So I'm sitting in my office minding my own business a few weeks back, reading a report from the Congressional Budget Office, as is my wont of a brisk fall afternoon, when Will Davenport calls, very agitated, from Knoxville, Tenn. Davenport, who is a stranger, says he is about to turn 40.
I say I know the feeling.
Well, he says, he was watching the Civil War documentary on PBS and was overcome by the desire to serve his country.
And you're calling me, I interrupt triumphantly, because you were inspired by my recent column about the Civil War and the need for national purpose.
No, actually, he is unaware of that column. He is calling me because he wants to enlist in the Army and fight in the Persian Gulf. But he has been told by his local Army recruiter that he is too old. Various politicians' offices have given him the polite brushoff. He is looking for some strings to pull, and he thinks for some reason that I might have an in with his senator, Al Gore. Not, alas, the case. Nevertheless, we chat.
Davenport is a bouillabaisse of yuppie emotions, all of them honorable, many all too familiar. Facing 40 naturally induces morose contemplation. Another factor, Davenport admits, is "the adolescent and probably very foolish idea that a real man becomes a soldier for a while." With no special exertion, he avoided service during Vietnam. He doesn't really regret this, because he thinks that war was wrong. But he does feel he missed something important. And he shares the widespread concern that in Vietnam and again in the Gulf, the fighting and dying is done by poor boys (and now girls) while those of what he calls "a better background" escape.
Not part of Davenport's thinking is any great enthusiasm for President Bush's purposes in the Gulf enterprise. Indeed, when I talked to him more recently, to see how his quest was progressing, he conceded that he had become "cooler on thumping Saddam Hussein." But he still feels that a "Woodstock Brigade" (his nice term) in the Persian Gulf, which he could join, would be good for him and good for the country.
Most of us may not share Davenport's eccentric determination. But his general feelings touch a chord. And what aging yupster will not feel aggrieved to discover that he is considered too old for military service? After all, what have we been jogging for all these years? But a call to a local Army recruiting office confirms the insult. The lady on the phone says pleasantly but firmly that she is not interested in my business unless I am under age 35. "And if it's just a couple days before your 35th birthday, we couldn't get you in," she adds with unnecessary cruelty.
Davenport has chosen the worst possible moment to have his crisis of conscience. The biggest personnel challenge to the military right now is getting rid of people. Under the recent budget agreement, the uniformed services will be reduced by 425,000 over the next five years -- more than one-fifth. The problem will be finding ways to keep people who have chosen a military career and have been trained at great expense.
This particular dilemma illustrates the larger irony facing all proposals, such as reviving the draft, intended to address concerns about the isolation of military from society in general and decision-making elites in particular. The services don't need more people. Anyone who enters the military against his will or out of a guilty conscience will take the place of someone who is there for more practical reasons. That person may not be grateful to be denied this opportunity so that some yuppie can enjoy an egalitarian moral frisson.
Col. Lamar Crosby, a personnel manager in the office of the secretary of defense, denies that the current all-volunteer force is unrepresentative. He says it draws in rough proportion from all socioeconomic groups. But why is it, then, that practically no one in the White House, Congress, the Washington press corps and so on has a family member serving in the Gulf? According to Col. Crosby, the explanation is that the absolute numbers are so small, compared with earlier military festivities like World War II, not skewed demographics.
Well, since I've got you on the phone, what about my pal Will Davenport? Could a 39-year-old guy be of service in Saudi Arabia? Crosby is doubtful. Contrary to Davenport's impression, very few infantrymen in Project Desert Shield are even over 30, let alone approaching 40. (Like many folks our age, Davenport is losing his ability to judge the age of younger people.) "It's been shown time and again that war is a young man's game," the colonel says. He goes on to a brisk discussion of things like "going days without sleep or rest . . . in a combat environment" that leaves me feeling Davenport's years pretty vividly.
Anyway, the colonel adds, things are moving pretty fast in the Middle East, and it would take 16 weeks of training before he could get there. Then he'd be even older, I traitorously volunteer. "He'd be a lot older," says the colonel.