Should You Join the U.S. Military?

W.J. Astore

When I was eighteen, the U.S. Army promised I could “be all that you can be.” The Navy said “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The Marines were all about “The few — the proud — the Marines.” And the Air Force promised “a great way of life.” I guess I wanted a great way of life, so I joined the Air Force.

Seriously, I never thought I’d serve for twenty years in uniform. My career was relatively easy in the sense that no one ever shot at me, nor did I ever have to take a life. I got an excellent education, met good people, went to interesting places, and got to teach a subject I loved for six years.

Recently, I learned that a member of my family is thinking of joining the military after high school. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but his interest in wearing the uniform made me think about the advice I’d give him if he did ask. What can you say to young men and women that can help them to make an informed decision — the best possible one for them?

It’s easy to be gung-ho about the military. It’s also easy, I think, to dismiss military service with extreme prejudice. The best advice is honest, balanced, and attuned to the person seeking it. In this spirit, what would I say to a young person contemplating enlisting in the military?

Let’s tackle the disadvantages first, the downside and drawbacks to military service, the aspects of military life that potential recruits rarely think about. Here are a few of them:

  1. You could die or be seriously wounded in the military. Think of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and similar “hidden” wounds of war. America is incessantly at war, somewhere, and there’s always a chance you could die. But of course young people think they’re immortal and may even crave danger, so this reality rarely deters them.
  2. You may have to kill other people. Perhaps even innocent people, because war is extremely messy and chaotic. Such acts of violence against humanity may lead to moral injury that will haunt your conscience. Are you prepared to kill? Truly?
  3. You sacrifice personal autonomy and some of your rights when you join the military. You have to be willing to follow orders. You can’t just quit and walk away. The military insists on obedience and discipline. Are you prepared to do as you’re told?
  4. If you think you’re important, you’re not: and the military will remind you of this. You’re a pawn in a vast bureaucracy; you’re at the mercy of a system that is often capricious and treats you as a number. You’ll quickly learn the wisdom of acronyms like SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). They may sound funny, until they come to describe your life and career in the military.
  5. You may wish to ask yourself when was the last “good” or necessary war that America has fought for the purpose of true national defense. You may discover that recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were not “good” wars in service of your Oath of Office to the U.S. Constitution. If this gives you pause, if this troubles you, I suggest you don’t enlist.
  6. Take the time to read about veterans who are against war. Consider this letter written by Daniel Hale, who is currently serving prison time for his courageous stance against the murderously imprecise nature of drone warfare. Read about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and who was killed by friendly fire, then used as a propaganda prop by the U.S. military. Don’t think something similar can’t happen to you.

I could mention other disadvantages, such as frequent moves, nonsensical jobs, bad bosses, etc., but many civilian jobs share these. Work isn’t easy; it’s why it’s called “work.”

Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart. A bomber pilot during World War II, Stewart suffered from what we today call PTSD. A heroic man, but he’d be the first man to deny that he was a hero. Put differently, Stewart didn’t need war to make him great.

Now, how about the advantages to military service. I know that some of my readers will challenge these, and rightly so, but here are a few “positive waves” about enlisting and taking the oath:

  1. Tradition. For some enlistees, it’s about family tradition. I wasn’t from a strong military family, but my father and his two brothers served in World War II; so did my mother’s brother; and, more recently, my older brother enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and three brothers-in-law also served, one in Vietnam during that horrendous war.
  2. Opportunity. The military today is respected within our society, even venerated. Serving in the military may provide you with unique opportunities both during and after your service.
  3. Teamwork. In a selfish “you can have it all” society, the military reminds us of the importance of teamwork.
  4. Idealism. Taking the Oath of Office should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, don’t enlist.
  5. Purpose, discipline, responsibility, maturity. The military isn’t the only way to live a life of purpose, a disciplined life, a life of responsibility, a life centered on growth and maturation. But, for more than a few people, the military has provided a path forward, a sense of pride and clarity, though that can come at tremendous cost, as explained above.
  6. And, of course, the normal reasons people join: pay, benefits, an opportunity to travel, to start life over, perhaps to escape a bad situation, and so on.

