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Carl is looking forward to his meeting tomorrow. A US army recruiter is coming to his home to see him and his mom and give Carl his first test.
Carl is barely 19. He lives with his mother, grandmother, two sisters and a brother in a depressed New York town. I met Carl when I hired him to assist with some data entry work, recommended by my librarian who also employs him 12 hours a week. During our first meeting Carl told me he was preparing for college. He’d been accepted, he said, but was awaiting approval for state financial aid. With a phone he uses only for texting, without any computer at all, it’s apparent Carl’s family is poor.
Our second session, he announces that he’s found a new girlfriend; but, he explains, she lives 20 miles away and informs him he has to have a car to pick her up. (He reports this as if her demand isn’t unreasonable.) The next week he didn’t mention her; he’d stopped talking about college too.
Carl often speaks about his mother. She drives him five miles to the library on her way to work two hours before it opens; that’s the only way he can get here. He stops at the local Laundromat where it’s warm and there are people to talk to.
I guess this is the reality for many American youths: — bleak job prospects; a mom working long hours; no way to have a girlfriend; depending on financial aid for college.
This week Carl announces he intends to become a military policeman. (That’s where the army recruiter comes in.) He’s excited about this, maybe dreaming. “I’ll tell them to pay my salary directly to my mom, some is to help her, the rest she can use for my brother and sisters.”
Are you looking forward to being a soldier? I ask.
“No. I really want to be a military policeman.”
What about combat; you may be sent to a war zone. Does that worry you? Killing others?
“No. I won’t be doing any of that…”, he assures me. Hopefully,” he adds awkwardly.
“I’ll go to college when I’m in the army”, he says, disputing my claim that only after active service could he qualify for that. “No. They’ll send me to college; when I finish, I’ll train as a policeman.” He pulls back his shoulders confidently, stands erect. I’ve always found Carl polite; he’s conscientious, attentive, honest.
As gently as I can, I raise the issue of America’s foreign wars. You may be sent to Afghanistan or other places where Americans are killed and wounded. Silence. Are any boys from your town in the army? He doesn’t know. None of his friends signed up. I again mention US combat.
“Well”, he says, “The war in Iraq was a mistake, for real sure.”
This takes care of Iraq. Afghanistan? “In Afghanistan all we’re doing is training the people there to protect themselves. That’s why we’re there.”
What about our invasion of that country? “No; we’re only there to teach them to use weapons.”
I can’t resist and I press on with some facts about the US invasion:– overthrowing the Taliban led-government, pursuing Bin Laden, installing an American-picked leadership, pouring billions of dollars into warfare, withdrawing after thousands of Americans and others are killed. Carl looks blankly back at me. “I told you what I learned in school– that we went there to train them.”
Although faced with this youthful naïveté, I persist. Did you know the US trained Afghans and others as fighters to overthrow their own government backed by Russia in the 1990s?
“I only know what our history teacher told us,” Carl replies languidly. “Anyway, I’m going to be a policeman.”
Have I been too hard on Carl? I tell myself, forget about the morality of war and the Afghans and Iraqis killed; just remind him of American casualties; suggest he read a war memoir; there are dozens right here in the library, I think, sardonically. American Sniper, perhaps a book his history teacher consults, sits on the shelf near us.
The thing is: I like this lad; he’s neither charlatan nor blockhead. He’s genuinely seeking options for his future.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.