other options:
Stop fighting unnecessary wars, or reinstate the draft.
Instead, the military and its harried recruiters are preying more and more on youngsters who are especially vulnerable and impressionable, and they're doing it by creating a patently false impression of what life in the wartime military is like.
The youngsters recruited most relentlessly are those from small towns, rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods. They are kids who are not well-to-do, and who don't have much of a plan for their future. The military, with its uniforms, its slick ads and its video games, can look very good to these unsophisticated youngsters.
With a series of television ads, the Army is also trying to win over what it calls the "influencers," the parents and other adults who have been counseling youngsters to stay away from the military. That campaign was packaged by the Leo Burnett agency, which has the following to say about itself:
"Leo Burnett USA creates ideas that inspire enduring belief for many of the world's most valuable brands and most successful marketers, including McDonald's, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Marlboro, Altoids, Heinz, Kellogg, Nintendo and the U.S. Army."