Enlistment, in sum, is a personal decision that must be weighed carefully. What I would say is this: remember the words of Yoda the Jedi Master. “Wars not make one great.” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. Military service should be about service; it’s also about sacrifice. And you must always remember you may have to make the “ultimate” sacrifice, which is a euphemism for getting killed.

As the Outlaw Josey Wales said: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.

You’re your own person: Do you what you think is right, and good luck.

Update (11/30/21):

This photo by Jonathan Ernst of Reuters shows the “Gold Star” tree at the White House. It’s a tribute to “the fallen” in recent wars. That expression, “the fallen,” is truly a lamentable euphemism. Of course, we should remember the dead, for which we have Memorial Day and “gardens of stone,” i.e. cemeteries. Should we also remember the dead as ornaments on a Christmas tree? I have my doubts here.

26 thoughts on “Should You Join the U.S. Military?

  1. Back when I was drafted in Sep 1969, you went where the Army needed you at that time. If you had useful civilian job, like car or truck mechanic, you might wind up in the motor pool. A good typist was the best, lots of reports need to be typed.

    The career soldiers or lifers were moved along with their families where ever the Army needed them. I once had the chance in later years to speak to Lt. Col. who left the Army. He said he and his wife got fed up with the class system of personal relations within the Army. The Generals wife was the Queen Bee. You had to make sure you knew where you fit in. If for some reason you offended a spouse of someone who had a higher rank-Woe be to You.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi ML: Considering it was the military, your 1st paragraph makes too much sense. 🙂

      Your 2nd point highlights the insularity of the military as well as its peculiar nature. Officers’ wives aren’t quite like they were fifty years ago, but living on base, in base housing, surrounded by other officers and their families, can put you under a microscope. You never leave the job; someone is always watching.

      Not everyone finds this limiting, but I would have. (I never lived on base, partly from choice but also because when I tried, nothing was available.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was about to join the Navy, having watch many Navy training films on one of the brand new UHF TV stations that I could receive on my nifty 9″ black and white (all solid state!) Sony.

    But, and I am grateful to the man to this day, when I went to the recruiter and told him about my hopes, he said to me that it was almost certain that I would not be put into a job that I would like or that had anything to do with my love of radio communications. He talked me out of it. Thank you, sir!

    BTW, in keeping with a topic of this website, the military/industrial complex, let me pass along a headline I noticed in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, today…

    “Israel Okays $2.4 Billion Military Helicopter Purchase
    In less than an hour, Israel approved the purchase of Lockheed Martin’s CH-53K choppers following a recommendation from the Defense Ministry and military”

    This is part of the $3.8 billion that we give to Israel every year paying off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a money-laundering operation, with U.S. taxpayer funds going to Lockheed Martin after they’re “cleaned” in Israel.

      Israel gets helicopters — Lockheed Martin enjoys more profits — the U.S. taxpayer picks up the tab. Success!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting question and it deserves a considered answer. To me the military should only be used as a last resort, that is when diplomacy and reason fail. Honorable societies do not glorify war. I am thinking of America up to the Civil War.

    Point 2 under disadvantages is very important. Moral injury is what many vets have to deal with. I had a former gardener who began working for me when he was 17 and joined the special forces of some branch of our military about 10 years ago. He came to see me for advice about war which he knew I had seen. Since he was already signed up I told him to remember that the people he could be fighting are also human beings and deserve to be treated as such. That does not mean not to kill them if they are a threat, rather it means not to inflict pain and death for reasons of revenge or blood lust. Remember the war will end but what you did there will not end in your memory. I haven’t seen or heard from him since so I do not know what happened.

    Point 5 under disadvantages is very pertinent. As General Smedley Butler a two time Medal of Honor recipient said: “I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. ” When one looks back on one’s actions and realizes it was not for the protection of the country, a great disillusionment and shame will be the result.

    Your statements: ” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. ”
    I do not believe people of 18 – 21 should be accepted into the military. They are too immature. We don’t even trust them to drink alcohol yet we trust them to carry and operate weapons! Until someone has at least reached adult age they should not be allowed to go somewhere and kill other people.

