The Army in the Marketplace: Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force, by Beth Bailey

Teaching the Article

In January 2003, as the United States moved toward war in Iraq, Democratic Congressman and Korean War veteran Charles B. Rangel proposed reinstating the draft. The Universal Service Act of 2003 specified that all young Americans, male and female, would serve a term of up to two years either in the military or in another form of national service. Rangel did not offer that legislation in support of the coming war; instead, he wanted the Universal Service Act to point out the problems of waging war with an all-volunteer force. Rangel claimed that the burden of military service is borne disproportionately by poor youth, especially African Americans. (Statistics indicate that black Americans account for a disproportionately high percentage of America’s military, but are not especially overrepresented in the combat arms.) It would be fairer, Rangel argued, if the full spectrum of American youth shared the burden and risks of military service. Perhaps more fundamentally, Rangel claimed, a universal draft would make those in power think harder and longer before committing troops to war. “There’s no question in my mind,” he said in 2006 about a revised version of his proposal, “that this president and this administration would never have invaded Iraq, especially on the flimsy evidence that was presented to the Congress, if indeed we had a draft, and members of Congress and the administration thought that their kids from their communities would be placed in harm’s way” (Face the Nation, CBS, Nov. 20, 2006).

Short of a catastrophic major war, there is probably little chance that the United States will reinstitute a draft. Many of those who share Rangel’s concern about social equity tend to believe that universal national service would not solve the problem: young people from privileged backgrounds, they argue, would be more likely to serve in public schools or national parks than in combat. And while many (including my own students at Temple University) believe that a draft would have increased antiwar protest, I do not believe the George W. Bush administration would have hesitated to send a draft-based military to war in Iraq. In fact, one of the major arguments for the move to an all-volunteer force in the early 1970s was that it would be difficult for the president to deploy an all-volunteer force unless he had powerful public support.

As the Iraq War continues, most members of Congress believe that even discussing a potential draft is political suicide; only two members of the House of Representatives voted to open debate on Rangel’s 2003 bill. Discussions of a draft also raise politically charged questions about gender: the Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that only men were required to register with the selective service system, as only men could serve in combat (in Rostker v. Goldberg). That decision would certainly be challenged. Numbers are also an issue: there are more than 4 million eighteen-year-olds in the nation today, and in 2007 the army requires only 80,000 new volunteers (and accepts men and women between the ages of eighteen and forty-two). How would the country pay for and administer a military/national service program that encompassed close to 4 million young people at a time? Most fundamentally, however, the U.S. military does not want to return to the draft. Military leaders argue that even though a draft would furnish the required numbers of troops, it would likely undermine military efficacy. Not only would conscription create problems in morale, they claim, but the brief terms of mandatory service would leave many conscripts insufficiently trained for combat or support roles in today’s technologically sophisticated military. Nonetheless, as high-ranking officers declare the army “overstretched” and President Bush offers plans to increase the size of the nation’s military, debates about the viability of an all-volunteer force are sure to continue.

The outcome of that ongoing debate, which most powerfully affects Americans of traditional college age, may be a useful way of engaging students with the questions I explore in “The Army in the Marketplace: Recruiting an All-Volunteer Force.” That article, in turn, may help students understand more clearly what is at stake in the current debates. Two of the exercises that follow, along with the article, can structure discussion of fundamental questions about military service in recent U.S. history. How does a nation determine who serves? Is military service an obligation of (male) citizenship? If so, what are the implications for women? Or is military service simply a job, a choice made by individuals based on perceptions of their own economic best interest? What factors must be considered in shaping the nation’s military? Should the nation maintain an all-volunteer force or institute a draft? What do debates from the early 1970s about who should serve have in common with contemporary debates, and how do they differ?

“The Army in the Marketplace” focuses on 1968–1973, the period when the army planned for its transformation to an all-volunteer force. Those were also years of enormous turbulence in American society, much of which did not bode well for army recruitment. The war in Vietnam grew increasingly unpopular; youth culture embraced the phrase “question authority” and adopted modes of behavior and dress that seemed to reject basic notions of order, discipline, and respectability; and public confidence in the nation’s military slipped to a new low. The army understood that it would be a great challenge to recruit young men in that social context, and it adopted (with mixed feelings) the “weapons” of modern consumer capitalism. The army used sophisticated marketing research and advertising campaigns in an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the army, to discover what young people wanted and then sell it back to them—in the form of army enlistment.

The two exercises that focus on marketing research and advertising may encourage students who have grown up surrounded by recruiting advertising to think about the implications of using marketing research and commercial advertising as tools to fill the ranks of the U.S. military. Those and other exercises encourage students to compare historical recruiting campaigns and marketing research with contemporary examples.