Everyone is talking tough inside the Beltway these days.
Conservatives at the Weekly Standard argue that we need to topple Saddam Hussein--now! Liberals at The New Republic say it's high time we string Arafat up like the terrorist he is. Think-tank desk jockeys from all over the political spectrum endlessly theorize about where we must absolutely send our troops next. In the final analysis, they just might be right--but just who's "we," kemo sabe?
So far, none of the high-profile hawks has traded in his Rolodex for an assault rifle. In private discussions, some of them say they would suit up for battle but cite a host of reasons for staying stateside, including the year-long lag between enlisting and rolling out onto the battlefield (By then, they say, the war might be all over). Luckily for them, a little research reveals that almost anyone can get into a shooting war lickety-split. Here's a blow-by-blow account of how to fight -- if that's what they really want.
Some button-down warriors are reluctant to join up because there hasn't been an official call to arms: But freelancing a war on your own terms is hardly something new. The "Greatest Generation" certainly didn't wait around for Pearl Harbor to suit up. In the 1930s, piles of lefty American volunteers fought in the Spanish Civil War with the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Adventurous Yanks bolted to England to fly fighter planes long before we declared war on Nazi Germany, too.
More recently, about 400 Albanian-Americans formed the Atlantic Brigade and fought as part of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999. Even monumental screw-up John Walker managed to stumble into the Taliban fold. If his twisted ideals were strong enough to take him abroad, dedication to freedom and liberty will surely lead many more to fight for the good guys.
"Well, sure," the reluctant hawks say, "but I'm too old." Not true, at least for many of Washington's youthfully exuberant. The U.S. Army takes enlistees as old as 35, according to a recruiter I talked to in October. A college diploma even goes a long way toward ensuring that you get your pick of assignments. You can insist on infantry -- maybe even a shot at the elite Army Rangers -- if you really want a piece of the action.
If you're a little longer in the tooth, there's always the French Foreign Legion. Seriously. They'll take you until you're 40, plus you get that sporty white kepi and an optional nom de guerre. Always in on the action, 60 legionnaires arrived in Afghanistan in November. As a bonus, these elite troops are intricately tied to troubled regions in Africa -- people who choose the Legion will probably be within striking distance of terrorists whether the U.S. decides to expand its current war or not. On the downside, the Legion is a notorious home for the world's outcasts, and a book describing the brutally hard Legionnaire life includes a chapter titled "Tips on deserting."
As a last resort, there is always the option of hopping on a plane and wandering around the desert until a sympathetic resistance fighter coughs up a spare Kaleshnikov. It worked for John Walker. In a phone interview this Wednesday, retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown said that a few gung-ho Americans are already considering this strategy. People contact him about such things because of his Special Forces experience in Vietnam -- and because he's the founder, editor, and publisher of Soldier of Fortune.
"I got a couple of queries here in my office, 'Well, we have a bunch of guys together and we're going to do blah, blah, blah,'" Brown said. While sympathetic to would-be mercenaries' "intent," he is not so sure that going it alone on today's battlefield is a good idea. "You put in with the wrong party, and you'll end up with a knife in the ribs." On the other hand, Brown would not dismiss the idea altogether: "That is not to say that, for instance in Afghanistan, that you couldn't get over there and hypothetically join up with the Northern Alliance or one of the tribes if the situation is right."
For now, nobody in the Iraq-now or down-with-Arafat crowd seems ready to take that risk, and in a lot of ways that makes sense. The war is going well, and nobody in the middle of a promising Beltway career path wants to commit to a three-year hitch (five in the French Foreign Legion) unless they're pretty sure there's a payoff. Even fewer want to test the knife-in-the-ribs theory (hardcore Soldier of Fortune readers notwithstanding).
Still, when people shout that we need to substantially widen the war in Iraq, Somalia, or anywhere else, it's fair to ask if "we" includes them. So far, it doesn't.