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From Draft NOtices, September-October 2005

Embedding the Military in Civilian Society

—Jackie Dever

The United States military's campaign of public relations and cultural subversion is a beast of many personalities. One Navy advertisement cuts between footage of a placid suburban scene and footage of highly visual, highly testosterone fueled actions performed by members of the Navy during which a voiceover laments, "Somewhere some poor guy is buying a minivan." In another military ad, parents marvel at the firmer handshakes and more assertive eye contact of their homecoming sons. In a political climate whose main feature is an increasingly ambiguous and unpopular war, the military continues to employ a manifold strategy to captivate and capture new victims. These strategies depend on recognition as a cultural institution and brand name. The Army logo is splashed across billboards in movies, and the Army even sponsors NASCAR racers. Advertisements still rely on themes of patriotism and public service to encourage recruits, but messages of personal independence, increased confidence, and other self-focused gains set the current precedent.

The military as a public service: educational opportunities and disassociations from war

A high school teacher calls for her students' attention and instructs them to put away their books. A girl unfolds a note in her hand then glances down furtively. The camera zooms in and the words on the folded paper come into focus: "You'll do great!", it reads. "Love, mom." In the corner of the television screen, the U.S. Army logo floats modestly alongside the logo of the Ad Council.

The joint public service announcement was part of an ongoing effort, "Operation: Graduation," an ad campaign focused on encouraging students to graduate from high school, which the Army promotes to lend itself credibility as a supporter of education. No mention is made of war or of violence. This is the kinder, gentler side of the Army, or at least the appearance thereof. The more ways a recognizable organization can weave itself into popular culture, the more guises it can assume, the greater likelihood it will have of becoming a normal function of culture.

Military recruiters are also encouraged to establish friendlier, more personal relationships with their student demographics. "Army officials spell out the rules of engagement: Recruiters are told to dig in deep at their assigned high schools, to offer their services as assistant football coaches--or basketball coaches, or track coaches, or wrestling coaches or baseball coaches," according to a September 12 article in The Nation. In line with the machismo of the Army, however, recruiters are not advised to serve as softball coaches or volleyball coaches, which one can reasonably assume reflects the popular opinion of these sports as feminine.

Recruiters attempt to befriend the more influential members of the student body, from football captains to student body presidents. The recruiters hope that whether or not these students end up becoming recruits themselves, they may become useful allies providing recruiters with lists of other potentially interested students.

The Nation article concludes: "In the spring, when students' futures loom largest, the [recruiting] handbook advises: 'For some it is clear that college is not an option, at least for now. Let them know that the Army can fulfill their college aspirations later on.'"

The military as a (unisex) product: selling self-confidence to women

Magda Khalifa is a sergeant in the Army Reserve. She is also the subject of a full, two-page advertisement in Jane, a popular women's magazine that purports to endorse feminism and women's equality. "So, while the rest of us were busy playing with Barbies and toy horses as kids," says the ad, "Magda Khalifa was dreaming up ways to change the world." Among the perks of life in the Reserves, the text claims, are continual excitement and the assurance that "You definitely score cool girl points" for being skilled with weaponry. The ad panders to an assumptive quasi-feminist inclination that men and women are equal: equally strong, equally capable, and equally able to fight. But the claim being sold by the advertiser is specious considering the Army's unease with gender integration throughout its history. The Army appeals to emotions, for under any logical circumstances, what woman would choose to lose her individuality, possibly her life, in pursuit of uncertain goals? The Army is not a bastion of self-discovery.

Cultural undertows: the military as an institution

"You're with us or against us. You support America or you don't." And the support of America includes, by proxy, support of the American military. The Bush administration supports a "Freedom Walk" to commemorate the Sept. 11 attacks and celebrate the military, helping to wed the military and the attacks in the popular consciousness. Commemorations of 9/11 wind their way through speeches supporting the war in Iraq and institutionalized militarism. The yellow ribbons displayed to support U.S. troops have been bleached white after months and years of conflict. And still more troops are called upon. More troops return to Iraq. And more grieving mothers begin to wonder about the wisdom of the administration. But the military remains the elephant in the political arena. And until questions about the elephant are brought into the discussion, the country will continue to suffer from its destructive appetite.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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