Be All That You Can Click ON!: Military Propaganda in the Information Age


“I AM AN ARMY OF ONE.  Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force.  With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was.  And I’ll be the first to tell you, the might of the U.S. Army doesn’t lie in numbers.  It lies in me.  I am An Army of One.  And you can see my strength.” 
--NEW ARMY RECRUIT RICHARD P. LOVETT, GoArmy.com

“I’m not too high on the firepower, explosive type things.  I’m a little scared of the hand grenade course, and I’m not looking forward to the live fire drill.”     --NEW ARMY RECRUIT BEN SMITH, GoArmy.com

The contemporary U.S. Army—at least the one that was being marketed to American teenagers before September 11, 2001—has been selling a softer experience than the Army of yore.  Instead of pushing its recruits “to be all they can be,” the new Army bills itself as an “Army of One,” with its new slogan evoking a kind of individualism not usually associated with military life.  To challenge old stereotypes and capture new recruits for the new and improved military experience, the Army is investing in on-line recruiting, creating websites that present a colorful collage of video games, golf clubs, college dorms, shopping opportunities, and hiking trails.  What the new Army seems to promise in its online propaganda is a therapeutic experience that you can consume and that will pleasurably consume you: rather than “be all you can be” through blood, sweat, and tears—the familiar rhetoric of martial sacrifice—the new Army allows you to be all you can click on in a picture-perfect digital world, where the “Army of one” is also an Army of ones and zeros.  Skeptics can see for themselves.  That’s the purpose of the video testimonials from satisfied customer/soldiers. 

            The armed forces have had a strong web presence as long as anyone—not surprising given the Internet’s military origins as the Arapnet network.  But in the last three years, the U.S. military has created a new kind of propaganda that offers a savvy blend of documentary and traditional advertising.  Not long ago, the military message was conveyed to the American public by billboards, movie screens, televisions, and even traveling vans with slide shows.  As their message enters the contemporary on-line environment, it has begun morphing into new forms, incorporating aspects of Hollywood action movies, video games, comic books, sports iconography, and music videos.  Rich with saturated colors, sometimes with techno-pop music backgrounds, these new sites present slick documentary photo montages and videos that emphasize social, educational, travel, and training opportunities.  Some sites include interactive games in which a player can assist a Navy pilot on a simulated mission, while others combine macho military fantasies with more mundane visions of military life. 

            Why has the American military moved online with such speed?  The main reason was a serious recruiting shortfall that developed in the 1990s.  In December 1998, ArmyLINK News, an online newsletter devoted to military issues, reported survey data that demonstrated how “few young people are considering joining the military.”  In the same year, the Department of Defense reported a steep decline in the number of young men interested in military service.  The traditional face-to-face sales pitch was not keeping up with recruiting quotas.  Even with grueling work weeks, individual recruiters were only able to sign up one soldier per month on average. 

            Scrambling for young men and women in competition with the private sector, where a strong economy had driven wages upward, the Army responded on a number of fronts.  For one, it updated its approach to print advertising.  To broaden its appeal to women, the Army Reserve sponsored new print ads that revealed the feminine side of military life after focus groups alerted them to women’s concerns about female soldiers seeming too “butch.”  The result was a new kind of military recruiting poster: images of shapely female legs, hair knotted in a bun, and a woman’s hand with camouflage green fingernail polish ran in magazines such as Self and Seventeen

            Revamping print ads, televisions spots, and even slogans were all significant efforts to attract recruits, but the big new push was online.  In 1999, as CNN reported, “all four branches of the U.S. military [began] turning to the Web for help.”  Right from the start, online “e-cruiting” was a success, in no small measure due to websites that seemed less like a dusty recruiting brochure and more like the latest video game.  “Ever experienced the thrill of the Army’s version of high-tech video games?”  the new Army site asked, sounding a little like Peter Graves in Airplane.  “[Ever] been surrounded by soldiers wearing camouflage?”  For thousands of web-surfing teenagers, now was their chance. 

            The Army wasn’t the only branch of the service to invest in e-cruiting.  The Navy developed a red, white and blue site with an interactive game that lets a player join a Navy pilot on a mission.  Not to be outdone, the Air Force came up with flight simulators called “Flight Test” and “Canyon Maneuvers” for a website that was an instant smash—in 1999, the site received more than 36 million hits.  An “interactive media account executive” for the Air Force recruiting service said to CNN, “It’s not really any different than the Nintendo games kids play today,” with one exception—the online military games do not have any guns, missiles, and bombs.  As Lt. Commander Nick Dodge, director of the Navy’s Internet recruiting division, told a reporter, “There’s not going to be any shooting [in these video games].  I’m not sure we want to do that kind of thing online,” he said without a trace of irony. 

            As for the Marine Corps, it did just what you might expect of it.  The handsomely designed marines.com site presents the most traditional vision of military life, basically a mythologized paean to the soldier-warrior.  We don’t see golfing or shopping on marines.com.  Much like the corps’s print and TV ads, their website is dramatic, overstated, and creepily Orwellian.  In huge letters across an ultrawide screen, the Corps announces that, “One must first be stripped clean.  Freed of all the false notions of the self.”  Then this box appears: “The Marine Corps... will strip away the façade so easily confused with self.  It is the Corps that will offer the pain needed to buy the truth.”

            Click on for a few pages and you learn that, “We came as orphans.  We depart as family.”  What we see on the Marines site is unique among the four branches: there is an emphasis not just on what the individual can gain from the experience, but the power of collective experience.  We also see an emphasis on the transformative endurance, not happy avoidance, of pain.  But you’d never glimpse most of this if you started your visit to the site by admitting you were a college student.  Anyone who cops to that level of education gets different, more cerebral pages, with much more text and far fewer images, aimed at attracting prospective officers with vague appeals about the value of leadership.  Only those who click “junior college, high school, or below” get the full mythological treatment with pretty pictures of shaved-head men, militias arching in unison, evoking scenes from Fight Club

            The Army took a different tact, one worth exploring in depth.  Joining the online recruiting race with a desire to publicize its new softer edges, the Army emphasized “quality of life” improvements to anyone who would listen, online or off.  At a Special Forces Conference at Ft. Bragg in April 1999, one reporter was told about “the next generation of gourmet MREs (meals ready to eat): seafood tortellini, black-bean burritos, and Hoorah!  Energy bars.”  The carefully crafted image of Army life on the recruiting website is a part of this new softer sell. 

            What the Army came up with, GoArmy.com, is now one of the most amazingly detailed sites on the web.  Designed to attract young men and women to the “new and improved” Army life, the site is inviting and hospitable.  Even if someone is not looking for it, they might get the eerie feeling that all roads lead to GoArmy.com.  It’s not just the traditional marketing routes—print, radio, television advertising—that guide you there.  It’s also the banner ads on youth-oriented websites, music, sports, and ethnically specific sites such as Hispanic America Online.  And for those who might ignore the banner ads there are pop-up boxes.  For example, someone on the Rolling Stone website could be trying to download a Radio video when, unannounced and uninvited, a picture of a camouflage boom box pops on screen.  It is a “Cadence Delivery System” that chants: “Drip drop drippity drop… the roof has a lead, the rain’s dripping on my head, I might as well be dead.”  With one more curious click, he or she would land in the virtual world of today’s Army at GoArmy.com, to be tempted to change their life course with hard bodies, great smiles, chat rooms, and 360 web cam views of world class work-out facilities.  The site goes to great lengths to belittle the last generation’s bad Army memories, like marching in the rain or peeling potatoes on KP.  The new Army dismisses such mindless forms of discipline as a relic from wars gone by and tosses out a suave joke: “if you want to peel a potato, that’s your business.”

            They can afford to laugh.  Web recruiting was an instant winner for the Army.  U.S. Army Recruiting Command reported a 200% increase in web-generated leads in an 18 month period in 1998-9.  In 2001, NPR reported that the Army rode the success of its website to reach its recruiting goals “for the first time in years.”  Even better than the volume of the leads was their quality: recruiting leads from the Internet have a much higher “conversion rate” than other kinds of leads.  Due either to the type of person who might have access to a computer in the first place, or perhaps, as I suspect, the depth of the hypnotic immersion into the virtual world that the site offers, a young man or woman who contacts the military via the Internet is more than twice as likely to enlist (something they cannot do online thus far). 