    As brought up in previous posts by Denise, Jeanie and me, it seems a tragedy that the only way for a young man to have adventure, respect, opportunity and a purpose in life is to go to some one else’s country and kill them.

    Bottom line for what I would tell someone thinking of joining the military is: Don’t Do It!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful and reasoned response.

      No matter what we might say, young people will join. All we can do, I think, is to encourage them to think deeply about it.

      Telling them the military is bad, that soldiers are all dupes and tools of conquerors and kings and fools, has the element of truth, but it isn’t the entire truth.

      What we really need is a military that does its job and only that, i.e. support and defend the Constitution. That would mean a smaller military, a more focused one, and one that wouldn’t be recruited through heavy-handed propaganda.

      We’re obviously not there yet … not even close.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. THE DENSITY AND CLARITY OF YOUR MENTATIONS ARE APPRECIATED, WJSCOTT2. how optative, however, your final declarative is: “don’t do it!” the delusions of heroism. honour, and exciting adventures in the military will infect young people in perpetuity. any watershed moments of sagacity, maturity, and eury-comprehension will follow only in the wake of a young person’s despair, disillusions, dysphoria, and awareness of his/her role in the destruction of others. velleity and opacity will reign w/ the those deficient in moral-compass guideposts… i.e. the non-thinking, insouciant others who, upon their regurgitations from the military, will return to BAU [business as usual].

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Hi Bill–

    I find your consideration of the pros and cons of military service to be balanced and I can see myself sharing it with students in the future.

    I have 2 sons and work with young people as a high school teacher. My older son served 6 years in the NH Air National Guard. Back in 2016, I wrote an essay in response to one of yours in which I shared my consternation that he was about to be deployed to Afghanistan. Ultimately, he did not go–others in his unit were eager for the deployment pay and he wanted to stay in college. He ended up serving 6 years without deploying. He was able to complete a bachelor’s degree at our state university at no monetary cost. (At least a $100,000 benefit to him and to us.) He is quite cynical about the reverence paid to those in uniform and has little patience for flag waving.

    My younger son was a great reader of military stories and had a childhood fascination with Navy Seals. Even when he graduated from college, he was still saying that he might serve in the Coast Guard–perhaps as a rescue swimmer. He was a gentle, avid reader of a kid, with no propensity for violence. I always had the sense that he craved the “teamwork” aspect and the sense of shared purpose. I talk to many young people who share that desire, although not many of them read and think as deeply about it as my son.

    As you have pointed out, there are other ways of serving your country and other people. They are not celebrated at NFL games and don’t have catchy slogans. Jack served as a volunteer firefighter while in college and has been serving as wildland firefighter for the last three summers for the National Forest Service. He was a Tahoe Hot Shot this summer and fought the first fire ever to breach the Sierra Nevada and other fires of historic proportions. Maybe we need Smoky the Bear at halftime? Flyovers featuring cargo planes and fire retardant?

    As always, enjoyed your thinking about this. Hope you are well.

    Katie Stuart

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Katie. Many young men are searching for purpose and a sense of belonging, and the military knows this and taps into it. As your sons’ lives prove, there are many ways to achieve this without donning a military uniform.

      Like

    2. LOVE your comment, Katie! Volunteering in a capacity that will actually help others is the ultimate wise, humane choice. IF one could avoid being deployed, then yes, serving in the military might work out well, as it did for your older son. But he was one of the lucky ones.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. This last comment speaks to my thoughts on your initial question, Bill. Where’s the justification for that deployment to southern Africa? In what world does it make sense? Also pertinent are the comments above about sending planes to Israel and thus, as you pointed out, performing what’s essentially a money-laundering scam.

