July 10, 2002

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Media Beat

An Army of fun
How the military tries to entice the next generation.

By Norman Solomon

IF YOU CALL the toll-free number on the TV screen during one of those upbeat Army commercials, a large envelope will arrive with a white T-shirt inside. On the back of the shirt is a slogan in big block letters: "AN ARMY OF ONE."

The only other thing in the package is a videotape called "212 Ways to Be a Soldier." A hard-driving rock soundtrack propels all 20 minutes.

Graphics flash with a cutting-edge look (supplied by a designer who gained ad-biz acclaim for working on a smash Nike commercial). Young adults provide warm narratives about their daily lives in the Army. From the outset, the mood is reassuring.

Sometimes, the screen fills with helicopters, intrepid soldiers rappelling through the air, men advancing across terrain as they carry machine guns – always accompanied by plenty of rock 'n' roll – all in the service of a country much more comfortable dishing out extreme violence than experiencing it. There's no talk of risk and scarcely a mention of killing.

Carefully multiracial and coed, the video gets a lot of its juice from an undertone of foreclosed civilian possibilities. It beckons the nonaffluent who feel trapped by a lack of appealing options.

"Probably if I hadn't joined the Army," a 19-year-old woman says, "I would be doing the same thing most of my friends are doing, which is working fast food." In contrast, her story has a happy twist. Army recruiters "told me about the college fund that I'd be getting.... And really, that was the kicker for me, 'cause college was priority."

Another soldier cites dollar figures: "I got my degree from George Washington University, a degree that would cost me $40,000, but cost me about $500 through the Army." An African American medical tech says the Army permitted him to "get to see some cool things in the O.R. as far as the surgeries are concerned." An Army-trained chef looks forward to the day she can open her own restaurant.

"Basically," a male reservist says, "I get to play James Bond in the Army. I participate in stuff like conducting liaison interviews with potential spies. I love my job. It'll also help in my civilian job, in that I work a lot with computers." A female soldier, identified as "interrogator" and "Spanish linguist," also beams with pride as she offers an explanation to the camera: "I can't really tell you a lot about the job, 'cause it is secret."

Few could doubt the youthful energy. Or the hopeful stamina. Or, beneath the surface, the numbed capacity for immense cruelty.

When a helmeted captain – seated at the controls of a helicopter – speaks about being part of the Army's "air cavalry," her voice is a blend of military fervor and adolescent zest. "The mission of the cav is to spot the enemy," she says. "It's cool, too, because we get to engage the enemy as well, with the guns and everything on our aircraft. It's a challenge, and it's really ... it's a lot of fun. Heck, what other job can you fire weapons in?" She laughs.

Piled onto a huge tank, some soldiers are having a ball. One says, "We got the biggest toy in the world."

Recruiters are starting to distribute 1.2 million free software discs for a pair of new computer-game play adventures called "America's Army, the Official U.S. Army Game." This summer most of those discs will be attached to video-game magazines. And the Pentagon is inviting youngsters to download the software from the Internet.

Inducing enlistment costs money. The Army has set aside $7.5 million for its initial video-game project. That's a bargain, according to Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the office of Economic and Manpower Analysis: "The game pays for itself if only 300 Americans say that this gaming experience convinced me that this is the right thing to do."

Overall, the Army is spending $150 million a year to sell itself to potential recruits. And of course, the current advertising campaign is the result of rigorous calculations.

When the secretary of the Army announced a major overhaul of recruitment themes in early 2001, he pledged that "market research will now be an ongoing part of how the Army thinks about how it communicates with young people." At his side was Linda Wolf, the CEO of the Army's main private ad agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide. "The key with any advertising is understanding the target that that advertising is directed at," Wolf said. She added, "We dug into our target and really understood them."

Note to online readers: Audio/video of Norman Solomon's recent appearance on C-SPAN's Washington Journal is available at video.c-span.org:8080/ramgen/ndrive/wj20020703.rm?start=1:01:43 and at www.cspan.org/journal, listed under July 3.