There was a national furor not long ago when the Berkeley, California, city council declared “The United States has a history of launching illegal, immoral and unprovoked wars of aggression”; that Marines are “not welcome” and that “military recruiters are sales people known to lie to and seduce minors.”

Perhaps the council overstated its case, although we know from the Vietnam experience that it takes very controversial gestures to shake us from indifference. We should have done something drastic 5 years ago when this war was first being peddled by the Bush administration. As I’ve noted in a previous column, these hostile remarks to the Marines are mild-mannered gestures compared to the actions that were taken to stop the Vietnam War, from burning draft cards to destroying draft records, to shutting down universities to repeated protests.

Indeed, what’s been most disturbing during this war is how timid our reactions to it have been. Our squeamish politeness has pushed us to the point of a complete moral breakdown. When breaching manners with a mere verbal insult gets inflated to a national scandal, it’s a sad example of how spineless we have become–and how willing we are to cringe before authority.

When etiquette demands that you cower in silence, you simply can’t have democracy. I’m reminded of the reply of the late, great muckraker Jessica Mitford when I asked why her mother and father, the English baron Redesdale, were so impressed by Hitler. “He had such fine manners,” she said. He also demanded fine manners from his nation (except for his stormtroopers, torturers, and other Nazi thugs), with the result that many people who hated fascism curtseyed into it anyway. The time for politeness has long passed.

As to the statement about military recruiters, obviously it’s their job to market exactly like sales people. And, as we know, not all people are 100% scrupulous when they’re engaged in marketing. That’s why we have Better Business Bureaus, customer service reps, consumer protection laws, and so on. There is no reason, except blind faith, to believe that no recruiter uses unethical tactics. That’s why there have been charges that military recruiters have lied to teenagers to convince them to join the Marines. The most chilling account of sleezy recruiting is in former Marine Anthony Swofford’s book “Jarhead,” where, among other unscrupulous marketing ploys, he reveals how recruiters baited him with stories about Marines having prostitutes. There are less sleezy examples, of course, like deception about education, length of duty, and so forth. For a typical account, see

I hasten to add that THERE IS A VERY POSITIVE SIDE TO MILITARY SERVICE. It often rescues youth who have been in trouble or have no direction in their lives. There is plenty of evidence that the discipline, focus, training, and sense of responsibility required in the military can turn young lives around. As hard as it may be to swallow, the fact is the military — in some cases — might even save some young people from disastrous fates.

Moreover, the vast majority of recruiters probably don’t resort to dirty tactics like those described by some victims of  such tactics. But it can be argued that even the most well-intentioned and honest recruiters, by the very nature of their work, are forced into a type of child abuse because they are marketing to vulnerable youth. This means that, at the very least, we ought to have a national discussion of the pros and cons of recruiting young people.

Why? Well, as we all know, many teenagers are easily swayed, often immature, and sometimes reckless. Isn’t this why their car insurance costs more? Isn’t this is the basic assumption behind adults’ endless worries about the evil influence of Goth music, gangsta rap, gangs, porn, violent video games, drugs, internet sexual predators, etc.? Isn’t this why we give teenagers all kinds of legal protections, impose curfews, and forbid them to buy alcohol? Isn’t this why we require them to take driver’s education and sex education in the hope that we can protect them from being easily swayed, immature, and reckless? Isn’t this why spend piles of money to protect them from not just from unprotected sex, but to finance abstinence programs to protect them from sex itself?

On top of all these protections, teenagers are shielded by child labor laws and child protective services. We take teen protection so seriously that a U.S. congressman, Mark Foley, had to resign from the U.S. Congress after revelations that he sent “sexually explicit” e-mails to a teenage congressional intern.

If there’s one topic on which there is agreement, from the hard right to the extreme left, it’s about the need to protect our kids from abuse of any kind.
Except, of course, when it comes to recruiting them to go to war and face the ultimate danger of being blown to smithereens. Neither family-values conservatives nor their liberal adversaries are doing a lot to protect the kids in this area. Not even much public hand-wringing, although no parent in his or her right mind would even consider subjecting their kids to the kind of threats encountered in war. Nor would they tolerate anybody trying to drag their kid into such hazards. This is why countless families have spent their hard-earned money buying new homes and getting the hell out of dangerous neighborhoods. That they turn around and allow the government send these kids to patrol neighborhoods in war zones is one of the most chilling ironies of this war.

Logically, then, teenagers need as much protection from being swayed into joining the Marines as they need to prevent them from being swayed into joining gangs or dealing drugs.

The vulnerability of teenagers is not only a matter of “emotional” or “mental” immaturity. Physiologically, there is evidence that the brain isn’t fully developed until at least age 25. Teenagers are, quite literally, not always playing with a full deck. Researchers at both Dartmouth College and University College of London have shown what many  parents have suspected: that the human brain doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-20s. Immature brains obviously impair judgment, and make people susceptible to persuasion techniques that might not affect someone with a fully mature brain. This sounds like a compelling MEDICAL case for banning recruitment of young people.

In any case, parents around the country should thank the Berkeleyans for at least calling attention to life or death issues that could affect their children.