Chatting with the Army


“No Child Left Behind” Act, Section 9528, pg 559:

Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings.

Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students.

About a year ago I stumbled across an online ad for the US Army that shocked me. I’d been doing my usual surf of online game sites when I came across one of their ads at Shockwave.com. It was similar to ones we’ve all seen, where beautiful young men and women in uniform run around in tanks, firing guns, all without a speck of blood being shed. But it wasn’t the content that I found shocking, it was it’s placement. These gaming sites cater to a market where 1/3rd of the audience are minors. Minors that are, in all likelihood, without adult supervision. And here the Army was actively encouraging them to “Chat with a Recruiter Online”.

I was intrigued enough that I did something I still question the wisdom of, I joined the Army chat room to see what was going on. My motivations in doing this are a little fuzzy, but I believe it was mostly an exercise in curiosity. It was a situation where the potential for unethical behavior was pretty high (naive minors + military machine seeking recruits = ???). I wanted to see where these recruiters drew their lines.

Since I felt the recruiters would behave differently if they knew I was a 38-year old adult rather than a real recruit candidate, I donned the guise of a college student curious about what the risks were in joining the Army. I did some research beforehand to get information that was readily available on the Net, and then went in to see just how rosy a picture they would paint.

I won’t bore you with the details (actually, I will – here’s the complete transcript, formatted for easy reading) but the upshot is that these recruiters, not surprisingly, only provide information in ways that promote their agenda of signing up recruits. Does this come as a surprise? No, of course not, that’s what they are paid to do after all.

Yet… there is an unsavory quality there, something that isn’t quite right. I’ve thought a lot about this recently, and reread the chat transcript above numerous times, trying to pinpoint just why it is I’m so bothered by that exchange. Most of the conversation seems pretty benign and, if anything, I should be criticized for posing as something I’m not and for upsetting the other people in the chat room. Some of them had already enlisted and were simply keeping eachother company while waiting to go to boot camp. Discussing the risks involved in front of them was a form of cruelty I had not intended, and certainly regret.

So what’s wrong with the recruiter’s behavior? The answer lies in the misconception that they are simply salespeople, selling the Army “product”. These are not used cars they’re selling, where it’s just part of the game to oversell things a bit; they are asking recruits to risk life, limb, and mental well-being. The recruit is making what may well be the most significant decision of their life. And in that regard the recruiters’ role should be first and foremost that of a mentor, not salesperson. Their job is to help recruits make an informed decision to the best of their ability. Anything less is dishonest and disrespectful.

But don’t construe that as an argument for a policy of full, unilateral, disclosure on the part of recruiters. I will readily admit there is a certain reality we need to contend with – the U.S. needs a fully-manned military, and such a policy would put a significant dent in the already suffering recruiting efforts of our armed services. There are also cases where recruits simply may not want to know about such risks. Doing one’s patriotic duty does, at times, require a blissful ignorance. So when does it become a recruiter’s responsibility to provide information about these risks?

I think the only answer that balances the interests of the Army with the interests of the recruit is to say that the recruit must first ask the questions. I.e. they need do demonstrate that they want to be informed. Once they’ve done that, however, it is the recruiters responsibility to provide information, and do so in good faith.

… and this is where I hold the recruiters in the Army chat room at fault. By maintaining a willful ignorance, and by distorting the severity of the risks, they deny candidates the ability to become well informed. For example, they are asked on a daily basis what %’age of recruits are deployed to Iraq, yet they claim not to have this information. But in subsequent visits to the chat room, and after much pressure on my part, they eventually admitted to having that data (about 50% of recruits are deployed to Iraq). They also claim the risks involved in joining the Army are similar to that of “driving down the street” – something I have no hard evidence to refute, but which sounds rather ludicrous.

That chat room conversation took place over a year ago. Since then, the Army has pulled their advertisements from shockwave.com. They also fell short of their 2005 recruitment goals by 8% – the largest in nearly two decades. And the “No Child Left Behind” clause that leads this entry is starting to create a public uproar.

[Image based on art from James Montgomery Flag and The Queensland Times]

One Reply to “Chatting with the Army”

  1. some heavy shit bro. Wouldn’t want to draft anybody of course. Gets awkward when you have to call in favors to hide your kids. Especially when they later run for office. No, much better to manipulate those with few options and fewer connections into service, with the threat of desertion charges hanging over their heads once they realize their pooch has been screwed…

    On a similar topic- check out Soldier In the Great War by Mark Helprin. A truly amazing novel that among other things takes you up close and personal into Italian practices of conscription and service in an absurd peice of the 1st World War.

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