Patriotic fervor isn't translating

September 25, 2001|By Michael Olesker

PEARL HARBOR, it is not - yet.

The country staggers to its feet after the terrorist attacks of two weeks ago, and prepares for what President George W. Bush predicts will be a "long war." But at military recruiting centers in the Baltimore area, officers report plenty of patriotic fervor across the land, and on the nation's television sets, but not precisely in their offices.

"It's business as usual," said public affairs officer Shaunteh Kelly, checking figures for the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area's Army recruiting centers. "No increase in numbers at all."

"It's pretty discouraging, to be honest," Chief Petty Officer Jermaine Brown said yesterday from the Navy's Pratt Street recruiting office. "I talked to some of the other service guys, and they say the same thing."

"I haven't seen any boost in numbers," said Staff Sgt. Darian Patterson at Marine recruiting center at Mondawmin Mall.

"Let me put it this way," said 1st Lt. Regan Wilson at the Air Force office in Oxon Hill, which coordinates recruiting efforts in the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia area. "We have a 1-800 national phone number. The Tuesday before the attacks, we had 335 calls. The Tuesday after the attack, we had 670 calls." But one caveat, said Wilson: 58 percent of those 670 calls "were unrelated to recruiting. It was people calling for support, wishing us well, that sort of thing."

"We don't track [enlistment inquiries] like a stock ticker," a Defense Department spokesman said yesterday, "but our anecdotal reports say there's been a jump in the number of phone calls and e-mails inquiring about enlisting." The down side, he said, is, "A lot of the inquiries we're getting don't meet the criteria. They're too young, or they're too old."

All of this is not exactly the memory that the nation cherishes of the days after Pearl Harbor, the worst sneak attack on America before the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11. In history's rear-view mirror, we see young men in December 1941 lined up outside military recruiting offices across America, full of desire to defend their country in its hour of vulnerability.

In the two weeks since the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit, the country has prayed, wept, cheered its political leaders and its newly appreciated firefighters and police, purchased untold numbers of American flags, rediscovered patriotic fervor moribund for years, glued itself to television news coverage as it has not since the John Kennedy assassination, and vowed revenge.

But, at least around here, such passions do not seem to be translating into dramatic numbers at military recruiting offices.

"We had a couple of guys who came in Saturday," the Navy's Brown was saying yesterday. "They talked a little bit about the attacks. But they were the first two who even mentioned it. One guy said he couldn't understand how the Pentagon could get attacked. Like it was the Pentagon's fault.

"You know, one of the toughest sales for us is selling a person that maybe the country won't go to war. That's their fear. They want a career, they want to serve their country, but naturally they don't want to get hurt. How do you get around that now? A lot of people, sad to say, aren't willing to fight for their country. There's a surge of patriotism, yeah, but right now people are putting it behind their local police and fire departments."

Brown's words have the ring of truth, but there is probably more to it.

We've lived in an age of cynicism for a long time now, our idealism tempered by assassinations and unpopular wars, and by the official lies that surrounded them, and by politicians who cashed in on voters' naivete. That cynicism doesn't disappear overnight. Nor will cries for all possible peace initiatives. The president says this war won't be Kosovo; but will it be Vietnam, or Korea - or the endless "war" on drugs?

In the last decade, we've grown accustomed to watching our wars from a distance. The military draft was killed after Vietnam, and our biggest wars have either involved limited ground troops or, in the Persian Gulf war, troops who found the going so easy that the battle seemed a grand entertainment to viewers back home.

Surely, some still believe (despite the president's words to the contrary) that the coming war can be fought the same way - with most Americans watching comfortably from their living rooms while the bombers and electronically deployed missiles handle things without human beings having to get too involved.

Or maybe, like the U.S. military and political leaders, those considering enlisting are still trying to figure out the immediate future: whether to go in with guns blazing, or watch the diplomats work things out, and hope that events will get better instead of worse.

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