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The Volunteer Army: Who Fights and Why?

1.

In 2003, Colby Buzzell, then twenty-six, was living in a small room in a renovated Victorian house in the Richmond district of San Francisco, doing data entry for financial companies. Raised in the suburbs of the Bay Area, Buzzell had hated high school and, deciding against college, ended up in a series of low-paying jobs—flower deliverer, valet parker, bike messenger, busboy, carpet cutter, car washer. Data entry paid somewhat better—about $12 an hour—but even so he was barely able to get by. At one point, he ran into an old friend who had joined the Marines, and, in his telling, military life sounded like one big frat party, but with weapons and paychecks. After nearly a year of feeling stuck, Buzzell decided to visit an Army recruiter. He describes his state of mind in My War: Killing Time in Iraq,1 an uproarious account of his life in the military:

I was sick of living my life in oblivion where every fucking day was the same fucking thing as the day before, and the same fucking routine day in and day out. Eat, shit, work, sleep, repeat.

At the time, I saw no escape from this. I was in my mid-twenties and I still had no fucking idea what the hell I wanted to do with myself….

I figured if I joined the military it might be a quick-fix solution to my problems, it would add some excitement to my life, and at the same time give me the sense that I had finally done something with myself. And who knows? A trip to the Middle East could be one hell of an adventure.

Buzzell had a long rap sheet and a history of drug use, but, with his recruiter’s help, he made it through the application process, and before long he was off to boot camp.

Many of the other recent books written by soldiers about their experiences in Iraq offer similarly frank accounts of their paths into the military. In Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the US Army,2 Kayla Williams, who joined the punk scene when she was thirteen and loved to drop acid, writes that she joined in part to get away from one boyfriend who turned out to have been married and to prove wrong another who had taunted her about her lack of toughness. The promise of a regular paycheck did not hurt. “There are many reasons to join the Army,” she writes. “But without a doubt it’s a great way—leaving aside the whole prospect of getting maimed or killed—to better your career prospects.”

Joshua Key, in The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq,3 describes growing up in rural Oklahoma in a two-bedroom trailer with his mother and alcoholic stepfather and working at a series of minimum-wage jobs. At eighteen he got married and quickly had two sons but few prospects of providing for them. “I had no money, I had dreams of getting formal training as a welder, I needed to get my teeth fixed, and I wanted to have my kidney stone removed,” he writes. In the recruiting office, the posters suggested that if he joined the military,

I would be on easy street. The armed forces were offering money for college tuition, health insurance, and even a cash bonus for signing up. To top it all off, military service would give me a chance to travel and discover a new way of life.

In these books, the idea of joining the military to defend America or uphold its values is largely absent. Rather, these soldiers signed up to escape dead-end jobs, failed relationships, broken families, bills, toothaches, and boredom. The armed forces offered a haven from the struggles and strains of life in modern-day America, a place to gain security and skills, discipline and self-esteem.

Reading these accounts, I wondered how representative they were. Had the all-volunteer force become a giant holding tank for slackers and misfits, for working stiffs and small-town Charlies who felt stifled and stymied? What about the surge in patriotism that had occurred after September 11? Did today’s soldiers tend more to resemble Pat Tillman, the NFL star who gave up a lucrative career to fight terrorists, or Lynndie England, the Appalachian hellraiser who helped bring us Abu Ghraib? In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore showed military recruiters prowling the boarded-up streets of Flint, Michigan, urging hard-up African-Americans to enlist. Yet as recruitment figures show, the numbers of blacks joining the Army has declined sharply, from 23.5 percent of all enlistees in 2000 to just 13 percent in 2006—a result of the deep unpopularity of the Iraq war in the black community.

As to why people join, I learned that every year the military conducts an annual survey of new recruits which asks, among other things, their reasons for enlisting. Dr. Curtis Gilroy, the head of personnel policy at the Pentagon, said that in the last several years one particular reason has risen in prominence: service to country. The number citing this as their main motivation went from 27.5 percent of all responses in 2002 to 38.1 percent in 2006. (It was followed by skills acquisition, cited by 20.2 percent, then by adventure, mentioned by 16.4 percent, then by money for education, benefits, travel, and pay.) But Beth Asch of the RAND Corporation, who does research for the Pentagon, says that such figures should be handled with care, since new recruits, when asked, often like to give their decision an idealistic cast. Furthermore, while patriotism has surged as an announced motive, it is also the case that the Army fell 8 percent short of its recruiting target of 80,000 in 2005—its largest shortfall since 1979. Since then, the Army has managed to meet its targets, but only by adding more than a thousand new recruiters and increasing the size of enlistment bonuses. Clearly, the patriotic sheen of September 11 has been dimmed by the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq.

