An Army of (No) One

An Inside Look at the Military's Internet Recruiting War

| Wed Jul. 13, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

It's been a tough year for the U.S. military. But you wouldn't know it from the Internet, now increasingly packed with slick, non-military looking websites of every sort that are lying in wait for curious teens (or their exasperated parents) who might be surfing by. On the ground, the military may be bogged down in a seemingly interminable mission that was supposedly "accomplished" back on May 1, 2003, but on the Web it's still a be-all-that-you-can-be world of advanced career choices, peaceful pursuits, and risk-free excitement.

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While there has been a wave of news reports recently on the Pentagon's problems putting together an all-volunteer military, or even a functioning officer corps, from an increasingly reluctant public, military officials are ahead of the media in one regard. They know where the future troops they need are. Hint: They're not reading newspapers or watching the nightly prime-time news, but they are surfing the web, looking for entertainment, information, fun, and perhaps even a future.

In addition to raising the maximum enlistment age, no longer dismissing new recruits out of hand for "drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy," allowing those with criminal records in, and employing such measures as hefty $20,000 sign-up bonuses (with talk of proposed future bonuses of up to $40,000, along with $50,000 worth of "mortgage assistance") to coerce the cash-strapped to enlist in the all-volunteer military, one of the military's favorite methods of bolstering the rolls is targeting the young -- specifically teens -- to fill the ranks.

What the military truly values is green teens. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon pays companies like Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), which claims it offers its "clients virtually unlimited methods for researching teens," to get inside kids' heads. It was also recently revealed that the Department of Defense (DoD), with the aid of a private marketing firm, BeNow, has created a database of twelve million youngsters, some only 16 years of age, as part of a program to identify potential recruits. Armed with "names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers, individuals' e-mail addresses, ethnicity, telephone numbers, students' grade-point averages, field of academic study and other data," the Pentagon now has far better ways and means of accurately targeting teens.

(Military) Culture JAMRS

BeNow and TRU, however, are just two of a number of private contractors working through JAMRS -- the Pentagon's "program for joint marketing communications and market research and studies" -- to fill the ranks of our increasingly-less-eager-to-volunteer military. JAMRS claims that it's only developing "public programs [to] help broaden people's understanding of Military Service as a career option." However, it also hires firms to engage in all sorts of not-for-public-consumption studies that are meant to "help bolster the effectiveness of all the Services' recruiting and retention efforts." Put another way, behind the scenes the military is in a frantic search for weak points in the public's growing resistance to joining the armed services. Some of this is impossible to learn about because access to the studies via the JAMRS web portal is restricted. Should you visit and inquire about examining their research, you are told in no uncertain terms that "access is currently limited to certain types of users" -- none of which are you.

What we do know, however, is that JAMRS is currently focusing on the following areas of interest in an attempt to bolster the all-volunteer military:

*Hispanic Barriers to Enlistment: a project to "identify the factors contributing to under-representation of Hispanic youth among military accessions" and "inform future strategies for increasing Hispanic representation among the branches of the Military."

*College Drop Outs/Stop Outs Study: a project "aimed to gain a better understanding of what drives college students to? ?drop out' and determine how the Services can capitalize on this group of individuals (ages 18-24)."

*Mothers' Attitude Study: "This study gauges the target audience's (270 mothers of 10th- and 11th-grade youth) attitudes toward the Military and enlistment."

During the Vietnam War, Hispanics took disproportionate numbers of casualties and similar disparities have been reported in Iraq. JAMRS, apparently, is looking to make certain that this military tradition is maintained. Additionally, eyebrows ought to be raised over a Pentagon that is looking at ways to influence the mothers of teens to send their sons and daughters off to war and at a military eager to study what it takes to get kids to "drop out" of school and how the military might then scoop them up. Perhaps the most intriguing line of research, however, is the "Moral Waiver Study" whose seemingly benign goal is "to better define relationships between pre-Service behaviors and subsequent Service success." What the JAMRS informational page doesn't make clear, but what might be better explained in the password-protected section of the site, is that a "moral character waiver" is the means by which potential recruits with criminal records are allowed to enlist in the U.S. military.