      If one of my nephews asked my opinion, my response would be (and I exclude the Coast Guard, because they actually do provide valuable services):

      “You could get a good education, paid for by Uncle Sam. To achieve that, you’d have to risk being cannon fodder for yet another one of the MIC’s illegal, purposeless wars. No other country currently threatens the U.S.; therefore, any conflict in which you participated would be a ginned-up one—you would NOT be protecting our freedoms, our lands, or our people, no matter what they told you. You might very well have to kill people who never took up arms against the U.S., including women and children, all in the name of enriching corporations and adding stars to the uniforms of men who are clueless and have no exit plan for you. If you developed PTSD, good luck. The VA is woefully under-funded and given short shrift. You might come home broken in body and/or spirit, and at that point, your government would have no further use for you. It would be too late to come to the realization that no education is worth that. My advice? If you want to serve and be part of a team, join the Peace Corps or one of the many other organizations that truly helps people. You don’t need to carry a gun to aid your country.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. flawless, denise! even a gung-ho, half-juvie, gun-toting, militia-besotted kid like rickenhouse would be convinced. my lachrymals pumped out tears by the time i finished reading your ratiocination… an impressively reasoned discourse that should be expanded into an actual academic course that should be included as a required sub-subject, taught in every US middle school and high school civics or history curriculum. i read there was yet another high school shooting by a 15-year old boy in michigan. in my day [1940s and ’50s] young boys were shooting at ‘verminous varmits’ instead of other kids.

        ….and WJSCOTT2, tnx for the list. when we lived in grenada and the sololmon islands, it was unfettered bliss wandering about the streets, byways, and coasts w/ nary a uniform, military base, or jeep packed w/ weapon-toting men in sight.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, another school shooting. Four are dead, 10 or 11 wounded. Perpetrated by a 15-year-old male, using a handgun his father had purchased a few days previously. Rationale unknown so far, although what rationale could there possibly be? The insanity mounts.

          Like

  5. I became curious as to how many countries in this troubled world do not have a military. Here is the list I found:
    Andorra
    Aruba
    Cayman Islands
    Cook Islands
    Costa Rica
    Curacao
    Dominica
    Falkland Islands
    Faroe Islands
    French Polynesia
    Greenland
    Grenada
    Iceland
    Kiribati
    Kosovo
    Lichtenstein
    Macau (China S.A.R.)
    Marshall Islands
    Mauritius
    Federated States of Micronesia
    Monaco
    Montserrat
    Nauru
    New Caledonia
    Niue
    Palau
    Panama
    St. Lucia
    St. Vincent and the Grenadines
    Samoa
    San Marino
    Sint Maarten
    Solomon Islands
    Svalbard (unincorporated region of Norway)
    Tuvalu
    Vanuatu

    One feature that stands out is that many of these are small islands. Greenland is an exception but then on one wants to fight over a 10,000 foot thick piece of ice.

    I wonder what the young men of these countries do for excitement?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Correction, the second from the last sentence should say: Greenland is an exception, but then who wants to fight over a 10,000 foot thick piece of ice?

    Like

  7. Received wisdom used to tell us that “Youth is wasted on the young.” In reality, it should point out that “Youth is wasted by the old.” From my experience as an American youth in the mid-1960s …

    Dragooned and Bullied Ex-Patriot
    (From The Triumph of Strife: an homage to Dante Alighieri and Percy Shelley)

    In early manhood’s time they came for us
    Distressed that we might plot a course our own
    And not one pledged to serve their animus

    We had begun to reap what they had sown;
    From seeds of dragons’ teeth sprang fighting men
    On fields of battle far from homeland grown.

    Yet grim news filtered back both now and then
    Of great success that almost had expired
    From using up its youth time and again

    A great success, indeed, that then required
    A fresh transfusion of the red supply
    Of winning fights, old Pyrrhus never tired

    Yet few could smell the stinking, reeking lie:
    Our youth was spent for what the old would buy

    And so to mask just what they had in store
    For us who had no choice and lived in dread,
    They tried to feed us patriotic lore

    Designed to earn our trust but not our bread
    But when that didn’t work as warfare bait
    They switched to using threat of jail instead

    They worked on us from early dawn till late:
    The Press, the Church, the School, the Law combined
    To wipe us blank of thought as any slate

    The Great Success abroad seemed to have dined
    On all the easy lives it could obtain;
    And yet it hungered still for our young kind

    Our leaders, though, felt not the slightest pain
    To them we meant no loss but only gain

    Some Fear Itself had seeped into our land:
    Reactionary Panic, Mystic Dread,
    And Abstract Anger gained the upper hand.

