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Letter to a School Superintendent
Our Very Own Madrassas

Galloping cannon fodder

Dear Mr. Renquest,

You’re the school superintendent of the fascinating Needles School District at the geographic intersection of California, Nevada and Arizona—desert, military and gambling country. A wonderful part of the country that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting on a few occasions. I’ve even thought of relocating there, had the opportunity and the right schools presented themselves. No such luck. Newspapers aren’t falling all over each other to hire liberal opinion writers (though newspapers are falling all over) and the schools, judging from your district’s web site anyway, seem not to place the greatest priority on learning so much as preparing some kids for the fodder professions.

What strikes me about one of your schools in particular is the very large link to a “US Army” site on your Needles High School home page, not just because of the deceptiveness of the page it leads you to (a Needles District-hosted page using the logo of the US Army to make it appear as if it’s a US Army site, the sort of deceptiveness you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, allow your high school students), but because of its position on the page, ahead of “high school sports” and “apex learning.” Ahead, that is, of your district’s missions. It appears that encouraging high school students to join the military, and the Army in particular, is a higher priority than encouraging them to take part in their school’s life fully before they’re enabled to waste their life, or at least a few limbs, half way across the world. This in a tax-payer funded school district. (I’m not sure what funding levels are like in your district, but it’s California, it can’t possibly be as indifferent as Florida, my home state where teachers are primarily responsible for administering standardized tests.)

Opportunities in the tri-state area of the Needles school district aren’t what they once were. But surely they’re still better than opportunities in Iraq, and more useful to the nation, if protecting it is what you have in mind: at this point a single-mother hostess in a Vegas lounge is better positioned to serve and protect the United States (if by serving we mean raising children, maintaining a family, paying taxes, contributing to one’s community, and in this hostess’ case keeping the wheels of commerce and consumption and fun—America’s GDP trinity—rolling) than the unfortunate soldier sent as a sacrificial lamb to the useless ravages of Iraq and, now, Afghanistan. To suggest that the men and women serving there are actually “protecting” the United States is something of a deception like your not-quite US Army web page: a projection of something that looks slick but isn’t true. There’s now enough evidence to suggest the contrary. The longer our forces are forced to battle in those regions, the more they’re contributing to an endangerment of national security, as they help fuel the sort of backlash that gave rise to Islamic militancy in the 1990s.

So the question should be posed: what’s a school district doing by encouraging its students to join a fatal mission? To sacrifice in vain? Or as governments desperate to hide the futility behind sloganeering like to put it, for god and country? (What god, whose country, is what I’d be curious to know.) There’s a name for schools that do that with their students in the Arab and Muslim world. They’re called madrassas (admittedly, that’s nothing more than the Arabic word for “school.” I attended a few such back in my student days in Lebanon, though they were Catholic, and therefore far more destructive than anything Sunnis could concoct; but you understand the connotation). The question should also be asked: if service to one’s country is the noble call, why not a button on your web site to the Department of Health and Human Services? To the Social Security Administration, all of which, day after day, serve and protect far more Americans than any brigade in Iraq could ever hope to do? Why not a link to the FBI, whose staff seems to be no smarter or law-abiding than old Judge Roy Bean’s deputies back there on Pecos River? Let your students save that agency. For that matter, why not a link to the Department of Education? It could surely use a few bright Needlers to stick a bit of sense into the No Child Left Behind debacle.

Bribing them as the Army does with those $20,000 enlistment bonuses instead smells, again, of the same tactics used in the seduction of suicide bombers, when riches of this world are dangled in front of the bombers’ families and riches of the next dangled in front of the bombers’ illusions. We must be better than that. Furthering public complicity in the Iraq war and its equally twisted sister (the “war on terror”), and on the back of teen-agers who barely know how to drive, let alone negotiate geography’s intersection of fanaticism, futility and IEDs, amounts to something more vile than ignorance, more criminal than child abuse. It’s murderous, it’s premeditated, and it begins with the click of the mouse you want your students to make.

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