Future Shock

Another of JAMRS' partners is Mullen Advertising which "works with JAMRS on an array of marketing communications, planning, and strategic initiatives. This work includes public-facing, influencer-focused joint offline and online advertising campaigns." One Mullen effort is the very unmilitary-sounding MyFuture.com. It's a slick website with information on such topics as living on your own, writing a cover letter, or finding a job and includes tips on dressing for success. ("Take extra time to look great.") Without the usual tell-tale ".mil" domain name, MyFuture offers what seems like civilian career advice (albeit with some military images sprinkled throughout). You can, for instance, take its Work Interest Quiz in order to discover if you should "go to college or look for a job." However, the more you explore, the more you see that the site is really about steering youngsters towards the armed forces. For example, when you take that quiz, you are prompted to ask your school guidance counselor "about taking the ASVAB Career Exploration Program if you'd like to know more about your aptitudes, values, and interests?" Not mentioned is that the ASVAB is actually the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery -- a test developed during the Vietnam War as "the admissions and placement test for the US military."

When I took the quiz I was told: "Based on your responses to the activities listed, here are the work styles that may be appropriate for you: Investigative [and] Artistic." To follow up on my investigative aptitude, MyFuture.com offered eight civilian career suggestions, ranging from veterinarian to meteorologist. It also recommended eight military counterparts including Law Enforcement and Security Specialist. For my artistic aptitude, MyFuture suggested that I "may like activities that: ?Allow [me] to be creative [and] Let [me] work according to [my] own rules.'" Apparently, there are eight military jobs that will allow me to stretch my imagination and do just what I want, artistically speaking. Who knew, for example, that the perfect move for an artistic, freethinker would be joining an organization based on authority and conformity -- and then becoming a "Food Service Specialist"?

MyFuture.com claims that its "website is provided as a public service," while the JAMRS site refers to it as a "public site for potential military candidates to discover more about career opportunities appropriate for their interests." Of course, it's really an effort to recruit kids.

Tomorrow's Military, Today?

Another Mullen Advertising-created site is aimed at a different population. Like MyFuture, Today'sMilitary.com is a polished-looking site that lacks a ".mil" in its web address, but instead of targeting teens, the website announces that it "seeks to educate parents and other adults about the opportunities and benefits available to young people in the Military today." In JAMRS-speak that means it's a "public site targeted at influencers."

Today'sMilitary.com is filled with information on financial incentives available to those who join the military and webpages devoted to "what it's like" to be in the armed forces and how the military can "turn young diamonds in the rough into the finest force on the face of the earth." We learn that Army basic training is "[m]ore than just pushups and mess halls." In fact, quite the opposite of a torture test, it's actually a "nine-week-long journey of self-discovery." The Marines' boot camp comes across as an even more routine, though less introspective, affair with nary a mention of its rigors aside from "a final endurance test of teamwork." Scanning through the pages, we even learn that life in the military is not just "exciting, challenging and hugely rewarding," but that in their off-time, military folk "go for walks? and they even shop for antiques" (which may account for some of the antiquities that seem to go missing from Iraq).

Today's Military even takes the time to dispel "myths" like: "People in the Military are not compensated as well as private sector workers." According to Today's Military they are -- just don't tell it to the Marines who recently roughed up their highly-paid mercenary counterparts in Iraq. "One Marine gets me on the ground and puts his knee in my back. Then I hear another Marine say, ?How does it feel to make that contractor money now?'" So reported a former Marine now working in the war zone as a "private security contractor." Mercenaries in Iraq generally rake in $100,000 to $200,000 per year. Earlier this year, under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon announced that it, too, would start paying out this type of cash. One caveat -- you've got to be dead.

Such unpleasantries as death and combat go largely unmentioned on Today'sMilitary.com (or on any of the other sites mentioned in this article). In fact, the only such allusion is on a webpage that coaches parents on ways to push their children to consider the military. It instructs parents to "[e]ncourage them with subtle hints" to foster conversation on the subject and offers talking points to refute the possible trepidations of your own little potential enlistee about the armed forces. Among the "tough questions" a child might raise is a simple fact, driven home nightly on the news: "It's dangerous." Today's Military offers the following answer:

"There's no doubt that a military career isn't for everyone. But you and your young person may be surprised to learn that over 80% of military jobs are in non-combat operations? A military career is often what you make of it."

