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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.

I heard similar accounts from several GIs I met that first afternoon in Bradley’s. There was the forty-year-old black woman from rural Georgia—the last of thirteen children—who had joined because there were few jobs in her area and she didn’t have the money to attend college. She had also wanted to travel and the military “was the only institution that gave that opportunity.” There was the twenty-six-year-old college graduate from Maine who, after graduating, had gone to work as a teaching assistant at a local high school but quickly realized that he “didn’t want to do that for the next forty years”; rather, he wanted “to do something exciting and that could matter.” Fighting terrorism, he said, had not entered into his decision.

It had for Justin Klock. Raised in a small town near Madison, Wisconsin, the son of a truck driver and a nail-salon worker, Klock told me that he had wanted to join the Army since he was in kindergarten (his dad had been in the service). As he got older, he said, “I wanted to do something good, to serve my country.” Not long out of high school, he said he was eager to go to Iraq so that he could use the skill he had learned—dynamiting doors on house raids. “I don’t know where else you can get paid to blow things up,” he said.

That initial group of interviews at Bradley’s would mirror those I had throughout my stay. In all, I would speak with about thirty soldiers, and roughly one of every four would tell me that he had joined the military mainly for idealistic reasons, for some larger cause. Often, in describing those reasons, these soldiers would sound vague—“I’ve wanted to be a soldier since I was young,” they would say, or “my family has always served in the Army.” (A family history in the military features strongly in the decision of many enlistees.)

From two or three, I heard something more considered. One night, on a visit to Buffalo Wild Wings, a cavernous bar/restaurant on Arsenal Street, I approached a table of young men who were drinking beer and munching on chicken wings. It was an early Sunday evening and a playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars was blaring from the forty or so flat-screen TVs that ringed the place. When I explained that I had come to Watertown to interview soldiers about why they had joined the military, one looked at me defiantly and said, “Nine eleven.”

They invited me to sit down, and after I did, this soldier, who wore a Steelers jersey and Pirates cap, elaborated:

I was sixteen at the time. I had always wanted to join the Army, but that moment—it influenced me here, in my heart. I had job offers, but I wanted to fight for my country—for the red, white, and blue. And to make my family proud. It takes a select kind of person to join the military and risk his life for his country.

Of all the soldiers I met in Watertown, no other spoke with more conviction. Yet as we talked, he acknowledged that there was another reason for his decision: he hoped to make a career in law enforcement, and joining the Army would, he felt, help. So, even in this case, where patriotic concerns loomed large, considerations of self-improvement played a part as well. Among most of the other soldiers I spoke with, such considerations overwhelmed everything else. Over and over, I heard soldiers talk about being hard-pressed to pay the rent, of having a child and being without health care, of yearning to escape a depressing town or oppressive family, of wanting to get out and see the world.

I didn’t want to work a minimum wage job, from paycheck to paycheck,” went a sample comment from Shawn Miesowitz, a twenty-nine-year-old specialist from Merced, California, with a wife and four-year-old daughter. “And I wanted to get us out of Merced. There was only one thing there—to get into trouble.”

I joined the Army because I couldn’t afford to go to college,” said a twenty-four-year-old Haitian immigrant. “I was working as a garage inspector at the Miami airport for $9.25 an hour. I want to be an electrical engineer. I’m trying to save all I can.”

I thought it would look good on my résumé,” said Joel Malin, a twenty-two-year-old assistant chaplain. After graduating from college, he told me, he had hoped to join a music ministry, but the churches he had approached felt that he was too young. So he joined the military. Having recently married, Malin found the health plan an added boon. “The military,” he told me, “is a very good landing pad for people who don’t know what they want to do.”

I had met Malin at the Parkside Bible Church, an evangelical congregation in Watertown whose members include many soldiers and their families. If I were to find GIs strongly committed to country, I felt, it would be here, among those strongly devoted to God. Yet my interviews here were no different from anywhere else. After the service, an hour-long mix of light music and uplifting sermons, I retired to the Circle of Joy, a common room just off the main foyer, and there I fell into conversation with a soft-spoken thirty-four-year-old second lieutenant. After graduating from college, he told me, he had planned to go into the business world, but, examining retirement packages, he’d concluded that the one offered by the military was far better than anything available in the private sector. More generally, he said, he’d felt that a military lifestyle would suit him. And it had. “You never have to guess what you’re going to do the next day,” he said. “It’s set for you.”

