For most things, the military moves at a glacial pace. As recently as the 1970s there was still a section on an officer’s fitness report reserved for evaluating how supportive his wife was. Did she host enough parties? Attend all the coffees?
It wasn’t until 1980 when the first woman graduated from the United States Naval Academy — it would still be another decade before women pilots were allowed to fly fighter jets — and it took until the 2000s, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was lifted, for the military to accept openly gay and lesbian service members.
More recently, women were prohibited from serving in combat roles — that ban was lifted in 2015 — but it is now 2016, and women still are not required to register for Selective Service.
Today, military service members are held accountable for a list of social regulations that would seem intolerable to most of society. Uncle Sam dictates everything from a service member’s haircut, tattoos and hem length to his relationship with his wife. (Although adultery is regarded as a moral and ethical issue by most of civilization, it is still a crime in the United States military.)
The military is so rigid and perhaps antiquated by some standards that it almost lacks freedom and democracy. Indeed, a popular saying is, “[the military] is protecting democracy, not practicing it.”
And yet, there is one area of modern society that the military seems to have almost rushed (even beaten the rest of civilization) to embrace: the “it’s all about me” phenomenon. For decades now, the military’s acceptance of this worldview has been couched in the phrase “an all-volunteer military.”
As someone who has been a military dependent since the day she was born, I can tell you there is nothing “volunteer” about the military once you have volunteered to join. I understand why this phrase came to be, in order to distinguish from conscripted service days, but it is disingenuous considering all that the military actually entails.
From the day a person enlists, the military owns him. He doesn’t get to decide when he deploys or where he lives. There is no suggestions box — “How do you feel about this commitment?” — before going off to war. Even after that person retires, the military still lays claim to him and can recall him into active duty if the nation sees fit. And there is virtually no part of your life — save your sexual orientation or gender — that Uncle Sam doesn’t make his business.
Still, we call service members “volunteers,” and a new generation is biting at a way of life for which they aren’t prepared.
Remember the old posters from World War II that showed Uncle Sam, with his foreboding brow and pointing finger, declaring “I want YOU for the U.S. Army”? That was truth in advertising. You can almost envision Uncle Sam reaching through the paper, grabbing you by the shirt collar and dragging you off to battle.
Just a decade later, the U.S. Army changed its slogan to “Look Sharp, Be Sharp, Go Army!” and in the 1970s it changed again to the unbelievable, “Today’s Army Wants to Join You,” which is quite progressive in its warm-fuzziness. By 1980, the Army changed its slogan again, this time to “Be All That You Can Be.”
The Navy’s transformation has been even worse: “The Navy, it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,” “Accelerate your life,” etc.
Do you notice how Uncle Sam and the needs of a nation have practically fallen off the recruiting posters? It’s all about you. You’ll get an education. You’ll see the world. You’ll have an exciting life. But just remember: You’ll also need to wear your hair within regulations, and even if your mom is dying you’ll go wherever and whenever I need you.
In the 1940s, the military didn’t promise enlistees much, except for the knowledge that they were doing something important. Today, if we are to go off slogans and advertisements alone, recruiters promise our youth everything except the truth: The military is not an easy way of life, the sacrifices outweigh the benefits and it certainly does not involve anything close to volunteerism.
Today, I hear older service members bemoan younger ones who have too many demands and not enough tolerance for sacrifice: They want time off when their wife has a baby, they want to deploy when it’s convenient, they want midcareer sabbaticals to reevaluate their skills and they want pay that’s similar to the outside world. They want everything the advertisements have promised — adventure, personal gain and volunteer status — and they are offended by what’s asked of them, which is basically everything that the military has always asked of anyone.
The next generation is evolving, these older service members say, and the military, with its snail’s pace for change, can’t keep up.
However, I think it’s probably the reverse. The military has been uncharacteristically progressive with its phrasing and recruiting tactics, and now it has purchased a generation of “volunteer” recruits who want what they were promised.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She may be reached at facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.