Tell that to non-combat troops like Jessica Lynch, the late Corporal Holly Charette (seen here delivering mail for the Marines) and her fellow fourteen casualties from a recent suicide car-bomb attack on a Marine Corps Civil Affairs team in Fallujah, or the large number of other troops in support roles who have found themselves directly in harm's way. As a Voice of America article recently put it, "Increasingly, there is a fine line between combat and non-combat jobs, especially in a place like Iraq, where there is no front line, and any unit can find itself in a firefight at any moment."

Assault and (Aptitude) Battery

Maj. Gen. Michael Rochelle, head of the Army Recruiting Command, recently stated, "Having access to 17- to 24-year-olds is very key to us. We would hope that every high school administrator would provide those lists [of student phone numbers and addresses] to us. They're terribly important for what we're trying to do." In the wake of the revelation of the Pentagon's massive new database of America's youth, Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita claimed, "We are trying to use appropriate methods to make ourselves competitive in the marketplace for these kids who have a lot of choices." But as Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel recently wrote in her Editor's Cut blog, it isn't just choices keeping the kids away:

"The debacle in Iraq has made recruiting an impossibly difficult job and recruiters are sinking to new lows in the face of growing pressure to fulfill monthly quotas as well as fierce opposition from parents who don't support the President's botched Iraq war mission."

One of the military's new lows brings us back to the subject of ASVAB and the methods of the Vietnam-era. Faced then with the need for expendable troops, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara instituted an unholy coupling of the War on Poverty and the War in Vietnam -- Project 100,000. Project 100,000 called for the military, each year, to admit into service 100,000 men who had failed its qualifying exam. The program claimed that it would outfit those who failed to meet mental standards, men McNamara called the "subterranean poor," with an education and training that would be useful upon their return to civilian life. Instead of acquiring skills useful for the civilian job market, however, "McNamara's moron corps," as they came to be known within the military, were trained for combat at markedly elevated levels, were disproportionately sent to Vietnam, and had double the death rate of American forces as a whole.

Today, a desperate Pentagon seems to be following a strikingly similar path. As Eric Schmitt of the New York Times has written, the Army is increasingly turning to high-school dropouts, has already almost doubled last year's number of recruits scoring in the lowest level on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and is "accepting hundreds of recruits in recent months who would have been rejected a year ago." Meanwhile, those who happen upon the Pentagon's ASVAB website will find another slick design, with few military trappings, no ".mil" web-address, and lots of objective career counseling. You have to troll around the site to discover in the fine print that it's offered as a "public service by the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Manpower Data Center."

Like Today'sMilitary.com, the ASVAB site makes a pitch to parents, exhorting them to "[e]ncourage your teen to take the ASVAB." It also tries to influence teachers to "[i]ntegrat[e] the ASVAB Program Into the Classroom," even recommending that portions be "assigned as homework" to students.

Strapped for bodies, the Pentagon is putting on a full court press to fill the ranks. Its new package of promotion includes: big signing bonuses and drastically lowered standards; NASCAR, professional bull-riding, and Arena Football sponsorships; video games that double as recruiting tools; TV commercials that drip with seductive scenes of military glory or feature The Apprentice host Donald Trump; disingenuous career counseling websites; and an integrated "joint marketing communications and market research and studies" program actively engaged in measures to target Hispanics, "drop outs," and those with criminal records for military service. The Department of Defense, in short, is pulling out all the stops, sparing no expense, and spending at least $16,000 in promotional costs alone for each single soldier signed up.

Obviously the Pentagon wants recruits badly and cash-strapped teens represent one of the best chances to fill uniforms. The military clearly thinks that America's youth couldn't really pass your basic intelligence test. Its websites downplay danger and its slick TV commercials show bloodless scenes of adventure and heroism that don't square with images (and news) now coming home from Iraq to anybody's neighborhood. From hiccupping recruitment rates, it's clear, however, that America's teens already know these ads and websites are missing a few critical elements -- scenes of American troops acting as foreign occupiers, killing civilians, torturing detainees, fanning the flames of discontent, and failing to deliver basic safety or security not just for Iraqis but for their own troops.

Nick Turse works in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and regularly for Tomdispatch on the military-corporate complex and the homeland security state.

Copyright 2005 Nick Turse

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt.