“War is not a game”, House Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez declared in a July 22nd interview with Motherboard, while justifying her proposed amendment to the House Appropriations Bill. The amendment, which was struck down in a House vote on July 30th, would have mandated that the Pentagon cease using funds from their annual budget to maintain a recruitment presence on the gamer streaming platform Twitch.
Twitch, a streaming service and subsidiary of Amazon, claims to prospective advertisers to have access to over 80% of the male teenage population in the US. The influence it wields with this demographic makes the platform uniquely attractive to the US military, an organization that infamously uses predatory methods to target and recruit impressionable young Americans, often whilst they are still in high school.
Due to the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, a Bush-era piece of legislation that capitalized on the post-9/11 patriotic fervour in the US, military recruiters are controversially allowed the same level of access to high school students as college recruiters or other employers. This has bred a culture whereby recruiters disproportionately frequent low-income high schools and neighbourhoods, using incentives such as reliable employment and college scholarships to lure financially vulnerable teenagers into military service. A 2011 article published in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information journal, titled ‘Should We End Military Recruiting in High Schools as a Matter of Child Protection and Public Health?’ corroborates this. It observed that ‘recruiters head to the cafeterias at the lower-income central and south-end high schools [of Seattle] (where young people on free and reduced lunch go to get a meal)’.
The 2011 article also identified how the US was, in 2011, one of only two countries that had not ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, partially because the US could not comply with the 2002 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Article 3 of the protocol demands ‘safeguards’ for voluntary recruits under the age of 18 and the ‘informed consent of…parents or legal guardians’. As of 2015, the US is now the only country to have failed to ratify it.
Military recruitment has been the subject of criticism since the ‘War on Terror’ began. In 2006, the Associated Press revealed that ‘more than 100 young women who expressed interest in joining the military [between 2005 and 2006] were preyed upon sexually by their recruiters’. A 2007 study of the 2001-2003 cohort of US soldiers revealed that the youngest age bracket of soldiers, those between the ages of 17 and 24, were significantly more likely to be afflicted with mental illnesses, ranging from alcoholism to PTSD. However, more recently several factors have converged to exacerbate the problem of unethical recruitment practices.
New and innovative social media public outreach initiatives like the US Army Esports Team, Trump’s ambitious recruitment quotas, lowered standards for recruitment. In addition to this, an impending economic depression may serve to coerce record numbers of American teenagers into the armed services in the coming years. Between 2007 and 2010, Active Duty U.S. Army personnel numbers rose by over 40,000. Bush’s ‘The New Way Forward’ Iraq War troop surge was successful in part due to the limited alternative job opportunities afforded by the 2008 recession, and in part by a relaxation of recruitment standards to allow enlistees without high school diplomas to join.
Many of the same bleak conditions have been recreated in the 2020 political and economic landscape. Trump is desperate to enlarge the military – he missed his recruitment quota in 2018 and the army was forced to scale back recruitment goals for 2019 as a result.
More importantly, the current economic recession threatens to morph into what The Atlantic has dubbed ‘The Second Great Depression’, with the Congressional Budget Office currently anticipating that ‘the American economy will generate $8 trillion less in economic activity over the next decade than it projected just a few months ago’. This future may promise misery for everybody else, but military recruiters will be counting this curse as a blessing. In 2018, Hank Minitrez, Public Affairs Officer for the Office of Manpower and Reserve Affairs in the U.S. Army, directly attributed the Army’s missed recruitment goal to the problem of ‘a strong economy’.
Military recruiters are also bound to benefit from the steeply rising price of higher education. College tuition fees have risen by over 25% in real terms since 2008, a dire situation that renders military financial aid programmes for college students more alluring than ever. In a Department of Defense poll conducted in 2017, the most common reason cited by young people for considering military enlistment was ‘to pay for further education’, with 49% of those polled giving this answer. This paints a grim portrait of disadvantaged, low-income teenagers being forced into a traumatising and violent career, in order to give themselves a marginally better chance at upward social mobility and financial stability in later life.
And even then, financial stability is far from agiven. The prevalence of PTSD and subsequent substance abuse issues among troops means that in the US, veterans are two times more likely than other Americans to become chronically homeless, and currently constitute nearly 11% of the nation’s homeless population.
Disingenuous unethical recruitment methods are far from exclusive to the US. In recent weeks, Irish television presenter Laura Whitmore came under fire for partnering with the British Army to advertise army jobs to women on their new podcast, ‘The Locker’. This advertising partnership, like the US Army Esports Team, demonstrated the willingness of army recruiters to harness burgeoning social media phenomena like influencing, podcasting and online gaming to further their agenda.
It also highlighted an equally as insidious phenomenon in recruitment; employing the hollow, liberal feminist rhetoric of ‘girl power’ to cast female military service as an empowering resistance to the patriarchy. This white feminism ignores how many UK and US servicewomen will inevitably be engaged in killing Middle Eastern civilians, whether men, women, or children, indiscriminately and brutally.
It also ignores the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault for female service members. The US Department of Defence revealed in 2019 that sexual assaults committed against female service members increased by 50% between 2017 and 2019, and the recent, highly publicized murder of Vanessa Guillen highlights the issue of gendered violence in the ranks of the military.
All of these factors make AOC’s recent principled stand against the military crucial. The military has, for now, voluntarily retreated from the gaming streaming platform after allegations emerged that recruiters were equating video games with war and targeting children as young as 12.
However, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives’ refusal to ban such predatory practices should serve as a reminder for how far the Overton Window needs to be shifted. Both parties are culpable of cynically furthering the interests of what Eisenhower termed the ‘military industrial complex’; since the start of 2019, the defence sector has donated $11.4m to Democrat’s campaigns and $13.6m to Republican campaigns.