Interviews June 2007

The New Recruit

Brian Mockenhaupt talks about the men and women who enter basic training today, and how the Army has adapted to meet their needs.

You mentioned that technology is one factor that has changed the Army’s makeup. Do you envision technology continuing to take the burden off ground troops and reduce our need for sheer numbers in the field?

There are two answers to your question. Technology will keep developing. A few months ago in the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan wrote about these pilots who fly Unmanned Aerial Vehicles known as Predators. These vehicles are in Iraq, firing missiles at targets there (in coordination with actual frontline troops who are on the ground spotting targets). But the people operating them go to work every day in Las Vegas. Technological developments like that give us the ability for more pinpointed attacks, which is fantastic.

The firebombing of Hamburg or Dresden or the firebombing of Tokyo or multiple other cities in Japan were seen as being necessary at the time. But look at the results. These bombings killed tens of thousands of civilians. In a counterinsurgency situation, it doesn't do any good to blow up a whole neighborhood. You’re only going to create more insurgents. People who were sitting on the fence may be less likely to help you now or more likely to give comfort or support to the other side. It’s great if you can look through a camera and see people moving around and hit them when they're digging a roadside bomb.

At the same time, the hope was that technological sophistication and the power of weaponry would reduce the need for an old-school military with soldiers walking their beats and breaking down doors. But I think we've lately seen a little bit of a pushback. One of many lessons learned from Afghanistan and Iraq is that if you rely too heavily on technology, you’re not as prepared as you should be for dealing with counterinsurgencies. You see over and over how much you need people who can go out and do the hard and dirty and at times scary work of walking through neighborhoods, talking to people, attacking buildings when necessary, and making split-second decisions based on the training they’ve been given.

I’m curious about the research that the Army leadership is doing to study what speaks to this generation of young people. Are Army leaders conducting sociological studies or basing their conclusions on anecdotal evidence?

The Army has always devoted time and resources to studying the best way to recruit, train, and motivate people. But that effort was ramped up in 2002. There are fewer people who are able who are interested in serving. There’s been a change in social norms and changing notions of duty and obligation. So the Army has spent a lot of time looking at how young people today are different from how they used to be and what you have to do to adjust messages: how to appeal to them and how to train them. Some of the changes the military has made have been good. But for the most part, they were forced to make them. Change comes out of necessity.

In a lot of ways, young people today are much more adaptable and better able to deal with complicated situations with a lot of data coming at them from different directions. That’s what enables them to listen to an iPod and text message and do something on the computer all at the same time. On the other hand certain trends do not bode nearly as well. I recently read a book called Generation Me by Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. She suggests that this generation is more assertive, more individualistic, and feels more entitled than any past generation. In generations past, people were much less likely to say that the pursuit of happiness was most important to them. Instead they would name things that involve duty or obligation. These findings don’t jibe very well with traditional notions of military service.

You describe infantry commanders’ and drill sergeants’ use of multimedia—soundtracks, movies—to connect with soldiers. Should we be concerned about the fact that movies tend to appeal to our emotions and sometimes glorify war and death?

I guess there are two ways of looking at that question: Are you using films to introduce these concepts to recruits, or is this the world they’ve grown up in? Is this a way you can relate to them?

Soldiers have seen all of these movies. You’re not showing most of them Dances with Wolves, Saving Private Ryan, or The Last Samurai for the first time. Colonel Henry uses scenes from Dances With Wolves to talk about cultural tolerance. Most of the recruits have probably seen the movie, so Henry is starting from a point of common experience. Whether or not they drew a lesson in cultural tolerance from the movie before, they now have a different stake, as participant instead of observer. Within a few months, they may be in Kevin Costner’s position, in a foreign environment, relating to people to whom he’d had no previous exposure.

I think Henry saw clips from popular movies as the quickest way to impart those messages. What you’re asking really gets into the underlying notion that the Army is working with what it’s got. You can’t blame the Army for trying to grab soldiers at this level by showing them what they know. It’s how they’ve grown up.

Have recruiters’ messages changed as a result of changes in young people?

You can see a little bit of that in the Army slogans. They went from “Be All You Can Be” to “Army of One” to “Army Strong.” They’re getting away from that idea of what your Army can do for you, moving towards the idea that you can be a rock upon which the institution is built. You’ll also notice that a lot of the Army commercials that are playing now are about parents having conversations with their children. A daughter or son comes up and says, “I’ve been thinking about joining the Army. They can train me. I can get money for school. What do you think?” The Army is encouraging parents to engage with their children in this conversation because they’ve found that often it’s the parent who shuts down a kid’s interest.

You wouldn’t think that the Army has as much of a recruiting problem as it does. I’ve talked to some recruiters about the fact that a lot of areas of the countries are hurting. I live in Detroit, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. With the slow demise of the auto industry, there are very few places that you can go where you are guaranteed a pension. The military is one of those last few places. As long as you’re somewhat conscientious and not a complete screw-up at your job, you can stay in for twenty years. You can retire with a pension. You get free health care the whole time. You get money for college. You don’t even have co-pays for your health care. And yet recruiters in Detroit have just as hard a time recruiting people as other recruiters do around the country.

So that says something about the environment in which the Army recruits people. It’s tough. And as I point out in the story, recruiters talk to a lot of people for every recruit they get.

You end your piece by observing that young Americans are “less willing and less able to serve than earlier generations were,” and you suggest that the solution to this conundrum lies outside the military. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that we have sufficient and competent ground troops?

I was reading an old story from April 1981 by James Fallows about the civilianization of the Army. At the end he equates the draft to taxes and argues that it should be handled in roughly the same way. We live in a democracy and people pay taxes. If we had complete freedom, I would say, “I don’t want to pay taxes.” But living in this country affords us a lot of great opportunities, and we have to pay taxes.

As much as it sounds like the pickup truck bumper stickers that you see: “Freedom Isn’t Free,” we could handle service the same way by putting an obligation onto it. This is a perspective of mine that has probably changed after having been in the military. A lot has been said to suggest that a disproportionately small part of the population is bearing the burden of this war. It’s a flawed comparison to invoke Rosie the Riveter. Because of the scope and the scale of World War II, so many people were needed, and so many goods that people were mobilized on a massive scale. But I do think there’s something to be said for promoting an idea of shared responsibility and sacrifice.

It’s incredibly easy to live in this country. You don’t have to do anything to contribute to the world around you or your community. You can if you choose to, and many, many people are involved civically or through government service or through charity. And we rely on the people who volunteer. But in the context of military service, the result is people who are on their third or fourth deployment in Iraq. National Guard brigades were notified recently that they’re going to be deploying to Iraq again even though they were told originally that they would be deployed only once. And yes, that is what these people volunteered for. They volunteered to be in the military and to serve their country. But at the same time you have to wonder how many times we will send the same people to war.

What would have to happen in order to bring about change? Do we need to reinstate the draft?

It could work many different ways. But there are many steps before we reach that point. Public officials could call on Americans to serve or be involved. We really haven’t seen this. Politicians talk about the importance of sacrifice for the war on terror, but unless you’re in the military or you work for homeland security, there is no sacrifice asked of you. Our political leaders could say, We’re in this tough situation now, so we need to rally together. They could call on the resources of the country.

I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea of national service being required in an equitable way—whether it’s military service, or service in a national park clearing trails, or working as a community police officer. Compulsory national service could be a draft of sorts, with people getting selected by having their numbers get picked. You get a lot of privileges and benefits from working in this country. So if you’re called upon, you should be able to give back and do some service for the country.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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