Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Military recruitment at hockey games

I went to a hockey game at the local arena this weekend. They were handing out tshirts and water bottles to young fans. At games, the most sustained ovations are reserved not for goals or even fights but for the free stuff they launch into the crowd in between periods.

Who's 'they'?

At this particular game, it was the Army.

Well, not really the Army but a handful of teenagers on ice skates decked out in t-shirts bearing the ubiquitous 'Army of One' logo.

(Incidentally, 'Army of One' is one of the most absurd premises I've ever seen for an advertising campaign. For whatever its virtues, I can think of few institutions more poorly suited for individualism and free thinking. The military is an organization that claims conformity and collectivity as primary values)

I'm not really surprised by this, even if I was a bit disturbed. The military is sold just like any other product: with glitz and glamor and glossy advertising campaigns. They particularly target the young, since older potential recruits are more likely to have spouses, children, mortgages and other things to tie them down.

Quite naturally, the glossy advertising campaigns don't show images dead bodies or interviews with amputee soldiers. War is portrayed a video game. A game you can win by being an 'Army of one.'

In many cases, people join the military in order to pay for college. It's tragic that the only way many teenagers feel they can get a college education is by risking being ordered to pick a gun and kill. If people truly want to serve in the military, if they feel this is their true calling, then so be it. But there should be other ways to get a college education without going $100,000 into debt than being shipped off halfway around the world to shoot at people who've done nothing to you or your country and dodge bullets from people who want you out of theirs.

It must be a tough time to be a military recruiter. The regular military is being asked to fight a nonsensical, directionless war based on false premises in a place where we are seen as an imperial, occupying power. The US has the best military in the world but it's fighting an unwinnable war; Superman might have been the most powerful being on the planet but he couldn't overcome kryptonite.

And when I say 'we' or 'us,' I don't mean me or you or even the architects of this insane war. It's kids fresh out of high school, many of whom just wanted to go to college and better their lives. I feel sorry for those who felt they had no other choice.

The National Guard recruiters are having a tough time too. This is the first conflict since World War II where National Guardsmen have been ordered into foreign war zones. People signed up for the National Guard to help their states in areas like disaster relief and (domestic) civil disorder. They may have realized in an abstract way that they might be ordered into a foreign war zone. But they assumed that this would occur only if it was absolutely essential to this country's survival.

They were deceived.

While this deceit is not the recruiters' fault (they were deceived too), it's the recruiters' job to sell a lemon to a population who increasingly dislikes citrus fruits. Many who might otherwise join the Guard see this deceit and hesitate about joining. And they should.

Americans will defend their country when they need to, but they hesitate when it comes to unnecessary and foolish wars. The military was inundated with recruits during World War II because nearly everyone agreed that it was essential to national security. For Vietnam, on the other hand, they had to legally force thousands to serve and fight against their will. If Americans truly believe the Iraq aggression was important to our national security, the recruiting offices would be overflowing with candidates.

A few weeks ago, NBC aired a Tom Brokaw documentary called To War and Back. It profiled seven young men from a National Guard company based in my town who were sent to Iraq; only six returned alive.

While I don't personally know any of them, the six came across not as some sadistic cariacture. Not as a group of bloodthirsty monsters who enjoyed violence and blood. Not as some messianic Crusaders hell-bent on forcing 'democracy' and 'freedom' down the throats of the heathens (in sharp contrast to their commander-in-chief).

They came across as a group of scared kids who were asked to do something that they would rather not have done but felt it their obligation to carry out their mission. They may or may not have liked the war in Iraq but the decision was theirs to execute, not to make. They may or may not have liked the president but they had no choice to but to carry out his orders; it was their job and they'd signed a contract. They missed their families and their girlfriends and their friends. They longed for home. I couldn't help but feeling sad that their lives were in the hands of a man not fit to carry their boots. I couldn't help but feeling that they deserved so much better.

And this is why I would dissuade a young person from joining the military at this moment. If you join the military, it is your job to follow orders of the person who occupies the White House at that time. You might think him a coward or a draft dodger or a womanizer, but by joining the military, you are agreeing of your own free will to put your life in his hands. You are agreeing to follow his orders, no matter how absurd or insane you think they are. And even if you trust the president of the day with your life, you agreeing to do the same for the next president, no matter how much or little you respect him (or her).

I would dissuade a young person from joining the military as long as the military is used by politicians primarily for imperial excursions and advancing economic hegemony.

I wouldn't give my unsollicited opinion to someone who wanted to join the military (and in recent months, I have consciously refrained from doing so in a couple of cases). But if asked, I would have an obligation to my conscience and to the other person to be honest.

If politicians actually returned to using the military primarily for its intended purpose, defending Americans from outside attack, then I would have no problem recommending it to those who wanted to join. Since this has been the way the military's been (ab)used for over a century, I don't expect this habit to change anytime soon, whether a Republican's in the White House or a Democrat.

Then again, if politicians actually returned to using the military primarily for its intended purpose, then we wouldn't need such a large military anyways. And your recruiting problem would be solved... without the assistance of gimmicks like water bottles and t-shirts.

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