Amid these conflicting signals, it seemed a good idea to talk with some actual soldiers. David Segal of the University of Maryland suggested I visit Fort Drum, New York, home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Few units in the entire military have been more frequently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan than this one. Also, the base is located in Watertown, in an economically depressed region near the Canadian border where the young people would seem particularly ripe targets for recruiters. And so in January I headed northward, intent on learning more about who joins the US military, and why.

2.

In the early twentieth century, Watertown (population 27,000) had by some accounts more millionaires per capita than any other town in America. Its wealth derived from its many paper mills, perched on the banks of the Black River, which rushes through town en route to Lake Ontario ten miles to the west. Some traces of that former prosperity remain, in the stately houses that line Watertown’s streets, in the impressive stone churches that stand on its street corners, in the lovely park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that overlooks the town. Most of the mills have long since closed, however, their owners having left for the south and beyond, and at night the downtown is dark and largely deserted.

Commercial activity is now centered on Arsenal Street, a four-lane thoroughfare connecting the town center to Interstate 81 two miles to the west. Here are a Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, TJ Maxx, Staples, Starbucks, TGI Friday’s, Denny’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and many other totems of strip-mall America. Most of these establishments have opened in the last ten years, a direct outgrowth of the expansion of Fort Drum—today the town’s main lifeline.

Drum’s main gate sits seven miles northeast of Watertown, amid the silos, barns, and dairy farms of New York’s North Country, as this part of the state is known. The base covers 107,000 acres, and, taken on an unofficial tour, I was struck not only by its vastness but also its air of comfort. There are more than four thousand units of housing here, grouped into tidy neighborhoods that look like suburban subdivisions. Enlisted personnel with families live in large, modern, two-family houses; officers get spacious single-family houses. There’s a medical clinic, a commissary, a post office, a library, an education center, a fire department, a Girl Scouts post, a Burger King, and a hotel for visiting dignitaries. Across from Hayes Hall, the command headquarters, is a monument plaza dedicated to World War II and current soldiers from the division.

As a light-infantry unit, the 10th Mountain Division is prepared to deploy rapidly by air, sea, or land anywhere in the world, and the base seems in a state of perpetual preparation. It has a 10,000-foot runway, multiple airplane and helicopter hangars, simulated-war centers, and fifteen miles of ranges where soldiers can practice artillery and small-arms fire, among other exercises.

The mess hall would have been an ideal place to meet soldiers, but, unable to gain access to it, I had to seek them off base. They were not hard to find. There are some 17,000 soldiers based at Drum (four thousand of whom are currently deployed in Iraq), and they overwhelm Watertown. I met them in bars, restaurants, and one of the area’s three Wal-Marts. I also interviewed them in Bradley’s, a military-supply store located near Drum’s main gate. Housed in a compact cinderblock warehouse, Bradley’s offers everything the modern-day GI could want, from decals and patches to uniforms and boots. There’s a barber shop, a sewing center to attach nametags and insignia, and a TV always tuned to CNN. I introduced myself to the owner and, with his blessing, began buttonholing customers. While a few politely declined to talk, most were more than willing (though some asked that their names be withheld).

Among the first I approached was Jason Thomas Adams, a slender young man dressed in a cook’s white uniform. A twenty-five-year-old private from Brooklyn, Adams had joined the Army only nine months earlier. He had never really expected to, he told me—he’d wanted to be a police officer. After graduating from high school, he had enrolled in the John Jay School of Criminal Justice. To help pay the tuition, he worked at two jobs—Paragon Sports and a restaurant on Second Avenue—but quickly went into debt.

Meanwhile, he got married, his wife got pregnant, and he had no health care. From a brother in the military, he had learned of the Army’s many benefits, and, visiting a recruiter, he heard about Tricare, the military’s generous health plan. He also learned that the Army would repay his education loans. And so he signed up. When I asked about September 11 and service to the country, he said flatly that it had had nothing to do with his decision.

  1. 1

    Putnam, 2005.

  2. 2

    Norton, 2005.

  3. 3

    Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

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