I guess you can say I was raised on the old 1980s-era “Be, All that you can be” U.S. Army recruiting commercials. Cheesy, sure, but they were brilliant. I remember one that embodied the whole series. A racially diverse squad was helicoptered to a lovely green hilltop and proceeded to – almost instantaneously – set up a satellite communications dish. The message couldn’t have been clearer: join an army that looks like you, do exciting stuff, and, best of all, learn a trade. Win, win! Still, the subtext, the context, mattered. That was a peacetime army. Early Reagan administration alarmism aside, no one really expected an all-out shooting war with the Soviets. Vietnam was comfortably in the rearview – never to be repeated (it was thought) – and, in the worst case scenario, a new army recruit might partake in a couple days-long invasion-con-tourism adventure in Grenada, Panama, or some other tropical dot on the map. Ah, the good old days…
Anyway, I was hooked before I’d even begun intermediate school. Heroic black-and-white movies, GI Joe cartoons, my grandparents’ World War II stories, and, of course, those ‘80s army recruiting commercials combined to ensure I’d be a soldier someday. And so I was. Even then, when I came of (military) age, in July 2001, a prospective army career still mainly entailed training, exotic travel, and, at worst, "peace-keeping" duty somewhere in the Balkans. Meet German women and take cool photos during a (quite safe) bid in Kosovo? Count me in, thought my then seventeen year-old self. Then the towers came down. I watched in wonder during mandatory freshman boxing class at West Point. Though I still couldn’t grow facial hair, I sensed that my life had just unalterably changed.
For me, as they say, the rest was history. More importantly, the future path of the US military was to be unique. It eventually faced a historically unusual quandary: how to recruit young soldiers to wage forever war? See, early on in the "war on terror," memories of 9/11 and the resultant patriotic passions, were fresh enough to make the recruiter’s job fairly easy. Then Iraq fell apart (’04), Afghanistan followed (’06-’08), deployments spread to Africa (’08), Obama foolishly "regime-changed" Libya (’11), ISIS exploded into Syria and (again) Iraq (’13-’14), and, well, things fell apart. The year 2019 snuck up on us – on me, at least – didn’t it? And, so today, after eighteen full years of regional war, without a single victory to speak of, and none in sight, I can’t help but thank my lucky stars that…I’m not an army recruiting sergeant!
Worst job in the world, I’m pretty sure. The jaded, exhausted, surprisingly young, combat veterans charged with recruiting duty, face a daunting task unrivaled in the nation’s history: filling the ranks of a volunteer military engaged in full-tilt forever war. Think on it: the US Army has never before asked its recruiters to convince young men and women to sign up for a war that began before they’d been born. But that’s where we are at, folks.
Recruiters, raised in the "can-do" military culture, have tried just about everything, and, mostly managed (often by the skin-of-their-teeth) to make their quotas. Yet it wasn’t easy. The military, especially the overburdened army, pulled out just about every trick-in-its-hat to meet its goals. In the heat of the by then failing Iraq War (’05-’07), that meant giving waivers to high school-dropouts, obese kids, and felons. When that didn’t work, the army proceeded to enforce the "fine print" in enlistment contracts, and "Stop-Loss” soldiers – essentially forcing troops to serve beyond their contracts, often in another combat deployment.
Those were the bad old days, admittedly. Since then, recruiters have filled the ranks by more classic means: exploiting the insecurities and economic desperation of (mostly) young American men. As a result, the US military has become, more and more, unrepresentative of the national demography – a civil-military gap that concerns scholars but is hardly noticed by the populace. So it is that America’s servicemen and women are, per capita, more southern/mountain-western, more rural, and more likely to have a family legacy in the military. They’re also decidedly not from wealthy families. Today, the average, representative, recruit is from rural Georgia and followed his father into the military life. Serving one’s country has rapidly fallen to a veritable military caste. Which should be troubling.
All of which is little more than a long introduction to my rather flippant, if still illustrative point: I’m pretty sure military recruiters are colluding with the university-industrial-complex in order to fill the ranks. Think on it, a college degree has become basically obligatory to earn a living wage, and the cost of that education has ballooned past normative inflation rates, rendering the coveted degree literally beyond the reach of most working-class Americans. Unless, of course, loving parents or desperate students take out exorbitant college loans – which most do. Is it purely coincidental, then, that one of the key motivational tools for recruiters today is the offer to pay off student debt for potential soldiers?
Look, I’m not a conspiracy-theory-guy by nature. I’m more of an Occam’s razor sort of fellow. Which is why I’m regularly attacked in the comments section of my weekly columns for not recognizing the "truth" that 9/11 was an "inside job." Nonetheless, living in our increasingly absurd times has, I’m afraid, made conspiratorial thinking a bit more amenable. As such, I’ve come to realize that, sometimes, positing ludicrous conspiracy theories can emphasize broader, vital points.
So, my theory is based on no empirical evidence, mind you, but (in my defense) bolstered by the, perhaps coincidental, facts on the proverbial ground: tuition costs are exploding and a desperate military is exploiting that fact to fill the ranks for what good-old General Petraeus calls "generational war.” In my own (smallest and cheapest) borough of New York City, Staten Island, young nurses and teachers share apartments out of necessity. Societally indispensable work, in many parts of this country, does not equate to a living wage; to say nothing of the burden of college debt most carry these days. And, for young males in particular, the impossibility of financial stability is a direct threat to their own sense of dignity, of manhood. For such folks, military socialism – stable wages, free healthcare, and a generous pension plan – is undoubtedly tempting.
Okay, maybe the near perfect shared interests between the college-loan bankers and the embattled military recruiters are sheer coincidence. But what if it’s not? There’s nuance in any conspiracy worth its salt. The general commanding the Army Recruiting Command doesn’t necessarily have to physically meet with the bankers for a systemic conspiracy to exist. That’s what the obtuse Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t seem to get. Compared with the unspoken (except by Tulsi) crime of collusion that is the Congress-courts-media-corporate forever war complex, Hunter Biden, Ukraine, and even Trump, hardly matter.
The real collusion, I’d submit, is between the Yacht-owning bankers profiting from the college debt-machine, and the desperate recruiters tasked to fill the military ranks. Their collaboration meets a need, after all: forgiving $200k in student debt might just do the trick to convince kids born after the 9/11 attacks to go fight in a country their parents can’t pronounce and that they themselves can’t point out on a map. I’m pretty sure economists call that synergy – in fact, they ought to teach such mutually beneficial collusion in business school. And so a vindicated Orwell smiles from the grave…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen