Sunday, October 29, 2006

The New York Review Of Books

Volume 55, Number 5 · April 3, 2008
The Volunteer Army: Who Fights and Why?
By Michael Massing


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.

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