"MEN 18 -- 25 YEARS, you can handle this," claims the Selective Service in its registration brochure. Simple cartoons on the cover urge young patriots to "Read it. Fill it. Mail it."
Currently, the Selective Service's only threat to teens is a potential paper cut while filling out the postcard. But a growing number of the nation's youths fear a revival of the draft after the November election because of a shortage of troops to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else the war on terrorism might take Americans.
Agreeing that the military is sorely overstretched, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill June 17 to increase the size of the Army by 20,000. A month earlier, the House voted to add 30,000 soldiers and 9,000 Marines by 2007. As senators worry about "too few boots on the ground" in Iraq, support for conscription no longer springs from the idealistic plan of New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel for "shared sacrifice."
While the Selective Service registers males ages 18 to 25, the majority of Americans don't believe adulthood begins until 26, according to a University of Chicago study. In 1973, the last year that the United States held a draft, "college men" debated the Vietnam War. Now the media describe "college kids" as those who passionately argue about which cell phone works the best.
The study last year shows that society accepts this "extended adolescence" as more youth attend four years of college followed by graduate studies. By postponing the typical markers of adulthood -- the first full-time job, marriage and parenthood -- young Americans live a Peter Pan existence. The average age for brides during the 1950s was 18. In 2004, society expects women to reach 25 1/2 before making their first march down the aisle, according to the study.
The "boomerang generation" may return home after college to save rent money, but these babies of boomers still pay a high price -- delaying their maturity. Twentysomethings may find it difficult to act like adults while bedding down in their childhood rooms stuffed with Little League trophies.
Postponing adulthood might have remained a sociological phenomenon, irking only the parents who suddenly found their empty nests crowded with mature chicks.
But the unceasing need for troops in the war against terrorism means Americans who still feel like kids will be forced to face an adult's most horrific fear. Those "Hell, no, we won't go" chants from the Vietnam War era will seem as quaint as Mister Rogers' neighborhood if the government commands this generation into the Iraqi desert.
In fact, college students already are slamming down their double-skim lattes and iPods to equate the military draft with the most heinous form of forced labor. The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas, Austin, likens a draft to slavery because in both "someone else owns your body and mind." An editorialist for The Daily Princetonian feels the ghosts of Vietnam draftees hovering over the ivied towers while warning that laws now prevent draft dodgers from seeking refuge in Canada.
If Congress reinstates conscription, Mississippi State Professor Joe Atkins predicts massive street demonstrations against it. Today's college students may be novices at political protest; lining up for refills at Starbucks could be the closest they come to organized movement. But any generation that can bilk the recording industry out of billions of dollars without even leaving the dorms can surely concoct outrageous ways to oppose a draft.
Youths who prefer Old Navy to the U.S. Navy fear they may find themselves in uniform soon. Without waiting for congressional approval, the Pentagon has effectively ended the all-volunteer Army by blocking the retirement requests of 40,000 soldiers in what are called stop-loss orders. Also, the Selective Service System has been recruiting to fill vacancies among the 11,000 volunteers who serve on 2,000 local draft boards, which have been dormant for three decades.
Logically, bright college students would be the draft boards' preferred targets. The military already seeks recruits with special skills, such as fluency in foreign languages, while turning away applicants who lack the technological aptitude for sophisticated weapons. Since it costs $120,000 a year to train and support one active-duty member, the armed forces naturally want young people with the finest education. In fact, Mr. Rangel's draft bill removes exemptions for students in college and graduate school, thereby freeing America's best and brightest for national service.
Some anxious teens and their parents feel relieved that both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry deny plans to reinstate the draft. But cynical youths already believe that candidates routinely break promises after they are elected. The man who shakes their hands during the presidential campaign may demand salutes after his inauguration.
Nick Leonhardt will be a senior in September at Loyola Blakefield High School. He lives in Lutherville.