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imperialism & war | media criticism

Recruiters go high-tech to meet wartime quotas

It is Marketing 101. The recruiters find out what they want and they exploit it. Their targets spend their time playing video games and listening to iTunes, so that's what the recruiters give them.
—Grant Remington, Veterans for Peace
By Dave Mazza

The farmers of Anglo-Saxon Britain answered the king's call to join the fyrd — the national militia — under penalty of death. Centuries later, that same nation ruled the waves by keeping her navy manned through the use of press gangs - bodies of armed men who swept through dockside taverns, forcibly carrying off anyone fit to serve aboard a ship. By the early 20th century, the recruiting methods were being tempered with psychological appeals to ensure soldiers remained in the trenches, or better yet, didn't turn their guns on their own government. By the late 20th century, the cultural revolution of the 60s, with its strong anti-war component, resulted in recruitment approaches that often left out the message that the purpose of the armed forces was to fight wars — remember "... the Navy, its not just a job, its an adventure?"

In the 21st century it's iTunes.

That's right. Forget God and country or making the world safe for democracy or even just having a good time. Sign up for the latest tracks by DMX or Rihanna and do good by your nation.

In an effort to boost sagging recruitment into the National Guard, the PR boys back at the Pentagon have come up with a plastic card the same size as a credit card that they are disseminating at the same rate as AOL's ubiquitous cd samplers. On the front are the American flag and the bold words "Wear the Guard Colors" and "You Can." Beneath comes the "Exclusive Offer! Free iTunes music download."

The flip side of the card has a faux magnetic strip with instructions underneath to go to www.1-800-GO-GUARD.com/MOVIE. The prospective recruit is told to enter the special code on the card to download the iTunes.

But rather than being rewarded with free music, the curious are guided through a number of screens titled "National Guard 101," a PowerPoint presentation that explains the history of the guard and its role in today's world, accompanied by questions that only the comatose could fail to answer correctly. Along the way, links are offered up describing the terrific educational benefits available to members of the National Guard, the skills acquired and the unique experience every Guard member will take with them back into the civilian world. The web pages are slick, offering up a multicultural vision of young people working and having fun together while the danger of war is only a faint hint on the horizon.

According to National Guard Sergeant Gower Talley, the publicity campaign seems to be working. Talley is State Marketing Non-Commissioned Officer for the Oregon National Guard. He has over 20 years of service in the Army and seven years with the Guard.

"This program was set up by the National Guard bureau a little more than six months ago and is deployed nationally," Talley states. "Anyone logging on for the iTunes gets directed to the local Guard unit as a lead. What we don't get is the statistics - that's kept at the national level."

Still, Talley maintains, the anecdotal evidence is that things like the iTunes card, the affiliation with things like NASCAR races and the Portland Lumber Jacks pay off. He didn't have specific numbers but claims that Oregon recruitment for the Guard has been "spectacular" of late.

If Oregon is like the rest of the nation, that boom in recruiting comes on the heels of three years of recruiters failing to meet their goals. At the depth of that slump, the Guard was down to 331,000 soldiers from its usual complement of 350,000. With recruiters only reaching 80 percent of their goal in 2005, the Pentagon considered cutting 17,000 slots from the 2007 budget. Opposition from senators, state Guard leaders and all 50 governors made the Pentagon back off, however, they are still demanding the Guard bring itself back up to the 350,000 troop level this year.

The iTunes may not be the sole cause for the more recent turnaround in recruiting, however, they do represent a new approach to filling the ranks of the Guard. Television ads of the 70s, 80s and 90s are being replaced with the sort of cheap prizes associated with listening to a time-share pitch. But recruiters are coupling it with something more alluring - money.

A program instituted last year awards Guard members up to $2,000 per individual they recruit. The Army National Guard announced last month that the bonus program had brought in more than 26,000 new soldiers in 2006. Recruiters exceeded their target by 7 percent. That success is also due to a doubling of recruiters to more than 5,400 and training by outside consultants in more effective ways to reach potential recruits. Still, the boom in Guard recruitment prompted the Pentagon to launch a pilot program whereby the Guard will recruit for the active duty portion of the Army as well.

But there is a darker undercurrent to this success that you won't hear recruiters talk about. In the past, the primary target of Guard recruitment were soldiers coming off of active duty. Already familiar with the military environment, these women and men could easily adjust to the more relaxed military environment of the Guard and bring to it several years of experience. That has changed with the new initiative system. Guard members are now reaching out to friends and family members, mostly people who are younger and without prior military experience. The video game image of life in the Guard is familiar to them and offers powerful persuasions for signing up. It is not a method that encourages potential recruits to make an informed choice.

"It is marketing 101," states Grant Remington, president emeritus of the Portland Chapter of Veterans for Peace. "The recruiters find out what they want and they exploit it. Their targets spend their time playing video games and listening to iTunes, so that's what the recruiters give them."

As Remington notes, it's a strategy that is difficult to defeat. The military has the dollars and the people to create a big presence to the young people they want. In addition, they are buying off the relatives and friends of these people to help as well. In opposition are peace groups like Veterans for Peace who have few resources and must rely on limited symbolic actions like the peace rallies and the creation of a peace park. They can also support parents who want to challenge the willingness of school boards to give recruiters full access to students. Still, there's no question it is an uphill fight.

Of course, even with its vast resources, the Pentagon cannot keep Guard members from eventually seeing behind the curtains. With the Bush administration's reliance on the Guard for its imperial adventures, the chances for Guard members to discover that war is not a video game grows exponentially. Like a past generation's army that found itself defeated by small men in black pajamas, today's Guard will learn the same lesson as they face determined men and women firing rockets from donkey carts. Unfortunately, thanks to slick public relations practices by the Pentagon, that lesson will be paid for with broken bodies, lost limbs and far too many lives.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance

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