Sign Me Up: Recession Boosts Army Recruits

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Recession? Turndown? Complete collapse? What should we call the current state of our economy? If it’s not a depression, it sure is depressing. Chalmers Johnson, founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute and a former CIA analyst, has been saying for years that the United States has little to no national industry. The only thing that the U.S. currently has to offer the world, he claims, is war and the machines to make it. By that rubric, our current economic depression might not be as bad as we think. Since the bottom dropped out of the U.S. economy in October, every branch of the U.S. armed services has reported windfall recruitment surges. The economy is getting so bad, it seems, that the hells of Iraq and Afghanistan seem better than the purgatory of unemployment. It is boom times indeed for the wagers of war.
According to The New York Times, every military branch has surpassed its recruitment goals for the year 2008. The new year may look even better, which might be the only favorable prognostication that this year can squeeze out. For example, the army had set itself a recruiting goal of 80,000 new recruits, yet pulled in 80,517. While not much higher than the goal, keep in mind that prior to 2006 the army had difficulties reaching its recruitment goals.
Perhaps thanks in part to those horrendous “music video” ads they commissioned to play before every film you go see, the Army National Guard was 2,000 recruits above their goal. Indeed, ads like those that play before the movies are part of an expensive marketing campaign the army has unrolled, using an unprecedented section of the army recruiting budget on advertising. It is hard to believe, but it must actually cost a lot of money to get Kid Rock to play a song. It’s even harder to believe that he’s “an American warrior.”
However, the ads must be paying off, as even the army has increased its forces. In the months of October through December of 2008, numbers were way up, with more than 21,000 new active-duty recruits. For years, people have been avoiding the army, as the likelihood of becoming a flag-draped casualty hidden from the media’s eyes was higher than other branches. While it is a difficult decision to join the armed services, especially in a time of two active wars and the prospects of occupying two countries largely hostile to U.S. presence, sweetening the deal is the GI Bill. After years of declining benefits, the new GI Bill will guarantee tuition at any state university after three years of service in the military. Many people are being driven to the armed services because they cannot get the support they need to continue school. While the GI Bill is undoubtedly a good program, it is a wonder that the federal government seemingly wants to replace the SAT with PTSD.
According to The New York Times, fewer recruits have been high school graduates, fewer passed the entrance exams on the first try, more have criminal records and now, due to the economy, more may be destitute. Why is it that the people who get the least from the government are those forced to give the most? From our elected representatives to our tax policies to our international diplomatic interests, the whole structure of the government is stacked against the interests of the people who, demographically, become soldiers. The government has largely given up trying to convince people it is some patriotic duty to join the military. Instead it is letting the poor decisions of Wall Street hacks do the job for them. Oh, and those economy-destroying hacks took home $20 billion in bonuses last year.
In the opening decades of the 20th century, states worked hard to inculcate people into the national narrative, what we might call national history. Largely due to the success of these narratives, and the methods of their reproduction and dissemination, people happily signed up for World War I, believing they were helping their countries to national glory. But when people sign up for the military because their country failed to provide necessary opportunities and services for them, what good is the nation? Nations brought us into the modern world in all its horror, nations have sustained us for the past 100 years, but what place will they play in the future? It seems the economy has finally killed the nation: People are now signing up to die for a paycheck, no national myth necessary.
Since the end of the draft, an all-volunteer army has carried out our national military engagements. Only those who want to join the military need to fight overseas. Those with an objection to armed service need not explain. But is it really a volunteer army if people aren’t enlisting but rather accepting a job? Perhaps it is time to bring back that old tool of the nation, the draft. Sure, it isn’t popular, but maybe by spreading the burdens of our foreign policy to those not forced to bear them through economic immiseration we would, as a nation, be more conservative in our military engagements. We would probably get into fewer wars. And while that may be bad for our current national industry, perhaps reallocating some of that Pentagon budget would be good for the U.S. Maybe it would create more civilian jobs. Maybe we could rebuild our infrastructure. Maybe we could save a few lives.

Brock Cutler is a graduate student in the history department. He can be reached at bcutler@uci.edu.

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