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Memory's Revenge

The planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom forgot another thing on the road to Baghdad: how veterans would affect their ability to get new boots on the ground.

Think about ya life, the choices you make. Recruiters out to get you, don't make a mistake./Is obvious, right, they target the 'hood. Take a homeboy and write, what's wrong and what's good./My words are truth, heal like medicine. Don't believe me? Man, holla at a veteran.

Rayniel, a New York City teenager, rapper, serious Catholic, had been talking to veterans for years by the time he became a senior at West Side High School, an alternative public school where the lived history of men in war has become a regular part of the conversation and curriculum. Rayniel himself never considered the military a career option, but as recruiting and counter-recruiting became all the word around inner-city high schools late last spring, he picked up a flyer from the American Friends Service Committee (a.k.a. Quakers) and added his own riff on its "Ten Points to Consider Before You Sign a Military Enlistment Agreement." Points one through three advise young people to "not make a quick decision," to "take a witness when speaking with a recruiter," and to "talk with veterans." Or, in Rayniel's translation, "Think about ya life...."

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Jim Murphy wasn't thinking about much as a high school student near Rochester, New York, in the early 1960s. A kid with all the others sitting in the back row—the ones without a plan, sullen and indifferent, on whom their teachers had by then given up—he was, he says now, "really dead in the water. College, I blew it off. I was so far in the back row I had my hand up for the bathroom, the easiest fresh meat right there." He signed up for Vietnam and has been thinking about it ever since, the leeches and rashes and flamable boredom, the obsidian memory of death and horror purchased with lies.

Murphy is an administrator at West Side High today, and just before graduation Rayniel made him a gift of the customized "Ten Points" to give to students when he talks to them about war this fall. The two, Rayniel and Murphy, represent the U.S. military's deepest desire and greatest fear—youth and experience, except the one is not so young as to be unacquainted with cynicism nor the other so experienced as to have drowned in it. Recruiters know not to waste time with the Rayniels, and because they won't roam schools without a welcoming administration, they stay away from West Side High. But Murphy and a team of veterans will go where the recruiters go, making the rounds of New York's front-line high schools as they did last year, presenting themselves as primary sources in a district where Tim O'Brien's testament to war and narrative remembering, The Things They Carried, is on the official reading list for senior year. They'll address themselves most to those kids in the back row, the recruiters' softest targets, answering again the simple, searing question about Vietnam that they always get: "How did it change you?"

The Pentagon's recruitment crisis is only the latest evidence that the authors of Operation Iraqi Freedom forgot something on the way to war: the adamant memory of Vietnam, and not in the usual sense. There's a truism among military strategists that "the war before" colors the one you're fighting. World War II corporatized the military, in everything from management style to procurement to the seemingly permanent draft, even as it helped make the middle class and valorized combat experience as the ultimate manly credential. The Vietnam War was born of all that and then convulsed on it, transforming the draft into political dynamite and restructuring the Army to make wars like the one in Iraq unthinkable, or so almost everyone on up to Colin Powell once thought. Now retired Army officers will say openly that there's no precedent for running a full-scale war with a volunteer army; they will cite the Powell Doctrine—prescribing war only on condition of mass public support, swift and overwhelming force, and a clear exit strategy—as the lost lesson of the war before, the thing that Bush and Cheney, with no experience of Vietnam, were mindless of, and that Powell, whether too weak, too ambitious, or too loyal, failed to impress upon them.

Such critiques miss the fundamental lesson, which is that soldiers forced to become criminals for old men's ambitions won't all come home quietly. After Jim Murphy returned from Vietnam in 1969 he became part of the most rocking, because least expected, movement against the Vietnam War, the GI rebellion. He doesn't describe this in his presentation to high schoolers—in 40 minutes it's all that he and his fellow vets can do to convey the reality of war, the nature of military commitment beyond a recruiter's promises, and alternative sources of scholarships, jobs, or adventure—but it forms the essential context.

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