Monday, September 22, 2008

The Appeal of Military Service

Jeanne, over in her blog "Social Class & Quakers", recently wrote about military recruiting and what alternatives Quakers have to offer. She brings up some very good points but, from my experience, misses some important points. She suggested that Quakers (and other peace churches) need to step up and offer scholarships to young working class and poor kids who have few other choices but to enlist in the military to earn money and/or job training. But the point that I think is missed is that a whole lot of those kids do not want to further their education. I was one of those kids. Without going into too much of my personal history, I had no direction when I was graduated from high school other than knowing that I did not want to go to college. My parents begged and pleaded and finally got me to agree to go to a school which was supposed to train me to be a travel agent (I've done about every kind of legitimate work there is but I've never worked as a travel agent). From about 4th grade on, I HATED school. I remember sitting in elementary school (probably during math class) literally counting the days until I would turn 16 and be able to drop out of school. Well, I made it to graduation but did not want to put myself into any position in which I had to feel like a dunce ever again. No thank you. I got a job managing a fast food restaurant and have been working my way up from entry level jobs ever since.

In high school, I took the ASVABs rather than the SAT or ACT, even though I wasn't really interested in the military. This was 1983 when there was still a good amount of stigma about women in the military (if I were graduating in the same position today, I probably would consider it). When I'd get the mailings from the Marines saying they were looking for a few good men, I'd think "who isn't?" and throw them in the trash.

I did have a couple of very close friends who enlisted. My first serious boyfriend was the quintessential guy I'm writing about here. He was full of common sense but not "book smarts". He didn't do well in school. He was incredibly responsible and a really good guy. He played drums and fixed cars and worked after school every day from age 14 on. His family was very poor. His father was an alcoholic who left his mother with three children and never paid child support. His mother worked in the laundry room of the hospital. She was (pardon the expression) "white trash": Old couch on the front porch, go out in public with holes in her clothes kind of poor. I really don't know how he got the ambition that he had but he wasn't like the rest of his family. He wanted to better himself and he saw the military as the best way to do that. He joined the Navy and gained discipline and learned how to repair airplanes. Being in the Navy was very important to him. He was proud of serving his country, of wearing the uniform. He was not a violent person. I can't imagine him ever hurting anyone. He was gentle and kind. I'm sure that he didn't really consider the possibility of having to be in a situation in which he might have to kill someone, although he was, I'm sure, very good at following orders and would have done so if commanded by superior officers. I don't know that if he'd been given a full scholarship to community college he'd have taken it because the Navy represented something more than just training for him. In part, it was escape from his home and family's reputation and expectations; escape from our small town, adventure. He did not have a strong male role model growing up; I think the Navy was, for him, a rite of passage, a way of learning to prove that he was a man. No community college or regular college would ever be able to offer that.

My dear cousin Stevey is another of the type of guy I'm trying to describe to you. Stevey is very intelligent but really quirky and odd. I haven't seen him in almost two decades but value him and love him deeply. He was raised by his mom and stepdad (who adopted him when he was 8). His family did animal rescues and always had a menagerie of dogs, cats and horses: His family's home was loving but extremely chaotic. Stevey never really fit in with the kids in school and got by just doing his own thing. His family had moved to California by the time we were in high school so I never talked with him about his decision to join the Air Force when he was graduated from high school but I imagine that he did because he wanted to travel and explore the world. He made a career of it and retired after 20 years. I think he found success in the structure and discipline of the military that he could never have had in civilian life. Again, he is a gentle, funny, kind person. I doubt he's ever deliberately hurt anyone in his whole life. He didn't join the Air Force from any aggro impulse or for macho reasons; he just needed direction and discipline.

And this leads me to my oldest kid, Declan. He's 17. He's intelligent, creative, funny. He's very liberal, mostly, but is a black and white thinker. He's drawn to strong-willed, alpha males for mentors and teachers (most of whom, Chuck Fager being the exception, have been very strongly libertarian in their political leanings). D is smart but is acting sooo dumb. I just got a call from his history teacher (whom D really respects) saying that Declan has failed his last three history tests and is failing history. Dec enjoys history. He "gets it" and is engaged by this teacher. He just doesn't bother to do his homework or to study. Hammy and I have talked and talked and talked to him. Over the last 2 1/2 years that he's been in school, at various times we've grounded him, met weekly with his teachers, talked to principals and counselors, said that this is his "path" and he needs to learn to take responsibility for his actions and whatever else we could think of. Nothing has made the slightest difference. He's in a school for the arts which he absolutely loves. His girlfriend is there as are all his friends. He's playing in a band. He's doing music for a movie and a cable tv show. He just auditioned for the lead in a play. He started the year on academic probation and will probably be kicked out when the end of semester report cards come out. But that hasn't changed his behavior or attitude toward his academic work.

So, what will happen to my boy when he is kicked out of this school? The only school he'll be able to go to is the one we're zoned for, the "Bloods vs Crips" school that he spent a year at and HATED. ROTC is the only extra on the school campus besides cosmetology. I can't see him going back to that school and being successful.

Lots of kids do dual enrollment at the community college but, frankly, if we can't trust him to maintain passing grades at a school he loves, I can't see paying money for him to go to another school. He's painting himself into a corner that he's too young, inexperienced and stubborn to see.

If I weren't a pacifist adamantly opposed to war, I'd push him toward the military. The discipline would be great for him. He'd be honored for his sharp mind and problem-solving ability, for his self-control and ability to lead others. I believe he would completely thrive in that atmosphere. But I could never encourage my beloved son to go into a situation in which he would learn to kill. I love him too much to want him to put himself in a institution in which dying for a false ideology is a real possibility.

So, what is left for him? Peace Corps doesn't want him. AFSC doesn't want him. I know of maybe a couple of non-profits like Plenty that might make use of him but hippies make him crazy (their ethos is kind of the opposite of disciplined) and I know he wouldn't want to go that route (although, when he flunks out of NSA, I think we'll probably strongly push him in that direction). What he needs is a very regimented, organized, structured "boot camp" type training program; something that helps him to grow and discover his potential to BE something. That's what the military is best at, from the perspective of this civilian--identifying and developing the potential of young, directionless adults. And that's exactly what Declan needs most.


Anonymous said...

a summer on a fishing boat in alaska?

Robin M. said...

Do you have the Job Corps in Tennesee?

Friendly Mama said...

I've been aware of Americorps but had forgotten about Job Corps. I just checked out the website and found that, other than potentially being a drop-out, he doesn't fit the profile, at all. We're not poor, he's not a parent, he actually has good skills that he doesn't bother using.
That fishing boat sounds like a good idea...
Thanks for your ideas!