CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver asks hard questions about what it means to maintain a strong military force during peace time. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Army Staff Sgt. Swaine Thompson was putting me on the spot. "What would you think if your daughter said she wanted to go into the military?" he demanded.
"CÂ'mon, be honest," he said.
I told him that I didnÂ't think sheÂ'd be interested.
"But thatÂ's not the point," he kept on. "What would you say if she wanted to join up?"
ThatÂ's when I had to admit that I never had really considered the possibility.
And, that, it turned out, was what Sgt. Thompson was getting at. As an Army recruiter in Chicago, he constantly comes up against the reality that most young people donÂ't even consider the military as an option.
And the reason for that, he believes, is that neither their parents nor their teachers nor any other influential adults ever discuss military life with them.
And guess what? Sgt. ThompsonÂ's not the only one whoÂ's come to that conclusion. In looking into a story on the alarming decline in military recruitment, I heard the same thing over and over again.
Colonel Michael Jones, director of admissions at West Point says, "ItÂ's not unusual for me to go into a candidate meeting with parents and children...and to have none of the sets of parents have any uniformed experience with the armed service."
Military sociologist Charles Moskos, of Northwestern University, says that once the draft ended, the military became "just sort of a nonissue" for many Americans, especially middle-class college students.
Moskos disputes the idea that the low recruitment rates are a residual of the anti-military feelings that swept much of the nation in the wake of the Vietnam War. He believes that Americans just donÂ't have a very good idea of what military service can do for them.
"Do for them?" youÂ're asking yourself, as you think about the lousy pay, the grueling basic training and the general discipline required of military life. "Do for them?" youÂ're thinking, as you consider the possibility of recruits being shipped off to places like Korea, Bosnia or Kuwait.
Well, for one thing, it turns out that unless you volunteer for a combat job, you are highly unlikely to get one. And Sgt. Swaine Thompson, a career military man himself, sells the idea of the military as a college tuition factory. There's up to $50,000 for college expenses if you sign up for five years. Besides, he insists, youÂ're more valuable on the job market if you get the skills the military can give you.
For his part, Moskos argues that young people should sign up for the sheer adventure of soldiering. Kind of a "junior year abroad," he calls it. H thinks it builds character.
And after numerous visits to U.S. military installations all around the world, I think heÂ's right.
The young men and women IÂ've met get up early and work hard all day. They are physically fit and brimming with possibility. They have lots of what used to be called gumption. And if my child wanted to enlist, IÂ'd be proud. But IÂ'd also be concerned.
Because Swaine, Jones and Moskos are right, Americans just donÂ't think about our men and women in the service very much.
And maybe itÂ's more than benign neglect. Maybe itÂ's outright avoidance. We are ambivalent about the military.
We like to think of ourselves as nonviolent, but we want the ability to defend our nation. If thereÂ's trouble, we want someone to go, but we donÂ't our kid to get hurt.
And we wonder if those who choose the military are not up to making it in the real world. We wonder why they donÂ't want to grab their place in what Sgt. Thompson calls the "MTV, give-it-to-me-now" generation.
So far, with all its budget and might, the Pentagon hasnÂ't offered up any great answers.
But Moskos, at least, has one intriguing idea: Come up with some impressive contemporary role models. While Colin Powell, John McCain, John F. Kennedy and George Bush Sr. stand out, they belong to another generation. TodayÂ's kids idolize Bill Gates and Ice Cube.
But "Just imagine," Moskos offers, "what it would have meant had JFK Jr., you know, God rest his soul,...been in the military or something of that sort or Chelsea Clinton joining the military. These would have tremendous effects, I think, on people."
So now, as Pentagon officials say they are trying to refine and refocus their recruitment strategies, the pressure is on: Sign up some of those at the top of the social and economic ladder. And on the streets of Chicago, Sgt. ThompsonÂ's job will be a whole lot easier.
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CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff