WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The first war of the 21st century has been a resounding success for the United States. Thus far, operations have claimed fewer than 250 U.S. combat casualties, and, for the most part, U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan are being positively portrayed by the media.
Hollywood has, at least temporarily, stopped denigrating the armed forces and is producing films that honor fighting men. Recent documentaries, books and novels are capitalizing on the pro-military sentiment that Americans have always had, but the cultural elite denied. Yet, the Class of 2002 has graduated from America's high schools and colleges, and our armed forces are struggling to meet their "accession targets" this summer. Why?
Military recruiters point to one reason -- America's educational institutions. Notwithstanding the brutality of the 9-11 terror attack, America's educators have been so hostile to the military for so long that most students don't even consider donning a uniform.
As former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, author of "Why We Fight," pointed out on my radio show last week, many educators find military service repugnant because "we are not a warlike people." That's putting it mildly. On the eve of World War II, after the Axis powers seized most of Europe and much of Asia and Africa, Selective Service -- the draft -- passed the House by only one vote on Aug. 12, 1941. And even after Hitler's U-boats sank the U.S. freighter Robin Moor on June 9, 1941, and the USS Reuben James I (DD-245) on Oct. 31, 1941, both with substantial loss of American lives, there was still considerable opposition to U.S. involvement.
But then came Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Schofield Barracks and the Oahu airfields on Dec. 7, 1941. Any residual antipathy toward military service evaporated 30 hours later, when President Roosevelt, citing the "day that will live in infamy," asked Congress to declare war against the Empire of Japan. For the next several weeks, young men waited in lines -- some blocks long -- at military recruiting stations. Many, too young to enlist, were turned away and told to come back after their 18th birthdays.
One of them was George Herbert Walker Bush. Secretary of War Henry Stimson urged Bush and his classmates at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., to get a college education before going to war. But the future president ignored the admonition and enlisted on his 18th birthday, becoming the Navy's youngest aviator. He later flew 58 combat missions before being shot down on Sept. 2, 1944 over Chichi Shima in the Bonin Islands. His story was replicated countless times, as millions of patriotic young Americans responded to their country's call.
But 9-11 was no Pearl Harbor redux. Recruiters report that for a few days after September's attack, phone calls, foot traffic and website activity increased. But 10 months later, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. James Cassella says the initial surge "did not translate into an increased rate of enlistments." Douglas Smith of the Army's Fort Knox recruiting office is blunt: "There is minimal impact we can attribute to Sept. 11." And Lt. Ingrid Mueller of the Navy Recruiting Command confirmed that "the calls are not coming from that group of young men and women we need."
What does today's military need? Bright, sober, physically fit, law-abiding, recent high school graduates capable of learning ballistics, physics, electronics, chemistry, a foreign language and how to shoot. The Army wants 79,000 of them; the Navy 55,000; the Air Force 34,600; and the Marines want 32,700. Given the "education establishment's" hostility, meeting that goal won't be easy.
Last year, military recruiters were denied access to public schools over 19,000 times. In July 2001, the Defense Department reported that 31 percent of public schools deny access to recruiters, and 60 percent of recruiters say they are prohibited from talking to high school seniors, with less than 40 percent ever invited to speak to a class. The worst offenders are Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, where up to 89 percent of schools refuse access to two or more recruiting services.
Nearly 25 percent of high schools refuse to release student directory information to recruiters. Only 11 percent of secondary schools have Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) on campus. The number of students who have ever spoken to a military recruiter has dropped from 46 percent in 1991 to 37 percent in 1997, and fewer than 20 percent of high school guidance counselors encourage students to talk to a recruiter.
Lt. Gen. Donald Peterson, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for personnel, says: "It's not that our young people don't like the military, don't want to be a part of it. It's just difficult for them to see it."
And that's not likely to change next week, when the National Education Association meets for its annual seance in Dallas. Instead of spewing their usual claptrap about smaller class sizes and higher pay or denouncing home-schoolers and competition in education, the NEA should heed the call of President Bush, who in a commencement speech at Ohio State University last week, said, "America needs men and women who respond to the call of duty." But students can only do so if they are taught the responsibilities that come with freedom.
One organization taking that responsibility seriously is Freedom Alliance, which this summer will introduce hundreds of high school students to the benefits of military service by taking them to some of America's most active military bases. Their Eichenberg Military Leadership Series will allow students to simulate the flight of an F-15 fighter jet and challenge their mettle on a military obstacle course. They will even get to meet Capt. Richard O'Hanlon, the skipper of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), which recently returned from a record deployment in the Middle East.
Computer programmers say, "Garbage in, garbage out." The same principle can be applied to education. Duty, Honor, Country are concepts that can be taught. Our president is trying. Organizations like Freedom Alliance are trying. Now if only our public schools, colleges and universities will do the same.