Jason, Josh and Heather

The news is usually bloodless, even when it reports the spilling of blood. The act of reading the news turns nearly everything into a distant abstraction. Even calamity becomes almost comforting in the context of news coverage, reminding us that things are as they’ve always been. Stories are cast in familiar clichés—a celebrity wages a brave fight against a devastating illness—and the familiarity of such narratives becomes the message, turning the news into homilies that make even the bad news tolerable.

A couple of weeks ago, the assorted news media reported the prognostications of a Pentagon general who sees troop levels in Iraq remaining at present levels at least through 2009. In the tradition of objectivity in the news, the reports were unemotional, even boring. A medal-draped Pentagon bureaucrat standing near a chart offers an opinion about probable troop levels in a land far away in a time that seems remote. The fact has few immediate ramifications for most American readers. They pay no higher taxes because of it, and only volunteers are being sent there to deal with the problem, so it’s an abstraction, really, something that can be argued over but nothing terribly pressing—certainly nothing as immediately troubling as the skyrocketing prices at the gas pump or the worrisome talk about a possible collapse in real-estate values.

That small item about troop levels was released as mothers throughout the country were hitting Wal-Mart and Kmart in the annual quest to outfit their kids with back-to-school clothes. The shopping carts filled up with school supplies and with the hopes and dreams of those mothers who think they are building their children’s futures with each purchase.

Across the nation, middle-school teachers drifted back to their classrooms, putting up posters and organizing the spaces they are going to be occupying for the next school year. School administrators were at their desks, secretaries prepared roll sheets, book companies shipped textbooks, and janitors waxed dusty floors. The amount of energy expended in this enterprise is impossible to calculate, but that is the tax the present pays to the future, a covenant between the reality of now and the hopes for what might yet be.

But, if the recent news story proves to be accurate, some of that possibility will never be realized. Kids currently worried about things like peer pressure and flunking algebra may, a mere five years from now, find their blood spilling out on the sand of Iraq. According to that Pentagon spokesman, 130,000 soldiers are likely to be stationed in that country in 2009, and those soldiers will be drawn from the Jasons, the Joshes and the Heathers now in high school.

Study hard, kids. Poor grades and limited opportunities are how the recruiters target you, and your future is rushing at you faster than you can possibly imagine.