Why He Went to War

News & Politics

When 18-year-old Anthony Ramirez walked into my office nearly a year ago to apply for a job with the youth magazine I edited, I knew right away I wanted to hire him. He seemed confident and brave, with hoops in his ears, a thick silver chain around his neck and steady eye contact. I sensed he had a story to tell, even if he wasn't sure what it was.

The magazine Anthony worked for, called 110 Degrees, is a program of the Tucson-based nonprofit organization Voices, Inc, which trains low-income youth to document community stories in writing and photography. As the magazine's writing director, my job was to help Anthony and 19 other teenagers research, interview for and write a story about themselves or a community issue and share it with the public.

Like many students new to the creative process, Anthony struggled for much of the year, failing to consistently contact his interview sources, flip-flopping on his story ideas, and staring at the blank computer screen. Then, just a month before the deadline, almost by accident, he wrote a remarkable first-person narrative about what it was like growing up with a dad in prison. His story reported how his anger had taken over and how he had spent the bulk of his adolescence drunk, high, in fights and juvenile detention centers before choosing to straighten out.

I was amazed by his voice, his honesty, and his willingness finally to express himself. As his mentor, I felt overjoyed by the small revolution he'd undergone at his desk. His piece was well received when it appeared in the local paper and he stole the show at our community release party when he read parts of it aloud.

When the program ended in May, Anthony told me he was taking the summer off "to kick back and relax." He'd just graduated from high school and deserved a break. When I asked him about college, he said he was thinking about it. I trusted him to stay out of trouble. He seemed transformed.

I'd seen this before. The work we do at Voices is rooted in the belief that stories can change the lives of those who tell them and those who hear them. Something about the process of researching, interviewing, writing, photographing, and publishing builds confidence in young people, particularly when they share their stories with the community. In my years of doing this work, I'd seen that the pen could be mightier than the sword.

But what happens when the sword is wielded by the U.S. military?

Six weeks into the summer, Anthony and I spoke on the phone. He had something to tell me, and wanted to know what I thought. He had enlisted in the Army.

What about college? What about your writing? What about this war? I asked, shocked. In my quivering, cracking voice, he knew where I stood.

He agreed to meet me for lunch.

I armed myself with articles and pamphlets, many of which I'd downloaded from the San Diego-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, a nonprofit community organization that provides young people with an alternative point of view about military enlistment.

I told myself I wanted to hear Anthony's reasons for enlisting, but in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to convince him to change his mind.

I was up against a formidable force.

Anthony was a recruiter's dream. A Mexican-American teenager from a low-income home with no father figure, Anthony was pretty directionless, despite his recent publishing success. Though Anthony went to the U.S. Army recruitment office on his own, recruiters are tracking down others like him all over town: In shopping malls, as Michael Moore so deftly showed in Fahrenheit 9/11; in schools, thanks to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that allows military recruiters access to students and their contact information; even in the Boy Scouts: at a Boy Scout Jamboree in Fort Hill, Va earlier this month, President Bush thanked the scouts "for serving on the front lines of America's armies of compassion" and praised those who "have shown the highest form of patriotism by going on to wear the uniform of the United States."

Against such strategies, I recognized my limitations, not least of which was the fact that my adolescence had been nothing like Anthony's; my current reality was even more divergent. Yet, as his mentor and a vehement opponent of the Iraq war, I felt I had to try something.

We met downtown in an outdoor café.

I picked at my salad while Anthony tried to come up with a good reason to explain his reasons for enlisting. He said "I don't know" a lot.

"You have to know, Anthony," I pleaded. "This is your life we're talking about."

Anthony seemed completely uninformed -- about the war itself, about what exactly he'd agreed to do for the Army, about what exactly the benefits he'd been promised entailed. This angered me, but didn't surprise me. Until he came to work for Voices last fall Anthony had never used the Internet. His research skills were limited. He was bright and perceptive, but not always curious. He was passive in the way many teenagers I've worked with are, often because so little is expected of them.

But I had seen something light up in Anthony through the writing process. I'd seen the same thing light up in others before him -- a kind of confidence and self-efficacy that could open up new ideas and possibilities. Couldn't this be the saving grace?

"At a time when my country needs me, it feels like the right thing to do," Anthony finally said.

