Posted by: David Kiley on August 4, 2005
Looking at most advertising for the U.S. Army these days, one would hardly know the U.S. was fighting a War. Messages play up skills training that will benefit enlistees when they get out, leadership development, college benefits. What is very hard to find in Army recruitment advertising is a message that might say, “Your Country Needs You Now.” Im thinking of a World War I recruiting poster that showed a man in uniform saluting next to a glorious waving flag. The accompanying copy—“The Call To Duty. Join The Army. For Home and Country.”
Isn’t it odd that with well over 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and the number of new Army recruits and National Guard recruits waning, causing Beltway lawmakers and policymakers to explore everything from opening up recruitment to 40 year olds to offering expedited citizenship to illegal aliens, that the Pentagon doesn’t feel comfortable flat out asking young men and women of the U.S. to make sacrifices in the name of patriotism and National Defense. “For Home and Country.” How did we get here? The sad fact, according to those working on recruiting, is that the “Uncle Sam Needs You” message just won’t play with more than 90% of the recruits they deal with. The enticements are up to about $100,000 for a new recruit. Potential recruits are being treated like NFL first-round draft picks.
Bombings and other violence in Britain bring home the idea that it could happen again in the U.S. at any time. Yet, chats with some very conscientious people in the military lately put me back on my heels a bit. They talk about the U.S. Army as a “brand.” I guess it is. But I can’t quite get away from the notion that talking about it like an SUV or bar of soap in the time of war seems like a terrible disservice to those fighting. Don’t get me wrong. These are good people worrying over recruitment rates and plotting strategy. And they are attacking the problem of low recruitment with the marketing tools they are being given. But when we have to keep jacking up the signing bonuses, opening up recruitment to older men and and women, shortening tours and finding other financial incentives to beef up recruitment, it makes me wonder if the Pentagon is on the right track with the strategy—for the War and for recruitment.
Meantime, I saw the new show “Over There” last night on FX. This is the Steven Bochco series chronicling soldiers fighting in Iraq. A story about the series in The Christian Science Monitor was headlined, “…Over There Dramatizes Iraq War.” Except the plot in last night’s episode about a couple of soldiers at a checkpoint who had to “light up” a car with two Iraq men speeding toward them perfectly mirrored a story related to me by a returning vet. Like the men in the TV show, the Vet I spoke with had no idea if the people were bad guys or good guys, confused by the warnings to stop or driving with their lights off to avoid detection. The show is full of troubled vets, wounded and otherwise with missing limbs.
The ratings and the Internet chatter about this show will be hard for the Army to counter. What’s not clear to me yet, though, is whether the show will be a help or hindrance to recruiting. It could turn a lot of recruits who are the bubble off from joining up. Then again, young viewers in the teens and early 20s could come to identify with the actors so closely that, like the soldier with a missing leg in the hospital ward who wants to rejoin his unit “to be with his boys,” they could feel the pull through the TV screen to become a part of something big.