At a U.S. Army recruiting office in Northeast Washington, three soldiers sat idly at their desks in an otherwise empty room, looking like a trio of lonely Maytag repairmen.
I dropped by the recruiting station at 1400 Florida Ave. NE one day last week to see how enlistments were going. But no one was authorized to admit the obvious. One did make a pitch, however. "We can get you in the Army reserves right away," he told me.
Brochures detailing the many benefits of signing up were on display, including a skills training booklet that featured 150 "cutting edge" career specialties -- "everything from engineering to electronics, telecommunications to medical." As an Army reservist, benefits may also include up to $22,000 for college while you serve.
Only one problem: Call it war.
The management and leadership skills that the brochure says "are in high demand in the civilian job market" would most likely have to be learned in combat, and nobody could say how long such training might last.
"That office used to have lines forming at the door, especially after high school graduations," said Carl Jackson, owner of Perfect Cuts barbershop, which is in the 1400 block of H Street NE and situated cater-corner to the recruiting station. "Nothing happening over there now. The recruiters can't justify the war, and nobody wants to risk their lives for something they don't understand just because you offer them $20,000 in college tuition."
Studies by the Army have noted dramatic drops in the percentage of African American recruits during the past five years.
One report last year said that "more African Americans identify having to fight for a cause they don't support" as a reason for not enlisting. But it's not just that blacks don't support the cause; many are not sure there even is a cause, because the reasons given for going to war have changed so much.
The recruitment office and barbershop are near a busy intersection where H Street and Florida Avenue merge with Maryland Avenue, Bladensburg Road and Benning Road. The two establishments used to operate hand in hand, with young men from the neighborhood coming in for haircuts before going to enlist.
But the invasion of Iraq changed all of that. Along with the military battles, there also is "a war of perceptions," as Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, recently put it. On one side are the idealists, as I see it, such as recruiters handing out glossy brochures, and on the other side are realists, such as the streetwise barbers and their customers who know a hustle when they hear one.
"This is going to be the next Vietnam," said Al Berkshire, a federal bureaucrat who was getting a haircut on his lunch break. "Our guys are training Iraqi troops, and everything is fine as long as they are with the Americans. But as soon as the Americans are no longer around, they run off. Why? Because they know the nature of the beast. We, on the other hand, know nothing about people who are willing to blow themselves up to kill thousands and thousands of Americans and Iraqis a handful at a time."
Last month, the Government Accountability Office released a report about the racial and economic makeup of military fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whites, who constitute 67 percent of the active-duty and reserve forces, accounted for 71 percent of the fatalities; African Americans, who are 17 percent of the overall force, were 9 percent of the fatalities; and Hispanics, who are 9 percent of the force, accounted for 10 percent of the fatalities.
About 80 percent were from low- to medium-income, rural and urban communities.
"My grandmother used to go with her church to visit the soldiers at Walter Reed," Jackson said. "But she had to stop. Couldn't take it anymore. She was a nurse at Georgetown University Hospital for 30 years, and she had seen a lot. But seeing all of those boys coming back from Iraq -- hundreds of them, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds -- all torn apart like that, it just broke her heart."
Of course, recruiters aren't authorized to talk about that, either. Then again, at this stage of the war, there's hardly anyone for them to talk to at all.