            Why was the Army so effective online?  Listen to the come-on that opens one of the key sequences of pages on GoArmy.com: “Follow the lives of six recruits as this real-life web series captures their nine-week journey from civilian to soldier.  Join them each week, via video and multimedia installments, as they overcome their fears, realize their strengths and master the challenges of Basic Training.” Sound like a game show?  Of course it does.  Using tropes of TV documentary or reality programming gives these sites a familiarity and realism that traditional advertising might not have for a jaded generation, although the architects of the site seem a little embarrassed and unpersuasive in their attempts to distance GoArmy.com from popular programs like Survivor.  Chris Miller, head of Chemistri, the digital studio that designed the site for advertising agency Leo Burnett USA, told NPR that “we actually had a little bit of a fear that people would compare it to reality TV.  Because it really isn’t reality TV.  In those cases, people are trying to win a million dollars or win some prize.  In this case, at the end of basic training, these six individuals all become soldiers.” 

            Miller claimed that Chemistri had two primary goals in developing the site.  The first was to combat Hollywood misperceptions about the Army.  “Many [young people] have seen Full Metal Jacket, which is not what Army basic training is really like”, Miller claimed.  His second goal was “bringing basic training to life” through a dynamic web-based experience.  Miller claimed that young people “expect things to be flashy, to utilize technology, and to connect with them.  We had to build a website that did that to the same level as say MTV or other similar media rich sites, yet still bring out a grand message and essence to bear.” 

            What is this “grand message and essence”?  Perhaps not what you would expect.  Words like honor, duty, sacrifice, tradition have little place at GoArmy.com (though you’ll see them on the Marines’ site, if only in its comic book format).  Today’s Army is pushing an experience with no deeper meaning than your own personal development; no ethical quandaries, no abstract commitments to patriotism, democracy, history, freedom, fighting tyranny, nation-building.  That’s your father’s Oldsmobile.  If GoArmy.com evokes combat, it’s only the jocular combat of contestants on Survivor.  On this game show, you get everything but the turtle wax. 

            With this in mind, let’s meet some of the contestants.  According to Chris Miller, each one was selected to represent the target demographic of 18 to 24 year olds (Wertheimer).  One of our six contestant/soldiers is Michelle Boatner, a 21-year-old from Glenpool, Oklahoma.  On the “Basic Training” introductory page within GoArmy.com, you can find a small box with Michelle’s smiling photo.  Click on it and up pops a Quicktime video of her “home interview” that looks like a Survivor audition tape.  If we watch her video, we can see her sitting in what looks like a college library, looking into the camera and giving a smiling testamonial: “I never would have pictured myself in the military.  I’m really surprised by myself.  I’m the type of person who normally goes with the flow.”  We can learn more information about our contestant-soldier on the introductory page, where we are given Michelle’s age, height, weight, hometown, and interests which include photography, decorating, reading and bowling (you can see why she wanted to be in the Army). 

            GoArmy.com allows the American military to promote itself to terms of television reality programming, not war movies or grey memorials to fallen comrades (only marines.com alludes to history, offering black and white photos of the Iwo Jima memorial as well as famous generals).  In Michael Herr’s classic of war reportage, Dispatches, a young soldier famously complains, “I hate this movie” as he slogs through Vietnamese mud. The new Army’s message is that “we hate that movie too.” GoArmy.com makes that message explicit: “think being in the Army is like those old black and white movies? Think again. Today’s army is not the same as what your parents and grandparents knew. You have more opportunity, more choices, and more freedom than ever before. In addition, with changes in the incentive bonus and education plans, the Army also makes more sense financially.” New recruit Ben tells the camera that “I want to join the army because of career opportunity, lifestyle, and travel… it’s a career opportunity of a lifetime that you can’t get by walking into a corporate office.” Alice explains that “they told me about the ‘Troops for Teachers’ program… I’d like to be a teacher, to help my mom and to be an example to my younger siblings.” The implication of these testimonials is that the new army will give you the freedom and encouragement to fulfill your personal ambitions. The emphasis is on the individual, not the collective.