"The right thing to do?" I thought to myself. What's right about preemptively attacking a country without international support? I spoke about the lies the Bush administration used to justify the war. "You know there was no clear link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein?" I said. "You know there were no weapons of mass destruction, right?" I pulled out the testimonial of one young soldier who, upon his return from Iraq, discovered that the reasons he'd been told to fight were false and began to speak out against the war.

"Did they give you a big bonus?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Did they promise money you for college?"

Yes, he said.

I pulled out more articles. I pointed out that the skills he might gain in the military wouldn't necessarily transfer to civilian life. I also outlined the myths of the Montgomery GI bill, which promises recruits up to $40,000 for college, but rarely delivers that much. In fact, many recruits never receive any of the education benefits promised to them.

"Yeah, I heard something about that," he said.

He had? And?

"I don't know," he said.

"Did you not think you had any other opportunities?" I asked.

"Yeah, not really."

I pounced. "That's what they want you to think." I mentioned the names and faces that showed up on my television screen every night when they did the death count, predominantly young men from the Army and Marines, many of them Hispanic. I pointed out that the bulk of military recruiting was happening in low-income neighborhoods, targeting minority kids, like him. A report by the American Friends Service Committee called "The Poverty Draft" shows that the numbers of Latinos serving in the U.S. military are disproportionately high in relation to their percentage of the national population. The same is true for African Americans.

"You're basically a piece of meat for them," I said in frustration.

He looked away from the table.

I pulled myself together. "But you're so much more. You do have possibilities," I said. "You're a talented writer. You're college material. You're well-liked by your peers." I knew Anthony loved children. "You could be a teacher."

I vowed to help him look into college and financial aid or any other alternative he wanted. "It's not too late," I told him. Anthony looked at his BLT.

After an hour or so, I'd said everything I'd wanted to say. I wasn't sensing any transformation. It had been so much easier with his writing. When I'd asked him questions he'd written out honest answers; when I suggested areas for more detail and reflection he returned with lovely, powerful sentences.

"I don't think I'm going to change my mind."

I wiped away tears, then rephrased my question. "So, let's say you go in, you serve for eight years, you make it out (God willing), and you come home. What have you gained?"

He thought for a minute, then said, "Family, structure, brotherhood, honor. All the things I don't have now."

Structure, perhaps. Family? Brotherhood? Honor? Would he really gain those things?

There was no way to know. Just as there was no way I was going to make Anthony, in one lunch conversation, or even eight months of mentoring before that, see the world and the war the way I did. Which, of course, was not really what my role as mentor prescribed. But I did think I might inspire some sort of new perspective. I'd done it a few months earlier, with the power of story.

But now the story was different.

It was being told with a compelling narrative full of words like "duty, honor, adventure, endurance, and discipline," not to mention a $4 billion recruiting budget and predatory conscripting techniques.

If I'd had more time, I might have been able to tell a similarly persuasive tale about the thinking life, the teaching life or the writing life. But my story was way too late.

This was asymmetrical warfare; the playing field had long been uneven.

Since he came into office, President Bush has repeatedly cut funding for after-school programs ($400 million in 2004). His education policy has consistently measured success via standardized test scores, which forces teachers, already strapped for time and resources, to focus less on critical and creative thinking skills, which can't be measured by the tests.

In a system like this, no wonder boys like Anthony are choosing the Army.

After lunch, Anthony took the articles I'd brought and promised to read them. I looked him in the eye and told him I hoped he'd come home safely. I told him I loved and supported him, but that I did not support his decision. He nodded. We stood and hugged.

Despite what I may have wanted for Anthony, I'm beginning to understand that perhaps what he wanted and needed above all else was to make an important decision on his own. Which is exactly what he did. As his mentor, I suppose I could be grateful for that. But I'm not sure I am.

As a writer and researcher, I am sad Anthony's decision wasn't more informed. But I also wonder if any more information would have made a difference. Maybe what solidified Anthony's decision to enlist was simply one word "need"--"My country needs me." Given my rage about the Iraq war and why we're in it, I can dispute that notion until my pen runs out of ink.

What I can't dispute is that the feeling of being wanted and needed is, for a young man like Anthony, more powerful than the fear of death. And much more immediate than the ambiguous promise of a middle-class future.

His story is one of thousands. I just wish it could have been written differently.

Anthony leaves for boot camp this week. He's promised to write.

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