Secure job, training, no student loan, chance to see the world, how could any parent object?

It was not a question I'd ever expected to hear. How would I feel, my eldest son asked, if he joined the Army?

I tried not to look as horrified as I felt, but my heart sank.

His reasons for joining sounded like an Army recruitment commercial: adventure, travel, camaraderie, and the chance to do something "real".

He was thinking, as only an idealistic teenager can, of making a difference in the world's troublespots, fighting for those who couldn't fight for themselves, and maybe, if truth be told, of the kind of kick-ass, adrenaline-charged heroism that had made Willie Apiata a household name.

Of course, there was an economic upside, which I admit has become more appealing as the cost of living and studying has grown more unmanageable. He could study while being paid.

There'd be no sponging off hard-up parents, no crippling student loan, and a guaranteed job at the end of it.

It was win-win, except for the one downside that mattered: the possibility that every parent dreads - the news that, sadly, one New Zealand family received last week when a Humvee rolled off a treacherous road in Afghanistan.

No parent would choose a job that put their child in harm's way. But even as I tried to steer my son towards a less dangerous career path, I couldn't ignore the questions it raised: if soldiering was too risky for our precious son, why was it okay for others? If not our son, whose?

George Washington was unequivocal on that. "It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system," he'd argued, "that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defence of it."

The reality is that in the US as here, the burden of the nation's defence isn't spread equally across the population; it's borne disproportionately by the sons and daughters of the poor and less well-off.

Which is why Army recruitment tends to go up in tough economic times, as young people struggle to find jobs, and why African Americans in the US and Maori here have tended to shoulder an unfair share of our nations' defence load.

I've heard it suggested that the benefits of a career in the armed forces ought to be promoted more vigorously in the Pacific community, especially given the chronically high rates of unemployment among Pacific youth here.

But this poses obvious difficulties.

In American Samoa, for example, the success of US Army recruiters has been matched by heavy losses - the highest death rate of any American state or territory since the start of the war in Iraq.

One could argue that this was a fate freely chosen, but given the scarcity of jobs and opportunities on the island territory and the lure of a signing bonus, a decent salary, and military-funded college education, it's a Clayton's choice.

The impoverished pockets of the Pacific have provided a ready supply for recruiters for the British Army as well, hence the growing number of Fijians in its service - and the Fijian faces on websites listing those who've fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And yet, despite the dangers, I understand the attraction, too.

I've heard it said that when one member of a family joins the Army, the whole family does, too.

I now have a nephew studying for a science degree while training to be an officer in the New Zealand Army, and another working his way up the ranks of the British Army.

The latter has completed tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, loves the army life and is proud of what he does. If he wasn't in the Army, he'd probably be unemployed in Tonga.

There's a lot to be said for military training. I have two friends who swear the military was the making of previously delinquent male relatives (though in both cases, it ought to be noted, the men had been the black sheep in otherwise functional families).

My Tongan nephew stayed a week with us once, after which I understood why politicians find boot camps so appealing as a cure-all for wayward youth, despite continuining evidence to the contrary.

Most mornings, our soldier had been for a run, made his bed, washed and hung up his clothes, showered, had breakfast, and reorganised some part of the house before the rest of us had woken up. He had my boys making beds and tidying their room, without complaint. I wanted him to stay forever.

Alas, his influence did not last. My boys went back to their messy ways after he left.