Since the mid-aughts, when thousands of recruiters faced allegations of so-called “recruiting improprieties,” the Army has gone to great lengths to crack down on unethical recruiting practices — such as fudging paperwork, purposefully overlooking blatant disqualifiers, helping recruits cheat on the entrance test, and lying to enlistees (telling them, for example, “You’ll never go to war”). But the temptation to bend the rules persists, increasing whenever the pressure on recruiters to fill quotas becomes greater. That’s the case now.
“The problem is that the Army didn’t just increase the mission, they increased the demand for quality recruits,” a recruiter told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “So a lot of guys are cutting corners. Usually it’s just to keep their bosses off their backs — to avoid an ass chewing. It’s hard to flat-out lie when everyone has access to Google in their pockets, so they tell half-truths, which are still lies. Like, if a kid wants to join the reserve for college money, the recruiter will neglect to mention that the education benefits don’t kick in until a year after they sign their contract. That kind of stuff.”
However, among the East Orange recruiters, honesty isn’t just expected; it’s the foundation of their entire approach. In 2015, Lt. Col. Edward Croot, a Special Forces officer who commanded the Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Battalion until about five months ago, laid the groundwork for an ambitious strategy to reverse recruiting trends in the Northeast, which is the most challenging environment for recruiters in the country. Croot believed history was to blame: Over decades of dwindling participation in the armed forces, Northeasterners had grown vastly disconnected from the military. To mend the gap — to reacquaint people in the region with the organization fighting wars on their behalf — Croot opted for aggressive transparency. Recruiters would need to spend as much time as possible “outside the wire,” educating the masses about military service. In other words, they’d need to make the Army familiar.
Parents of all stripes struggle to keep their kids in school, off drugs, and on track for adult life and careers. In Texas Monthly, writer John Nova Lomax narrates the struggle he and his wife went through with their son, who liked trashing cars and quitting jobs more than attending university. After the young man finds direction and identity in the Army, the lingering question becomes: at what personal cost?
We’d all entered into a toxic scenario called hostile dependency. He needed us for everything, we hated ourselves whether we indulged him or didn’t, and he despised himself for having to ask. We fought for weeks: John Henry and me, John Henry and his mom, John Henry and Kelly—all of us angry and terrified and just plain sad. No, I couldn’t co-sign a year’s lease on an apartment for him. No, I wouldn’t sign up for four years of tuition and living expenses for classes he might periodically show interest in attending. No, I couldn’t buy him another car, and he wouldn’t ride the bus or settle for a bike.
Often our arguments would end with John Henry pointing out how much better I’d had it when I was his age. And it’s true, I had. Thanks to a small inheritance, the many, many errors of my misspent youth—dropping out of two colleges, burning through cars and jobs on a pace equal to his—were softened. I had a safety net and he did not, and I felt terribly guilty about it. But nevertheless, I could not give him what I did not have. At the end of all these arguments, he’d shuffle back to his little backyard house behind ours, his shoulders slumped, his head hung low, feeling that much more hopeless about his lot in life. As for me, I’d feel like a failure because I couldn’t provide what many of his friends with wealthier parents could: that newish SUV, the four (or five, or six) years of worry-free college and study-abroad programs, followed by an internship at a cool company with prospects. In short, a plan. I could not give my son a plan, other than the military, England, or else.
Jamie Tarabay explored Hollywood’s relationship with the Pentagon in a recent piece for Al Jazeera America. The Pentagon has a devoted “entertainment-liaison officer” who acts as a Hollywood point person and helps decide which projects get Pentagon support (in the form of expertise, equipment, and locations). According to scholar Lawrence Suid, the Hollywood military relationship relationship dates back to 1910 and was “cemented” with the 1927 film Wings. Suid characterizes the relationship as one of “mutual exploitation”:
Suid coined the phrase “mutual exploitation” when he first stumbled onto the U.S. military-Hollywood connection. “I was teaching the history of the Vietnam War, and I couldn’t explain how we got into Vietnam. I could give the facts, the dates, but I couldn’t explain why,” he recalled. “And when I was getting my film degrees it suddenly occurred to me that people in the U.S. had never seen the U.S. lose a war, and when [President] Johnson said we can go into Vietnam and win, they believed him because they’d seen 50 years of war movies that were positive.”
Each side, Suid said, benefits from this arrangement. The U.S. military gets incredible publicity and recruitment advantages, and the film industry gets equipment, locations and authenticity.
Veteran status cuts both ways. Because I’m an army veteran, other vets often tell me things they wouldn’t tell those who haven’t served. It is a privilege to be given this confidence, and yet I’m filled with an overwhelming obligation to get their stories right. Although I’m a longtime reporter, writing about veterans has been the hardest subject for me to cover, because their stories are so nuanced, and reporters, most of whom have never served in the military and have no connection with the armed services, frequently get their stories wrong and paint them as one-dimensional lunatics. I wanted to get Capps’s story right and not come off as a voyeur. There was some precedent for my concern: a month before our interview, Capps had spoken about his struggle with PTSD at the National Endowment for the Arts, which sponsors his NICoE seminar, and after his talk he told me he was destroyed for the rest of the day.
In The Atlantic in 2014, James Fallows examined how Americans and political leaders became so disconnected from those who serve in the military—and the consequences of that disconnect:
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.
Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”
Our latest Longreads Member Pick is from Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer.
Thanks to Klay and Penguin Press for sharing it with the Longreads community, and special thanks to Longreads Members, who make this service possible. Join us.