He went on: “People who say they’ve joined the Army to serve their country and don’t care about anything else—I don’t know where they are.” Benefits, he said, “are always talked about. They’re sold by recruiters. The cards they hand out—half of it is filled with the benefits you can get. The pay chart used to stop at thirty years—now it goes beyond that.” After September 11, he observed, the number of people joining for patriotic reasons went up. Since then, however, enlistment bonuses had risen steadily—a measure of the difficulty recruiters faced. “Some of the money is just ridiculous,” he said.

Last July, after a two-month slump in recruiting, the Army introduced a $20,000 “quick-ship” bonus for enlistees willing to report to training camp within thirty days. In just three weeks, more than 3,800 recruits—92 percent of the total—accepted it. With the addition of other enticements based on job skills and education, new enlistees can earn up to $40,000 in signing bonuses. Overall, the average bonus paid to Army enlistees jumped from $11,100 in 2005 to $16,500 in 2007. This is one of the main reasons why the Army has been able to meet its recruiting goals in spite of the ongoing specter of serving in Iraq.

Another is the relaxation of admission standards. In 2007, 11 percent of all new recruits received “moral waivers” for being in trouble with the law—double the proportion in 2003. Over that same period, the proportion of enlistees who had finished high school fell from 90 to 71 percent—the lowest level in twenty-five years. Due largely to the Iraq war, the Army now includes far more recruits from the troubled, truant, tattooed ranks of the population.

Still, from the survey data, and from my interviews, it seems clear that the military does not consist of society’s “dregs.” Rather, it consists mainly of young men and women who, raised in working- and lower-middle-class families, yearn to make it into the middle class. Unable to achieve this in the hypercompetitive and expensive market economy, they have instead sought to achieve it in the Army. With its guarantees of housing, employment, health insurance, and educational assistance, the US military today seems the last outpost of the welfare state in America. (These comments apply mainly to the Army’s enlisted ranks; officers tend to come from the middle class.)

For many, joining seems to have been the right choice. While a few soldiers told me that they regretted enlisting and couldn’t wait to get out, many more seemed pleased. One had bought a condo in North Carolina and was planning to retire there. A few spoke proudly of the skills they had gained. Others were happy that they had had a chance to see Europe. Soldiers with families offered special praise for the military’s health plan.

All these benefits, of course, come at a price. As of the time of my visit, 104 soldiers from Fort Drum had died in Iraq and fifty-five in Afghanistan. I heard story after story about the toll that the repeated deployments had taken—about the broken relationships, the failed marriages, the soldiers coming home on leave to find their girlfriends in bed with another man. I met one staff sergeant who, setting off a bomb in Iraq, had lost part of his thigh and forearm, the tips of several fingers, and the hearing in his right ear and who, disgusted by the poor care he had received, was fighting to get more care managers for the wounded at Fort Drum.

I met another staff sergeant who, overwhelmed by the violence he had seen in Iraq, was determined not to return. “I’ve lost too many friends over there,” he explained. He’d also lost his wife of fourteen years. “She got tired,” he said sadly. “I was never home.” In sixty days, he was due to deploy again to Iraq, but, as he told me, “If it’s a choice of going back or walking away after eighteen years in the Army, I’ll walk.”

If he does, he will join the growing exodus of officers from the Army. The flight of captains has been especially serious. Fed up with the constant disruptions to their private lives, these battle-experienced junior officers have been leaving in record numbers, and the Pentagon, desperate to stop them, has begun offering $35,000 reenlistment bonuses. So far, it hasn’t helped.

The younger recruits I met, having been deployed less often, seemed less affected. Typical was Christopher McDonald, an articulate, ebullient twenty-two-year-old I met at Rosa Violeta’s, a family-run Mexican restaurant in downtown Watertown. Raised in the projects of New York, McDonald said he’d had no intention of joining the Army. Instead, he wanted to attend college. But after working sixteen hours a day just to pay the rent, he realized he would never be able to afford it, and so, after much hesitation, he enlisted. “Now I have thirty days of paid vacation,” he beamed as he finished his fajita. “And my wife gets full coverage for everything for ten dollars a month.” He said: “I’ve been to China, Korea, and the Philippines. And I have a security clearance. Who else can say that at twenty-two they have a security clearance, visited three countries, and worked on a forty-million-dollar aircraft?” Joining the Army, he said, “was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

In the coming years, the military is going to have to attract many more people like McDonald. Quite apart from the needs posed by Iraq, the Army is scheduled to grow by 65,000 members by 2010. From where will these new recruits come? As I discovered during my time in Watertown, the military has set its sights on an especially vulnerable population.

