Declining to enlist, kids vote with their feet

New York Daily News -

Friday, March 25th, 2005

Although it's common to bemoan political apathy among young people, Generation X is turning out to be a major player in American foreign policy. By declining to enlist in the numbers needed by the Pentagon, young adults have quietly set off a national recruitment crisis, sapping the power of the armed forces even as the Bush administration spins ambitious plans to confront dictatorships around the globe.

Purportedly sophisticated adults bought the Bush administration's many falsehoods and wrong guesses about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and the reception American troops would receive in Baghdad.

Young Americans, who tend to believe the plain truth when it stares them in the face, are voting with their feet by giving the brushoff to military recruiters in schools, malls and video arcades from coast to coast.

The Army enlisted 27% fewer new soldiers than expected last month, and has resorted to lowering standards and targeting more recruits who have drug abuse and criminal convictions in their past. The Army National Guard - which came up 7,000 soldiers short last year and has failed to hit its recruitment targets so far this year - has raised its maximum recruiting age by five years, to 39, to add another 22 million Americans to the pool of potential recruits.

Even the vaunted Marine Corps recently missed a monthly recruitment quota for the first time in nearly a decade. The corps is offering $20,000 reenlistment bonuses to junior infantry - another first - because 75% of Marines are mustering out after one tour.

Nobody expected this. When the ballots were tallied after Election Day in November, pollsters found that an expected surge in voting by young adults never materialized, despite flashy, well-financed pleas and voter drives sponsored by the likes of MTV, P. Diddy and Rock the Vote.

Young voters, as in years past, made up an anemic minority of the vote. Politicians concluded that the youth, once again, were an apathetic bloc that could be taken for granted.

But the kids are savvier than anybody imagined. After two decades of daily come-ons from toymakers, breakfast cereal-sellers, record companies, fashion designers and Internet spammers, they can spot a sales pitch from a mile away.

Young people are looking past President Bush's noble rhetoric about spreading democracy to the reality of what could happen to them if America's war on terror continues indefinitely.

One rumor currently making the rounds on the Internet warns - incorrectly - that the Selective Service has a deadline of the end of this month for finalizing plans to activate a draft.

Dick Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service, says the rumor stems from a misreading of the agency's normal March 30 deadline for submitting a budget request and performance plan, just like nearly every other federal agency. "The bottom line is that the Department of Defense doesn't want a draft, so there isn't going to be one," says Flahavan.

Bush has repeatedly pledged to fulfill the nation's overseas commitments with an all-volunteer military.

But recruitment and reenlistment numbers will continue to fall short. The President faces a skeptical cohort of savvy young adults - kids who have already been hit with enough false advertising to check the fine print.