On Jan. 18, people in cities all over the world gathered to express their opposition to the U.S. leading a war in Iraq. In Indianapolis, hundreds stood on the Circle in a frigid wind, listening to a string of speakers have their say about the awful prospect of having to mourn the deaths that would certainly follow a strike against Saddam Hussein. With the arrival of each new speaker, a woman standing next to me would hold the picture of a young American soldier above her head. The soldier was her son. "He joined the Army," she said, "so he could go to college." The flip response is to belittle this mother"s fear, to ask what, exactly, her son thought he was getting himself into when he joined what is, after all, a volunteer Army. As Rush Limbaugh delights in reminding us, it is a soldier"s job to "kill people and break things." Men and women lacking the stomach for this kind of work need not apply. Such comic book swagger, wearing its seeming tough-mindedness like aftershave, can shut a lot of people up. No one is forced to join the Army - and, surely, no one could possibly confuse basic training with a tutorial for the SATs. Soldiers, according to the Limbaugh school of patriotism, have a dirty job to do; the best thing for the rest of us, the supposed beneficiaries of this work, is to fall in line and give them our support. But this overlooks the fact that in the past year George Bush Jr. has changed a basic tenet of American foreign policy and, through that process, dislodged a cornerstone upon which America"s volunteer Army has been built. The warrior role of soldiers may be timeless, but the purpose of our military has, almost overnight, been dramatically revised. Throughout this country"s history, Americans have taken it as an article of faith that we would never be the first country to strike in war. Our principled unwillingness to be the aggressor has set us apart from imperialistic nations and rogue states. It has been the reassuring fig leaf we"ve used to justify our use and possession of so-called "weapons of mass destruction." This changed following the criminal hijackings of September 2001. In declaring war on this terrorist crime, the Bush Administration found a pretext to not only bring the perpetrators to justice, but to use American military power in subduing what the president famously called "the Axis of Evil." Although Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the three members of this club, have, unlike Saudi Arabia, never been associated with the hijackings, all have long been considered outlaw states. As outlaws, Bush declared, they represent a chronic threat to the United States. Henceforth, he said, the United States would reserve the right to strike first at anyone who might cause us harm. Though barely a subject of public discussion, Bush"s decision to make the preemptive strike an instrument of American foreign policy is a major departure from traditional practice. If you want to know how major, put yourself in the combat boots of an Army recruit. Volunteering when the Army was conceived as fulfilling an essentially defensive function, dangerous as that might be, is a startlingly far cry from signing up to be the world"s toughest cop. As long as America denied itself the first strike, its soldiers could allow themselves to think of their service as a step up to another stage of life. No more. Anyone volunteering for the armed forces better face the fact that he or she will likely find themselves in one of a number of foreign hot spots - Colombia, the Philippines, the horn of Africa - where our newly defined national interests and our enemies collide. When, in the midst of the Vietnam debacle, this country did away with the draft in the 1970s, relief was so widespread the potential drawbacks of a volunteer Army received scant attention. The Bush doctrine of preemption suddenly casts those drawbacks in a glaring light. Now it seems less apt to speak of a "volunteer" Army than of a professional one - a service that is accountable only to its commander-in-chief. Our country"s military undertakings look more like executive decisions than expressions of public will. A draft, even a shamefully corrupt and divisive one like we had during the Vietnam era, brought the war home to millions of people who might otherwise have kept the action at arm"s length. Many of these took to the streets, creating a protest movement that politicians ignored at their peril. Charles Rangel"s recent proposal to resurrect the draft, sketchy as it seems, belatedly acknowledges the draft"s power to demand a kind of accountability from this country"s military-industrial complex that a volunteer service conveniently side-steps. If every parent of an 18-year-old knew their son or daughter was about to be placed in harm"s way, you can bet the urgency of public debate and media coverage concerning war in Iraq would be different from what we"ve seen so far. But how Americans wind up in the service of their country is secondary to what this country"s leaders choose to do with the powers with which they"re vested. George Bush"s turning the first strike into an instrument of American foreign policy has changed the character of our armed forces. Joining up can still help you get the college education you might not otherwise have been able to afford; more than ever, it can also get you killed.