3.

One afternoon, I was taken on a tour of Watertown by Carl McLaughlin, the director of the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, which is devoted to improving the area’s economy. As we drove along the Black River, we passed a phalanx of stone buildings that had once housed Watertown’s papers mills; today, they’re mostly warehouses. We also passed the sparkling white plant of Air Brake, a manufacturer of brakes for trains that is the last remaining large industrial employer in town. Its workforce, once numbering in the thousands, is now in the low hundreds. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Watertown received a reprieve of sorts from the prison-building boom that swept upstate New York. Three prisons went up within twenty miles of town, each providing a slew of good-paying jobs. Then, as the boost from that began to fade, Fort Drum began to expand. With so many soldiers in need of housing, construction has thrived, and anyone who can drop a plumb line or wield a hammer is doing well. Reflecting this, Jefferson County, in which Watertown is located, is today one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

McLaughlin was nonetheless glum. “We’re looking for something to provide an economic shot above and beyond Drum,” he told me. While the local unemployment rate is low, most of the jobs are in retail and food and pay poorly. A few years ago, Watertown managed to lure a telemarketing call center, which today has seven hundred positions, but few of them pay more than $8 an hour. “What we don’t have is a lot of good-paying jobs,” McLaughlin said. As a result, he added, “our best export is our kids. They go away to get jobs elsewhere.”

To learn more about those kids, I paid a visit to the Indian River Central High School—one of three high schools in the area. In a meeting with its guidance counselors, I learned that of the 176 students who graduated in 2007, only eight had decided to join the military. When I said this seemed low, one of the counselors, Dennis Nortz, told me that “95 percent of our students have an idea of what they want to do when they graduate. They want to go to college.” In Watertown, as throughout the United States, a college degree is widely seen as a passport to the middle class. Yet getting one is a challenge for many students. The per capita household income in Jefferson County is about $34,000 a year. With a four-year private college costing about $30,000 a year, few students in the area can afford to attend one. The state-run SUNY colleges, at $4,350 a year, are far more affordable, but room and board push the annual cost to about $15,000—a burden for many families.

That leaves the Jefferson Community College, Watertown’s one institution of higher learning. Of the 137 students at Indian River who went to college last year, nearly two thirds went to Jefferson. Some of those students will eventually transfer to four-year schools, but just as many will find themselves stuck financially.

In Canada and much of Europe, higher education is heavily subsidized by the state, and the tuition at most institutions is nominal if not free. As a result, practically anyone who wants to attend college and is able to meet the admissions standards and pay for room and board can do so. In America, we’ve elected to put our money elsewhere. In the 1990s, for instance, New York State faced a choice between spending on prisons and spending on higher education. It chose the former. As a result, New York today has state-of-the-art prisons and run-down campuses. The SUNY system in particular has been starved of funds, and Governor Eliot Spitzer, recognizing the economic value of an educated workforce, has made revitalizing it a top priority. Until that happens, however, getting a college degree will remain a tough proposition for many.

In the struggle of many young men and women to pay for a college education, however, the military sees an opportunity. As a recent Defense Department report observed:

The most dramatic social force affecting military enlistment is the interest in college attendance. Youth are focused on education and work, with the Military as an afterthought. The percentage of minorities completing high school is increasing, and college is becoming a reality for a greater proportion of the minority population. This increase in college aspirations and college attendance should be expected to continue.

Already, the military, under the Montgomery GI Bill, offers soldiers up to $73,836 in tuition credits; it will also repay up to $65,000 in college loans. These sums are likely to increase as the military moves aggressively to attract college-bound Americans.

The competition the military faces today isn’t from Wendy’s or McDonald’s,” David Segal of the University of Maryland told me. “It’s colleges and universities. The people the military wants aren’t choosing between the military and fast food—they’re choosing between going into the military and going to college.”

In today’s America, the hunger for a college degree is so great that many young men and women are willing to kill—and risk being killed—to get one.

  1. 1

    Putnam, 2005.

  2. 2

    Norton, 2005.

  3. 3

    Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

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