WITH A LEARNER'S permit in his wallet, a 16-year-old starts thinking about the future. ''Mom, what would you say if I wanted to join the Army?" my son asked the other day.
''I would strongly discourage it," I answered calmly, after a quick mental search for the appropriate response to such an unexpected query.
''Why? Don't you want me to serve my country?" replied the teenager, whose most recent career goal involved sportscasting.
He was in the driver's seat, so it seemed like a good time to remind him to keep his eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel. In short, I dodged his question. It scared me, even more than his still-evolving driving skills.
Soon he was onto the more frivolous topics of routine mother-son conversation -- his next meal and his first car. But the way he framed the earlier discussion stayed with me.
It was easier to say don't join the Army; it was harder to say don't serve your country.
As any student of the Bill Clinton era, I could argue that ''serving your country" depends on the definition of ''serve." You can serve your country in many ways: teach, be an advocate for the underprivileged, or, on the flip side, strive to be a highly successful capitalist and help the country's economy. Buy a big house and a fancy car. Follow your dreams -- just don't sign up for anything that involves blowing up an alleged enemy and possibly yourself. Go to ESPN, not Baghdad, my precious son.
From a strictly intellectual perspective, those who oppose the invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq can argue it is patriotic to speak out against a war that should never have been waged.
We can tell our sons and daughters that they also serve their country well by questioning a war, not only by fighting in it. That is, after all, the underlying rationale of the Vietnam protest generation. But a soldier's heroism in following orders and facing death is more romantic. Those who oppose war are derided as unpatriotic. John Kerry's plans to run for president as a war hero were undercut by his antiwar activities after he returned from Vietnam. To sell a book, actress Jane Fonda is apologizing for antiwar actions and words that earned her the title ''Hanoi Jane."
Military recruitment is down. The Army just reported that it has fallen short of its recruitment goals for a fourth consecutive month. The Marines met their May recruitment target, their first successful month this year. The numbers tell a story about a war that is growing more unpopular with the country, especially with parents whose flesh and blood the Pentagon covets. If the US military presence in Iraq continues at its current level and enough citizens do not volunteer for military service, a draft seems inevitable. In the meantime, the tally of dead US soldiers grows.
The country as a whole tries to avoid their stories. Every so often, the dead break through the junk about Michael Jackson, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. Flipping through radio stations the other day, I was drawn into an NPR report about a soldier from the state of Washington who died in Iraq. Expecting to be home soon, he had signed up for courses in a local community college. His dad spoke about his last time home. They wore matching shirts and posed for pictures. His son believed in the war; to deal with his death, his dad said he did, too -- for now. Listening to that father mourn, I cried. Listening to that father mourn, I also thought: not my son. It is a typical baby boomer reaction, in my case, underscored by the belief that this current war does not justify the sacrifice of any son or daughter of America.
The children of the Greatest Generation who did not want to die in Vietnam do not want their children, the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, to die in Iraq. The attitude is, not my son or daughter, not this war.
Yet understanding history means understanding that countries are born, survive, and flourish because individuals are willing to die for them.
A citizen honors the sacrifice of fellow citizens.
A parent whispers selfishly, please, not my child; not in this war, not in any war. The future beyond a driver's license is scary enough.
Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.