Uncle Sam Wants You!

An Uncle Sam balloon at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

An Uncle Sam balloon passes by a spectator as she watches from her appartment in Times Square during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last November. (Photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP-Getty Images)

During World War I, Uncle Sam’s famous poster with the words, “I Want You,” became part of the American cultural fabric when it was painted by artist James Montgomery Flagg. Uncle Sam cartoons, however, had been around since 1838 inspired by an early defense contractor from Troy, N.Y., Samuel Wilson, who was in the business of slaughtering and packing meat. Wilson provided meat to the United States military during the War of 1812 in barrels that were stamped “U.S.” Someone suggested that the initials stood for Uncle Sam beginning the myth that Uncle Sam represented the United States government. Uncle Sam, through the building of his mythology, became a creature of political cartoonists and artists. The posters were also used in World War II.

As the United States continues its campaign in Iraq, it is increasingly finding it challenging to be involved in a long-term war without having a draft. Even in the recent presidential election, this was a key debating point. Under this pressure, military recruiting tactics and the popular culture and mental environment of the public utilized to support this venture is increasingly coming under scrutiny.

Recent American military campaigns have not needed the same kind of long-term commitment required in Iraq. Not since Vietnam, when a draft was necessary, has the military been so pressured to recruit new volunteers.

In 2002, the military released the video game “America’s Army” at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Maj. Chris Chambers of the Army’s Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis says that the game “is a communication tool designed to show players what the army is — a high tech, exciting organization with lots to do.”

According to, it has cost taxpayers at least $6.3 million to develop. Although not intended specifically as a recruitment tool, it is definitely intended as a form of positive marketing for the army.

The Boston Globe recently reported that military recruiters “target certain schools and students for heavy recruitment,” and determined that the most important variable used was class.

As the fighting in Iraq continues and everything points to the fact that this war will take at least several more years, there will be increasing pressure to replenish the troops in Iraq with new, well-trained recruits. As this develops further, there will be a deeper examination of the tactics used to bring new people into the military.

Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, has criticized military recruitment tactics by saying, “society places what should be a shared burden of defense only on those poor enough to be induced to risk their lives for a chance at college or signing bonus.”

What is also troublesome are reports such as Richard Hil’s, in Australia’s Arena magazine, that almost 30 percent of the forces in Iraq fighting under American leadership are not American citizens and that their deaths are not officially being counted. Over 1,000 American troops have officially died and over 100,000 Iraqis are believed to have died during the fighting. It is estimated that a further 1,000 non-American citizens fighting for the United States have also died.

Peace groups in the United States have noted that at targeted schools an aptitude test is offered to obtain personal information about the student, and that prospects get called “at least six times by the Army alone,” and “are hit with a blitz of mailings and home visits.”

In the Oakland, Calif., school district, 4,000 names were given to military recruiters in order to comply with a new federal act designed to compile student contact information.

A provision of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act allows recruiters special access to the names, phone numbers and addresses of high school juniors and seniors. People can opt out, but it is like a form of negative option recruiting — one has to take the initiative to be taken off the list. The   neighborhoods of children whose parents have opted out at greater rates are often in wealthier and more educated parts of a state.

Military recruiters average about two sign ups a month. The contact-enlistment ratio is less than1 percent. Recent studies reveal that for every 120 people contacted, one is successfully recruited. Army studies suggest $15,000 is spent on a single enlistment.

For 2005, the Army has increased its budget and made plans to hire another 1,000 recruiters to bring the total for the Army and Army Reserves to nearly 7,500.

The Recruiters for Peace and Justice Coalition have held numerous protests outside military recruitment stations. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, high schools can lose all of their federal aid if they do not give the military contact information for all of their students, including home telephone numbers and home addresses. Additionally, the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, ostensibly a program of instruction taught for academic credit in high schools, costs school districts about $50,000 per school for its recruitment of students.

Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine says he is fascinated by America and the increasing influence of the military: “The mental environment and spirit that is fostered even in the selling of products has embedded in it a kind of subtle patriotism, and of supporting the U.S. in Iraq.”

Lasn cites a recent eBay ad in The New York Times Magazine which has a young boy wearing a camouflage T-shirt woven seamlessly into the ad. It is this kind of subtle advertising that Lasn criticizes as much as the overt forms of recruitment aimed at young people and the kind of superficial patriotism attributed to those little lapel flags.

“This is the first time we’ve had to try to recruit an all-volunteer military with sustained operations going on for so long. It’s uncharted water,” Maj. David Griesmer, spokesman for Marine Corps Recruiting Command told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in November 2004.

According to the same article, the military recruiters are focused on 17- to 24-year-old males and use tactics including attending high school football games, paintball games, workout sessions, playing simulated war games, conducting home visits and using e-mail recruiting tactics.

The Boston Globe writer, A. S. Hamrah, suggests in an extensive analysis that Hollywood is the worst culprit in producing mass propaganda for the military. David L. Robb, a Los Angeles-based journalist, has documented some of the activities of the Pentagon’s film liaison office, part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, in a book titled Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies. As part of its mandate, the office suggests changes to scripts to create favorable depictions of the military for the purpose of increasing military recruitment and retention. What a film studio or director may get in return is the option of shooting on a military base or renting a fighter jet. Some critics have argued that this violates the first amendment, but at the very least most agree that it can have a chilling effect on what gets made.

Ridley Scott was denied assistance for G.I. Jane, which showed Demi Moore as a female recruit taking on sexist members of the Navy Seals.

J. Hoberman of the Village Voice has argued that war films that are managed or influenced by the Pentagon are the closest thing the United States has to an “official art.” Phil Strubb, the civilian in charge of the film liaison branch has publicly stated, “Hollywood wants something from us. We negotiate and if they don’t like our suggestions, they make the film without us.” Television shows like JAG, large scale military recruitment ads, even some designed by Spike Lee in 1999 for the Navy and shot in Hawaii are part of the ongoing campaign for recruitment. Large-scale film vehicles such as Tears of the Sun, a Bruce Willis feature, and other upcoming films, suggest that there is going to be a further bombardment of pro-military films in the years ahead.

VH-1 recently premiered Military Diaries, Oliver North is hosting War Stories on Fox News, and CNN from time to time still has high profile former generals covering the ground war like a football game, with laser pointers and embedded reporters lying on their bellies in front of military jeeps in the middle of fighting.

It may not be an Uncle Sam poster, but expect military recruitment tactics to become more visible and more aggressive as the fighting continues in Iraq.