Like Michelle indicated, today’s army is not a place for those who “normally go with the flow.” Instead, in what strikes me as the greatest irony of military marketing since Jane Fonda served as “Miss Army Recruiting 1962” the Army is positioning itself as a home for rebel individualists, eager to do their own thing. If the impression given by GoArmy.com is correct, a soldier can zip from the video game arcade in their college-style dorms to a health-conscious buffet that puts Luby’s to shame, before heading out for a leisurely mountain bike ride or 2K jog. “Too cold outside? Raining?” don’t worry, the army has got you covered: “If you don’t want to brave the great outdoors for your run, head to the gym. Since the padded and banked track is raised above the floor, you won’t have to contend with balls and such coming at you.” After several months in which the young recruit grows accustomed to “balls and such” coming at them, perhaps then they might be introduced to rounds of live ammunition and booby traps, but if so, the site makes no mention of such hazards. Errant volleyballs are as risky as it gets in the new Army.

What will happen to new e-cruits who are deployed to Kosovo, Khartoum, or Kabul? Perhaps they will be able to remain safely behind their video monitors, whether in a tank, a plane, or a camp. Perhaps they can sustain the illusion of the electronic environment even in a warzone, if that reality is sufficiently mediated. With the profusion of electronic information, American soldiers can experience a kind of “weightlessness” in the field, as Paul Virillo puts it. Though we can only hope this weightlessness does not describe the ethics of soldiers/video technicians who are able to kill by remote control.

The online marketing of the military is a natural extension of the tightly controlled digital landscape that Virillo has envisioned: e-cruiting is the logical first step toward e-war. Cyber-recruiting, followed by cyber-training, with all the attendant “cinematic derealization,” is fair preparation for what the 21st century GI will experience in the “field”: the digital derealization of death (of “the other,” naturally). So the proliferation of virtual systems for seeing these “high-speed, real-time, cinematic, global computer networks” as one scholar puts it, has been a boon not just to military actions, but also to military public relations, including the recruitment process.

What, then, will be real? Only the pensions, the medals, the seafood tortellini. Virillo claims that as the image takes priority over “the thing, the object” and becomes “invasive, and ubiquitous,” virtuality destroys reality. On the battlefield, the reality of life and death becomes just another blip on a screen, detached from lived experience. On the recruiting website, the dangers are less apparent. But what GoArmy.com destroys is democratic discourse. At risk is the public sphere of face-to-face communication. Almost two decades ago, at age 17, I could contrast the gruff arm-twisting of military recruiters, who called me at home with the eye-rolling of my friends, none of whom expressed anything but skepticism about military life. Had I been more different from the real public sphere, had I been more easily isolated in a beguiling cyber world of military propaganda, I might have been more pliable, more susceptible to the bill of goods—especially when it looks so familiar, so much like what was on TV last night. These sites are marketing schemes imbued with documentary authority. Documentary has often had a reformist agenda, but it is infinitely malleable. It can be commercialized, as Boot Camp, Big Brother, and Survivor indicate. And it can be militarized, as GoArmy.com reveals with a sophistication that old Army training films could not match. Today, the most potent forms of documentary are not in the old social conscience tradition of Lorentz, Wiseman, or Kopple, nor is it in the lucratively paranoid urban dystopia of reality programs like Cops. Instead, it may be in the creative collaboration of Madison Ave. and the Pentagon, in the strange marriage of Mark Burnett and G.I. Joe, with the resulting slick, beguiling, enveloping “reality propaganda” of GoArmy.com.

Life on the web, even military life, is clean and predictable, far from the stench and mess of physicality where one runs into undependable people and hostile fire. It fosters a pleasant illusion of control that can lull us into complacency, into expecting the privileged position of inflictor, not recipient, of profound violence on the scale that rocked America on September 11. As Naomi Klein wrote two days after the attack: “the era of the video game war in which the U.S. is always at the controls has produced a blinding rage in many parts of the world, a rage at the persistent asymmetry of suffering… the illusion of war without casualties has forever been shattered. A blinking message is up on our collective video game console: Game Over.”


Contributor

Randolph Lewis

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