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Monday, December 20, 2004

What Military Recruiters Are Doing to Fill the Ranks
Tom Palaima

Mr. Palaima, recipient of a MacArthur genius award, teaches war and violence studies and ancient history at the University of Texas at Austin. He thanks Mr. David Hill for the reference to "The Recruiting Sergeant."

Good morning, good morning, the Sergeant he cried.
And the same to you, gentlemen, we did reply,
Intending no harm but meant to pass by,
For it bein' on Christmas mornin'.
 
But, says he, My fine fellows, if you will enlist,
Ten guineas in gold I'll stick to your fist,
And a crown in the bargain for to kick up the dust,
And drink the king's health in the morning.
 
For a soldier, he leads a very fine life,
And he always is blessed with a charming young wife,
And he pays all his debts without sorrow or strife,
And he always lives pleasant and charmin',
 
And a soldier, he always is decent and clean,
In the finest of clothing he's constantly seen.
While other poor fellows go dirty and mean,
And sup on thin gruel in the morning.
 
Says Arthur, I wouldn't be proud of your clothes,
For you've only the lend of them, as I suppose,
But you dare not change them one night, for you know
If you do, you'll be flogged in the morning.
 
And we have no desire to take your advance,
All hazards and dangers we barter on chance,
For you'd have no scruples for to send us to France,
Where we would get shot without warning. (© Bob Dylan 1992)

The traditional Irish folk song"Arthur McBride" was written down in Limerick in 1840 and made popular again by Bob Dylan in 1992. In it, the young hero refutes and resists a military recruiter's false promises.

In mid-19th-century Ireland, recruiting sergeants preyed upon poor Irish boys, promising them adventure, honor, fine clothes and romance instead of pre- and post-potato-famine destitution. Poverty and ignorance have always been the military recruiter's best friends.

Irish recruits in the 1800's had to serve as battlefield fodder in the British army for eightpence a day. They were subject to cruel discipline, receiving 25 to 1500 lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails for offenses like changing out of their uniforms. Still for many, military life was better than starvation.

Seventy-five years later, little had changed. The British were now recruiting in Ireland for the war to end all wars. This inspired another anti-recuiter ballad entitled"The Recruiting Sergeant" written by Seamus O'Farrell. It was covered recently by the Pogues:

As I was walking down the road a feeling fine and larky oh
A recruiting sergeant come up to me, says he"you'd like fine in khaki oh
For the King he is in need of men, come read this proclamation oh
A life in Flanders for you then, 't would be a fine vacation oh"
 
"That may be so" says I to him"but tell me Sergeant deary-oh
if I had a pack stuck upon me back would I look fine and cheery-oh
For they'd have you train and drill until they had you one of Frenchies
oh it may be warm in Flanders but it's draughty in the trenches oh"
 
The sergeant smiled and winked his eye, his smile was most provoking oh
he twiddled and twirled his wee moustache, says he"You're only joking oh
for the sandbags are so warm and high the wind you won't feel blowing oh
well I winked at a caitlin passing by, says I,"What if it's snowing oh"
 
Come rain or hail or wind or snow I'm not going out to Flanders oh
There's fighting in Dublin to be done, let your sergeants and your commanders go
Let Englishmen fight English wars, it's nearly time they started oh
I saluted the sergeant a very good night, there and then we parted oh

Recruiters nowadays use the same techniques, but with a new sophistication that aims at making their targets more pliant and susceptible to their sales pitches. The hard sell and the gaps between promises and realities are still there. And our national economic policies ensure a steady supply of young men for whom the military is the main route out of poverty.

So long as that supply line exists, disapproval of our foreign wars will never reach the intensity of the Vietnam War period. Back then, even wealthy young men like our current president had their lives affected by the universal draft.

Austin American-Statesman reader Vic Blackburn (1LT, 82nd Airborne Division, 1968-1970) recently reminded me of Col. (ret.) David Hackworth's views on this subject:"Most recruits in the All Volunteer Force come from non-vocal, working-class families--a disproportionate number from the poor and from minority groups--while more privileged Americans are conspicuous by their absence." Soldiers drawn from a universal draft"keep all our citizens more closely involved and invested; they are our bottom-line deterrent to war."

While most parents of teenagers worry about sex, drugs, alcohol and music, parents in certain neighborhoods and school districts also worry about recruiters.

Army Adventure Vans: They're Flashy. They're Dangerous. They're Targeting 500,000 students. They're Coming To A School Near You. Marguerite Jones of Austin, Texas does. She called me about the sleek, two-million-dollar 18-wheeler military Cinema Van that pulled up outside Travis High School around Veteran's Day. In a scene resembling playground drug-pushing, her son William and his freshman peers were lured on board and offered free access to the most sophisticated high-tech battle-simulation computer games. All they had to do was give the recruiters their personal information. The kids were told by their school that they had to sign up to get credit for PE class. Meanwhile the recruiters said they needed the information to prove to their superiors that they had been doing their jobs. Indeed.

The U.S. Army sponsored game"America's Army" and Kuma Reality Games use military battle simulation and retired military consultants to transport their targeted youth audience of 12- to 15-year-olds right into the Battle of Fallujah, Operation Anaconda, and Uday and Qusay's Last Stand. These games are exciting and ultra-realistic, except in representing the real finality if the American soldier avatar should get himself killed or severely wounded.

At a recent week-long conference I attended at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a video-game expert spoke of playing the Battle of Fallujah online while watching Marines on CNN do battle on the exact same streets. The video game Full Spectrum Warrior asks youths,"Do you think you have what it takes to become a nationally renowned squad leader?" (Note: How many squad leaders from Iraq or Afghanistan do you think the average American can name?) It also touts the fact that it is based on a game commissioned by the U.S. Army.

The web sites that offer such games for a $9.99 monthly fee have direct links to military recruiting web sites. Imagine the lure of the plush van and sophisticated equipment for kids from homes that cannot afford computers.

Students in targeted schools are further invited to join Junior ROTC. Austin has Air Force Junior ROTC at Reagan, Akins, Westwood, Bowie and McNeil high schools, i.e., the lower-income, predominantly minority schools. The same pattern holds true acros the state, with Junior ROTC's in traditionally minority regions or areas of urban and rural economic stagnation.

The Army Junior ROTC web site calls its version a"Character and Leadership Development Program." We might wonder why affluent suburban high schools like non-minority urban high schools do not need to develop these same civic virtues.

Further preying upon teenage insecurity and parental anxiety about their children's future, the military has devised the Delayed Entry Program. Seventeen year-old kids can sign up for military service, ostensibly to gain credit towards higher rank in the year or more before graduation and basic training. There are a number of specified reasons that legally permit these teenagers later to opt out, but recruiters have been known to misrepresent and high-pressure reluctant graduates or non-graduates into"living up to their commitment."

Military recruiting then starts with underprivileged twelve year-olds and never lets up. It is supported by money-making video-game manufacturers and schools that are obliged to allow recruiters access to students and student information or lose funding under the provisions of the federal No Child Left behind Act.

I proposed in another recent essay that stop-loss orders and veteran call-backs, while perfectly lawful, were immoral. Austin American-Statesman reader Vic Blackburn disagrees. He calls them and current recruiting practices criminal. What do you think?

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Austin American-Statesman (12-15-04).

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