This past weekend, on Easter Sunday no less, I rolled my eyes as I saw that I received a text message from someone who identified herself as a Broome County Army Career Counselor. She asked if I have interest in the Army Reserves. The message detailed the benefits of joining, including promises of substantial monetary incentives: free college, up to $65,000 in student loan repayment, $20,000 cash bonuses and more. For people struggling financially, it could seem like an answer to their prayers — and there lies the problem. In a country where student loan debt is at an all-time high at $1.56 trillion, where skyrocketing drug prices are directly killing Americans, military recruitment centered on the financial benefits of joining can only be referred to as predatory.
As military recruiters are given free access to high schools as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, we should be especially concerned about the incredibly coercive nature of the power dynamic between teenagers and members of the U.S. armed forces. An article published in the American Journal of Public Health summarizes, “Military recruiter behaviors are disturbingly similar to predatory grooming.” For instance, the article points to recruiter handbooks that encourage recruiters to get as involved in everyday school life as they possibly can, including offering coffee and doughnuts regularly and attending school events like dances and sports games dressed in uniform. These tactics to integrate into children’s lives are meant to gain the trust of both students and the adults around them. They also happen to emulate the beginning tactics used by child predators to increasingly gain access to their targets, wherein predators build trust with children by offering gifts and bonding over shared interests while befriending parents and other adults.
The power imbalance inherent between children and adults is only compounded by the promise of considerable money and benefits offered by military recruiters. In any other context, an adult hanging around school grounds offering children treats and money would be considered disturbing. The article also mentions that the recruiter handbook does not mandate recruiters to detail the harms students may face if they serve in the military, just as predators will obviously not disclose their harmful intentions to their targets. Recruiters will not tell teenagers, who are likely ignorant about the military, about the high rates of mental illness, suicide and homelessness veterans face, and they certainly will not disclose the horrors of war.
My concern lies primarily with the impacts of military recruitment on high schoolers, but as a graduating senior at Binghamton University who still received the recruitment message, the harm is clearly not limited to just teenagers. We see advertisements all the time emulating the same sort of marketing strategy. We’re used to seeing recruitment advertisements center around the honor of serving one’s country and protecting democracy — whatever that means — and now we see a shift toward presenting the financial benefits. Perhaps this shift can be attributed to the fact that recruitment seems to be failing in recent years. The U.S. Army missed its 2018 recruiting goal by a substantial margin, and recruiters are feeling the heat. “We’re tossing away some of the old methods,” said Marshall Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. “That person we’re going after today is so completely different.” The use of “going after” is of importance for me, because it implies there are targets that must be preyed on in a specific way. Sure, all marketing targets people in a specific way, but most marketing doesn’t use money as leverage to recruit people to serve on behalf of a government.
I’ll be transparent: I don’t support the military and all the destruction and death it causes overseas, which is why I find this whole situation especially insidious. Regardless, even people in favor of the military can recognize that dangling money, housing and benefits in front of young people, especially people from low-income backgrounds who may want to go to college but can’t afford it, entails a great deal of coercion without presenting the full reality of the position being offered. If someone wants to “serve their country,” they should do it of their own free will, not out of financial desperation or the lack of other career and educational opportunities.
Sarah Molano is a senior majoring in English.