Recruiting the All-Volunteer Military

Spotlight on Fellow Beth Bailey, from Centerpoint, May 2005

May 02, 2005

The U.S. military has confronted a growing challenge over the past 30 years: trying to attract skilled men and women into its ranks. The nation moved from a mandatory draft to a volunteer system back in 1973, when American troops left Vietnam. The shift fulfilled a campaign pledge made by presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, one that gained support among many Americans during the unpopular war.

"But there were inadvertent consequences of this shift," said cultural historian Beth Bailey, currently researching this topic as a Wilson Center fellow. "Without a draft, the military had to determine how to fill its ranks and began looking to new populations and thinking about how to appeal to them."

Bailey is studying how the military's advertising campaigns—-particularly Army ads—-have evolved over the past three decades. For example, the rise of the women's equal rights movement coincided with the Army's need to attract female recruits to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer army, and advertising shifted dramatically from a "you can still be feminine and still get married" message to portraying women as professionals and teammates. Women currently represent about 15 percent of the Army's active duty personnel, reported Bailey. Their numbers have increased 16-fold since 1972.

Sophisticated advertising also has been aimed at parents, depicting the military as a good, honorable choice for their children. Recent ads also have targeted minority groups, particularly Latinos--America's fastest growing ethnic group--who are underrepresented in the military.

Bailey said, "To attempt to attract volunteers, the armed forces have helped lead the way in portraying a more diverse and inclusive American society, fostering new understandings of the meaning and significance of race, ethnicity, gender, and class in American society.

Moving to an all-volunteer military also meant using big-budget mass-market advertising, said Bailey, who is interested in the logic of such advertising, which she admits works well during peacetime but raises numerous questions. "Does advertising offer an implicit contract? What does it mean for the Army to discuss potential recruits as ‘consumers,' or to portray military service as the equivalent of adventure sports?"

A major challenge has been how to attract and retain qualified recruits. "The military is competing with other potential options-—civilian jobs, college, technical school-—and it's harder to recruit qualified men and women when the economy is strong." Bailey said recruitment ads of the primarily peacetime military of the 1980s and 1990s had promised personal and economic advancement. But when the nation went to war with Iraq in 2003, the ads began to portray patriotism, emphasizing themes of victory, heroism, and sacrifice.

"I'm surprised by how much self-examination has happened within the military itself and by how sophisticated the research and marketing have become," Bailey said. These high-profile, expensive ad campaigns are not only directed at potential recruits, she said, but also at the general public to help garner taxpayer support for the military and its programs. "While recruiting may be more difficult in times of military conflict, selling the military as an institution is more challenging in times of peace and security," she said.

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