Ted Cruz and the Military’s Recruitment Advertising

Senator Cruz doesn’t like the new recruiting ads the army is running. He may have a point. Take a look and see for yourself:

This is a new approach. If you were drafted in the 60’s to go fight in the late great and unlamented Vietnam War, you were not fulfilling your destiny. You were not searching for some way to give back, or find yourself, not securing some inner worth that you felt was somehow missing from your privileged American youth. You were not, as the current recruiting ads say rather breathlessly, answering some inner calling or finding your inner strength. Back in the 60’s, quite the opposite, in most cases you had simply failed to escape the clutches of draft boards and induction centers. 

In the cute and charming animation, which Senator Cruz is hooting about, a young female corporal, Emma Malone-Lord, is gratified to find a way to fill an inner emptiness, not satisfied by her Pi Phi sorority sisters. In a sparkling clean helmet and close fitting fatigues she tells the camera and the un-enlisted television audience that they can answer that empty feeling, not uncommon in directionless youth, in the army of today. She is a picture of sincerity.

Times change and armies change. The army in the Vietnam years had no interest in your inner doubts and feelings of personal inadequacy, or your nagging worries about whether you were fulfilling societal responsibilities. The army of draftees, dragooned to prop up the South Vietnamese government against the communists from the north, found a different organization. The army then was dirty, self-loathing, confused, badly led, badly trained, badly deployed and badly armed. Draftees in the enlisted ranks were moody and sullen, envious of others who had, thanks to fraud and funding, or education and elite connections, escaped being pulled into the miserable swirl of the war. We were suspicious of everything we were told. We did not bound out of bed every morning, as I suppose the bright-eyed Corporal Emma does, ready to do our best with a firm smile. We were not energetic to get the job done. We were very unhappy. There was fighting in the ranks. There was disobedience on all levels, and discipline, the most necessary of all military spirits, was largely faked.

Corporal Emma, according to the ad, has two mothers who are also in the animated recruiting film. She is doing her best to make them both proud, in part by making the world free, or at least freer of the old prejudices. She wants to do this by serving proudly in the army. Senator Cruz, whose own military record can’t be checked because it does not exist, detects emasculation. He regularly goes shopping for anything that might turn public sentiment against the Pentagon. And in this current instance he may have found something. The ad, not just because it is a cartoon and thus only an approximation of reality, shows a hopeful and somewhat happy situation. The young lady will look back on her army service as a time in her life when the values that made her successful later on were provided.  Without her army experience she might always doubt whether she was becoming all that she could be. She climbs a rope and meets other physical challenges. She will grow strong and confident.

Maybe. If the army, or any of the services, can serve to strengthen our youth, we should all be for it. But there’s ample evidence that things don’t always work out that way. A shocking statistic recently is the growth in the suicide rate in the ranks of enlistees and even many veterans. Lacking Senator Cruz’s incisive suspicions, some Vietnam veterans might suspect that the Pentagon’s halcyon advertising, replete with promises of a better life and a good shot of self -actualization, is at fault. In the Vietnam War years there was no possibility of mistaking the army as a benevolent organization where you could supply strength and inner confidence. The army sucked. The war sucked. The people you served with were just as unfortunate as you were. They joined you in angry, boring helplessness, interrupted only by idiotic orders and explosions. If you could finish your tour of duty alive and with all your parts intact, you did not want to commit suicide. You wanted to make up for lost time and live.

But if you believe the animated hype and the determined hopeful outlook of the current recruiting ads you might expect a good deal more than the US Army, or any army, can ever deliver. And then after waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, a volunteer might realize that though the advertising has changed, the army has not. On many levels, it still sucks. They still order you around, proscribe many of the freedoms you were used to, make you march and crawl and polish boots and stand in rows and show respect to punk officers and sadistic sergeants. And the relief may come when the war finally shows up and you realize that armies have only two jobs – they kill people and they blow things up. You can try, but it’s hard to see Corporal Emma blowing some unfortunate Afghan or Iranian boy’s head off. Or, having done so, how she becomes a better person for it.

God knows I hate to be in the camp with Ted Cruz, but he has a point. Armies are necessary evils. Their roles are regrettable. They hurt people, even the people who do the hurting, and there doesn’t seem to be any effective replacement. So the advertising should simply face the truth. Young people should join up and do something that has to be done. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself, but maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll be all that you can be, maybe you’ll be less. At least you won’t be looking for something that doesn’t exist, dreamed up by advertising agencies trying to sell war with the hype they use to sell soap.

Jeff Danziger is an editorial cartoonist. He served with the First Air Cavalry in Vietnam in 1970. His memoir, Lieutenant Dangerous, is being published this week by Steerforth Press.