(Image: Jon Letman)
How old is old enough for students to be approached by military recruiters?
High school? Junior high? Fourth grade? How about ten weeks into kindergarten?
Last week at the dinner table, my five-year-old son announced blithely, "Soldiers came to school today." He then added, "They only kill bad people. They don't kill good people."
He made the announcement with the same levity he uses in recalling the plot line of Frog and Toad or a Nemo video.
My wife and I looked at each other incredulously.
"Soldiers came to school? What do you mean?" I asked.
He repeated himself and then I remembered - it was "Career Day" at school. My son mentioned a bus driver too, but it was the soldier who stuck out in his mind. When my wife asked if the soldier was cool, he nodded yes.
The soldier had given my five-year-old a gift. From his yellow backpack, he produced a six-inch, white, plastic ruler with big, bold, red letters reading "ARMY NATIONAL GUARD" next to a waving American flag and below that www.1-800-GO-GUARD.com.
So, now we know the answer to the above question.
Kindergarteners - children with Dora the Explorer and Spiderman backpacks and bedrooms full of stuffed animals who are still working to master their A-B-C's - are now targets for early conditioning by the US military. Never mind that Hawaii's schools have just cut almost 10 percent of classroom time, dropping the state's public schools' instructional days down to the fewest in the nation. Teacher furloughs or not, time was found for the Army National Guard to give a pitch (and a gift) to wide-eyed five-year-olds.
Fortunately (from the military's perspective), the economic collapse has been a boon for military recruiters as education and job-hungry young people flock to a place they know will offer what many other employers cannot - a job with benefits.
And with Department of Defense projections indicating that the baseline Pentagon budget will grow over the next decade by $133.1 billion, or 25 percent (even before war funding), it appears likely there will be plenty need for more soldiers in 2022 when my son and his classmates turn 18.
In his book "The Limits of Power," Boston University history Professor and retired Army Col. Andrew J. Bacevich describes a near future in which the US is in an almost constant state of war. He writes, "Rather than brief interventions ending in decisive victory, sustained presence will be the norm ... The future will be one of small wars, expected to be frequent, protracted, perhaps perpetual." If Bacevich's bleak assessment proves true, it's no wonder the National Guard sees value in chatting up kindergarteners.
After raising my concerns about military personnel pitching to my five-year-old on career day to the school's principal, I was told the soldiers (who were dressed in uniform) were there to focus on "the good things they do." To be sure, in times of natural disaster, the National Guard can do a tremendous amount of good.
But in what must certainly have been a first encounter for my son and his classmates, the take-away message was "they kill people. But only the bad ones."
As a parent, how does one explain what killing "only bad ones" means when the child asks why a NATO airstrike obliterated dozens of civilians, an unmanned drone flattened a mountain village killing children just like them or a deeply disturbed soldier goes on a rampage on a US base in Iraq or in Texas , and projects the violence he has learned against his fellow soldiers?
Whether you find the Army National Guard visiting kindergarteners utterly disturbing or perfectly normal, each of us needs to ask ourselves, in an era when our government spends trillions of dollars supporting wars with no end in sight, at a time when we can't even fund our schools or public services at a minimum standard and only begrudgingly support health care reform, what kind of society and future are we building for our children?