    Then fearing “communists” beneath each bed
    The Best and Brightest shipped us overseas
    To shoot a bad idea in the head

    Despite some vaguely heard pathetic pleas
    From those whose brains had better things to think
    The ones in charge cared only for their ease

    They hesitated not, nor did they shrink,
    As they from off our backs our freedoms flayed
    They sent us to a swamp to swim or sink

    Our youth again found its young self betrayed
    To die from history our elders made

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

    Liked by 2 people

    1. exquisite poetry, michael! a ‘coup de foudre’. now WE are the ones who have devolved into those onerous elders. altho’ most of wja’s commenters appear to be preadamite fossils, i doubt we have been complicit in the exploitation of our misled youth. tho’, if you will, those of us who paid taxes to the failed DS [disunited states] are indirectly or vicariously complicit. during our sundry USAID contracts, as canadians we were allowed to have our taxes [removed monthly at source] re-routed to canada’s tax coffers. however, we WERE required to pay into the ‘DS’ tax man’s larder during our cornell u. and virgin islands work as staff members in their respective environmental research depts. despite our not being manumitted any choice in the matter, i still feel culpable for all those tax ‘contributions’ to the MIC-ruled pentagon and their cavalier slaughter of innocents.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the kind comment, Jeanie. Apropos of poetry and the subject at hand: “Should you join the U.S. Military?” I got a request (in 2004) from my younger brother Jack — the California High School history and English teacher (and U.S. Army veteran) — who asked me to write an anti-war poem that he could use as a counter-recruiting tool for his classes. He and some of his colleagues didn’t want their students abused as expendable cannon-fodder for the Imperial Oligarchy and resented the military recruiters allowed to proselytize on campus and in the (relatively) poorer working-class community. Jack thought that an example of structured verse composed by an anti-military veteran might have some impact, so he gave me a particular stanza structure as guide and I wrote Bread and Circuses. After that, I bought a few books on poetry and verse (not always the same thing), studied some famous examples, and set myself challenges to see what I could produce using them as models. Still at it seventeen years later. Nothing I have written has had any effect on U.S. government corruption, if not insanity, but the exercises have perhaps helped me hang on to my own mental life as I grow ever more elderly. What little I can do to dissuade youth from indentured military servitude, I do in the only way I know how …

        Liked by 1 person

        1. isn’t that the customary prevenience, michael, the expected outcome? we write, we repetend, refrain-after-refrain, but no one in govt hears us, nor do they care. they feign a wee listen when election season rolls around, then it’s back to the ‘business’ of deaf ears, blind eyes, bloviating balderdash, and shovelling yet more lucre into their offshore accounts.

          no matter how sententious, argute, sage, and penetrating your extraordinary poetry is [and i have read every single one of your creations since joining wja’s blog last year], it will be dismissed by those who are already infected w/ the disease of greed and our youth’s false heroics.

          as you so condignly point out, at least the venting aids us who are singing in the same choral group to maintain our sanity and sanguinity, despite our surrender to naivete. at least we are not hiding our heads in the sand like trembling arenicolous critters.

          thank you for sharing your personal history; it clarifies how you came to be a gifted narrator of poetry, poesy, and/or verse. i wonder how many young, potential recruits your brother, aided by your poetic inputs, managed to steer away from the murder-mongering military.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Why feel culpable for your taxes’ having gone to the MIC? Aside from the fact that those funds supported other government sectors as well, none of us can earmark our taxes for allocation. Refusing to pay, period, merely results in wage garnishment and/or time in the lock-up.

    Like

    1. t’is precisely why we did not risk being tax-dodgers; we feared being defenestrated from our positions or worse, rotting in a prison cell. w/ 7 bantlings to support, neither was an option. once bairns arrive, a recusant’s choices become limited… and the taxman knows that; s/he relies on it as a controlling incentive to sustain govt coffers.

      Liked by 1 person

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