Crossing America: President can't give the word fast enough for restless cadets
Seattle Times staff reporter
"Are you going to fight?"
The cadets of Wentworth Military Academy, ages 12 to 22, would like to. Some would pack a duffel in a minute and head toward the battlefield if there were one. They'd go one-on-one if only the enemy would stand and fight.
But the President has said this is a new kind of war, and so America's would-be soldiers must wait. So much trained fury with nowhere to go just yet.
"This terrorism crap is highly upsetting, sir," said David Kolinofsky, 17, a cadet sergeant. "The (death) toll in New York keeps rising and that keeps me upset; it makes me want to go so bad, sir. I'm ready to fight. I'm willing to friggin' die, sir."
Every cadet says "sir" a few hundred times a day. It's a word you could not have forced Kolinofsky to utter at gunpoint three years ago. He lived in Dallas, was a die-hard druggie with a habit of getting arrested. After the last arrest, his parents gave him an ultimatum: military school or no money for attorney fees, which meant certain jail time. Off he went to Wentworth. He says it's the best thing that ever happened to him.
Wentworth is one of three military schools in Missouri, and one of the oldest in the country. It was founded 121 years ago in this leafy town about 50 miles east of Kansas City. A famous Civil War battle took place here, and the Confederates won. The town's been distinctly Southern ever since, with a lot of "y'alls" and "yes, ma'ams" in the local talk.
The school covers 137 acres of lawns as meticulous as a leatherneck's crew cut. Red-brick colonials stand among groves of giant oaks and blue spruce. A refurbished hall commemorates the school's most famous graduates: two Medal of Honor recipients and Marlin Perkins.
Today, just under 200 students attend, from junior-high to junior-college level. The students walk in straight lines and turn at right angles. They stand and sit upright. They salute the flag every morning and night. An unshined buckle or scuffed shoe could get you a reprimand or 50 push-ups.
Military schools didn't fare well in post-Vietnam America. The anti-war mood of the country put them in a bad light. Later, they were seen as too draconian for the Beavis and Butt-head generations. Many shut down. With the exception of West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, military schools became largely anachronistic.
But in the past 2-½ weeks, it's cool again to be military. Wentworth's Web site has gotten more hits than ever. Cadets report a noteworthy change in public attitude. Said Kolinofsky: "Definitely, people have been a lot nicer, sir."
The students come from all backgrounds, and from all parts of the country. Most come from families with money, at least enough to pay the $20,000 a year in tuition, room and board. Many students come by choice; many are sent by parents who see military discipline as the straightener of crooked paths.
No doubt some at the school don't want to be there. They tend to be in the younger grades. Kolinofsky hated it at first, as did Amanda Goodman.
Goodman, an 18-year-old pixie from Shreveport, La., was sent by her parents because she was caught up in the wrong crowd. Now both she and Kolinofsky are 4.0 students and cadet leaders brimming with patriotism.
We talked with at least 10 cadets. They spoke in anthems or in bumper-sticker rhetoric, depending on your point of view.
Shawn Dillon, 19, from Tennessee: "You're either with us or against us."
Allison Jaslow, 19, from Virginia: "We must assert ourselves."
Dustin Berry, 19, from Missouri: "I'm not afraid to die."
Daniel Jemott, 19, from Kansas: "I'd go now, no hesitation."
The average age of a foot soldier in the later stages of the Vietnam War was right around 19. The law allows 17-year-olds with a parent's permission to join the military. Every one of these teenagers could be called up.
Their conviction was plain, unclouded by doubts and other distractions. It was a little unnerving. We civilians in polite coffee society don't often encounter such unblinking preparedness to fight to the death for a principle.
Yet we know civility has limits.
One night last week (in Oklahoma, I think), there was a movie on late-night TV. It was about a man and woman stranded on a deserted island. At one point, they're being chased by pirates trying to kill them. As the pirates close in, the woman turns to the man and says she no longer wants him to be a nice, sensitive, feeling guy; she wants him to be the meanest, toughest rock-eating caveman SOB that ever lived. Sometimes there's no talking to pirates.
A way to understand the function of soldiers, for those with reservations about the military mindset, is that their job starts when talking does no good. When pirates are coming at us, the people who walk in straight lines and step up to defend might not seem like a bad bunch after all.
In the TV room of Wentworth's Echo Company, between talk of girls and football, Kolinofsky and his unit monitor the news. They keep hearing about this new kind of war, and wonder aloud whether they can play a role in it.
"I'm waiting for any word that the war is starting," Kolinofsky said. "I want to go so bad, sir. I feel like a lazy piece of crap just sitting here, sir. I think about all those people who didn't deserve to die, and I get highly upset. I'm ready to go. I just want the word, sir. Just give me the word."
No one knows where the road of current events will lead. Reporter Alex Tizon and photographer Alan Berner are exploring how far Americans are willing to follow it. Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216, or firstname.lastname@example.org.