"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," proclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt decades ago. But he may as well be addressing teen-agers today.
As predictions of war with Iraq increase, teenagers face this crisis with fear and confusion. America has been at peace for so long that most young people have no knowledge of war, little perception of the military and no understanding of this threat.
The average student learns more about the Ottoman attack on the Byzantine Empire in 1453 than the Persian Gulf War nearly 12 years ago. High school curricula seldom include modern military matters. In fact, current textbooks for U.S. history and government rarely include the Gulf War. Historians, still sifting through the sands of the Middle East, have not yet concluded this chapter of history.
While studying America's past wars, students outline the causes of conflicts and dutifully memorize the treaties that ended strife but rarely study the fighting in detail. Advanced placement tests, which high school students take to gain college credit, never touch on military matters. As a country that values peace, America does not teach its students much about war. Consequently, students graduate with more knowledge of Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill than the U.S. F-117A stealth air strikes on Baghdad in 1991.
Perhaps this is good. If fewer people know about war, then there will be fewer willing to fight. Teens today not only can't seem to imagine themselves in war, they don't even know the jargon. The word "battle" is the Antiques Road Show of war, recalling the muskets and bayonets of Bunker Hill. The word "soldier" belongs with grainy photographs of a doughboy from World War I with his tin bowl of a helmet. Even "khaki," once synonymous with military uniforms, is now merely a mainstay of the J. Crew catalog.
What teenagers don't learn in school, they absorb from television. Cops, doctors and bachelors looking for love fill the prime-time lineup. The military apparently did not make it to the audition.
The highest-rated shows focus on urban violence. Each week, a few dozen Americans are killed during "CSI: Miami, Law and Order." Any victims clinging to life are treated at "ER" and "Presidio Med." There are plenty of casualties, but the battlefield is a street corner and the enemy wears no uniform.
There are no modern military series on television. ("JAG" devotes more time to courtroom drama than to naval maneuvers.) Consequently, young viewers can mutter the Miranda warning along with Dennis Franz or order an "MRI stat" like Noah Wylie yet have no idea how modern soldiers, even fictional ones, live.
If teenagers have any link to the military it is through a shared dependence on the computer. The common ground between a slouching sophomore in a torn T-shirt and a spit-and-polish Marine is a 13-inch monitor.
But the military's grids and blips hardly seem dangerous to a kid who has been annihilating giant green ogres before he was in braces. For years, teens have earnestly reassured adults that playing savage video games would not make them violent people. They view the computer as a high-tech toy, the favored method of communication and, even occasionally, a tool for homework. Is it now a weapon?
While new recruits will depend on computers, the Internet has reduced the military's role in teenage life. Unlike their male ancestors, today's young men no longer cower before towering, grim-faced soldiers to register for the draft. Now, 18-year-old boys register for Selective Service on the Internet. In less time than it takes to place an order on ebay, a teen can fulfill his national duty.
Even the name, Selective Service, sounds peaceful. There's no hint of the military, no inference of bloodshed. Selective Service sounds like a chance to volunteer at Our Daily Bread. Then the presents arrive: a free key chain, shaped like a dog tag, from the Army and a wallet from the Marines.
The military does not sound intimidating, yet the mention of war does. But teens have no idea how to cope with a threat they don't understand. Perhaps all we can do is pray that this horror ends before we must face it. As former President Roosevelt said, "More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars."
Leonhardt is a high school sophomore from Lutherville, Md.
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