There were two shows on TV about the Iraq war, Over There and Generation Kill. In both of the shows, they had scenes where American soldiers looked among the bodies of dead Iraqi fighters and find out that they're university students from Syria. Some of the soldiers are surprised that young college kids with their entire lives ahead of them would want to come to Iraq to fight against the Americans.
In 2010, one of my friends came back from an extended trip to Africa and the Middle East. He brought back a bunch of stories about all the things he did, and some of his stories could have gone disastrously if events unfolded slightly differently than they did. My friend loves reminiscing about his experiences in foreign countries and he'll always retell those stories to anyone who will listen. At the time, he was a 4th year college student about to graduate.
After rewatching Generation Kill again, I suddenly realized that there was little difference between my friend and those Syrian university students-turned-jihadists. When people are young and adventurous, they'll look for visceral experiences. And many are especially attracted to dangerous ones. Anybody with an ounce of knowledge and experience could have told you that an untrained college kid trying to take on the might of the American military was essentially signing his own death warrant.
But that kid isn't thinking about his exceptionally low odds of survival. He's subconsciously thinking that he'll be the exception. Because in modern society, young adults have been raised to believe that they are the center of the universe. Their parents dote on them and shelter them from the harsh realities of the real world and once they go to college, they finally reach a point in their lives where they can sense that there is a world full of possibilities but not experienced enough to realize that many of those possibilities can result in untimely death and dismemberment.
For a Syrian university student, his entire life had been previously dominated by his family. His parents expected him to go to school and do well. His friends expected him to follow soccer and chase girls. When he gets to college, a completely new environment away from his family, and hears about the Iraq war, that is literally the biggest and most exciting thing that has ever happened in his life. And he's at the age where he finally has a decent amount of independence. How could he not go to Iraq and fight the infidel?
There is actually a precedent for this even in Western culture. When the United States finally decided to enter WWI, Congress instated a draft to raise soldiers for the war effort. One of the reasons why is because they didn't want the country's young elite (university students on the East Coast) rushing off en masse to die in the trenches. They wanted to spread the war effort out among the general populace.
The death of a young adult who was raised to be a farmer would be a much smaller loss for the country than the death of an upper middle class Harvard student, who is being groomed for a high station in society. That basic principle, protecting the nation's elite young adults, underlined future draft law. College enrollment would exempt you from military service, and it featured very prominently in draft dodging during the Vietnam war.
This phenomenon of privileged young adults itching to do stupid things in the name of declaring their independence is troubling. It suggests that we don't do a good job of raising kids to become well adjusted adults. There is always a critical period of a few years when a young adult's independence outstrips their judgment, and that's when they are most prone to making boneheaded decisions. Whether it's trying to visit the most dangerous places in the world or going up against the most dangerous military in the world, it represents the phenomenal stupidity of a privileged young adult.
Society should do a better job of raising our nation's elite. It would be better to inculcate small, measured doses of independence and authority to kids in an attempt to minimize that critical period of stupidity. This needs to begin in middle school, increase in high school, and then reach its fullest effect in college. It does the country no good to hover over our children from K-12 and then ship them off to fend for themselves once they go to college.