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Selling Military Service During Wartime: U.S. Army Recruitment Advertising and Enlistment Motivation During the War Against Terror


Martin Fransen

Independent scholar, DK
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This article examines the coherence between the themes expressed in the U.S. Army’s recruitment advertisements and the enlistment motivation among American soldiers enlisting in the Army in the years 2001–2010, when the country was involved in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. Based on exploration of the prevalent research, the article begins by assessing the history of military recruitment and enlistment motivation in the United States after the introduction of the draft in 1917 and after the introduction of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973. In this section, the article discusses the role of the Army’s recruitment advertising. Based on an analysis of selected interviews with Army veterans, the second part of the article aims to clarify the different motivations for enlisting in the U.S. Army between 2001 and 2010 and to compare these motivations with the contents of the Army’s recruitment advertisements at the time. The article argues that among the different reasons for enlisting, the feeling of duty to country remained a strong motivator throughout this period. Furthermore, the article argues that there was never complete consistency between the contents of the recruitment advertisements and the soldiers’ enlistment motivation.

How to Cite: Fransen, M. (2019). Selling Military Service During Wartime: U.S. Army Recruitment Advertising and Enlistment Motivation During the War Against Terror. Scandinavian Journal of Military Studies, 2(1), 178–192. DOI:
  Published on 23 Oct 2019
 Accepted on 20 Aug 2019            Submitted on 15 Oct 2018


The question whether military service should be compulsory or voluntary has been debated in most Western countries throughout the 20th century. With the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973, and, thus, the demise of compulsory military service, the United States has relied on the recruitment of volunteers to fill up its ranks rather than coercing people by conscription. Military recruitment advertising has, thus, become an important means of trying to persuade young people to enlist in the military. With the demise of compulsory military service, the armed forces thus try to entice potential recruits with material benefits as well as patriotic values. Since the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001, the country has been engaged in a global war against terrorism, including two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. In contrast to wars prior, these wars have been fought with volunteers rather than of conscripts. The military’s need to recruit volunteers has also affected the contents of military recruitment advertising. The question is what motivates soldiers to enlist in an army based on voluntarism. Another pertinent question is whether the persuasive messages conveyed in military recruitment advertising match the soldiers’ motivations for enlisting. This paper sets out to discuss the match between enlistment motivation and recruitment advertising in the U.S. Army during the War Against Terror 2001–2010, examining soldiers serving in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.


The examination is based on a collection of 64 interviews from the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. The interviews were conducted with U.S. Army veterans who served in either one or both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These soldiers enlisted in the years between 2001 (after “9/11”) and 2010. All of them were asked about their reasons for enlisting in the Army which makes these interviews ideal for exploring the enlistment motivation among soldiers at the time. In order to assess the correspondence between the persuasive messages in the Army’s recruitment advertising and the soldiers’ motivation to enlist, it is necessary to examine the soldiers’ reasons for enlisting and compare them with the contents in the Army’s advertising.

Using oral history as a primary source requires some methodological considerations. The interpretation of history based on oral evidence opens new possibilities, according to Paul Thompson (1978). Thus, oral evidence can be used to explore and develop new interpretations, to establish or confirm interpretations of past patterns or change, and to express what a particular experience felt like (Thompson 1978: 265). While interviews provide answers to specific questions, they also tend to be biased, and the opinions and norms expressed by the person being interviewed may have changed, especially if the interview is conducted many years after the fact (Thompson 1978: 100–134). The interviews used as sources in the present paper were conducted only a few years after the fact, and one may assume that the relevant memories are still fresh in the minds of the veterans. The use of oral history also raises another important question. To which extent are the veterans’ explanations for enlisting representative of the total number of soldiers enlisting in the Army at the time? As it is nearly impossible to conduct interviews with all these soldiers for the present purpose, any examination must rely on a selected number of interviews.

According to Patricia Leavy, analysing oral history requires three steps: immersion in the data, coding and finally interpretation (Leavy 2011: 38–39). First, the researcher has to immerse himself or herself in the interviews and search for keywords. Leavy defines coding as: “most often a word or short phrase that symbolically assigns a summative, salient, essence-capturing, and or evocative attribute for a portion of […] data” (Leavy 2011: 38–39). Many oral history researchers apply a grounded theory approach, in which codes are generated directly based on the data. This requires identifying chunks or segments from the interviews and giving each of them a label. The next step is to develop meta-code categories. This means organising and grouping similarly coded data into categories because they share some common characteristics. This is the beginning of identifying a pattern in the interviews (Leavy 2011: 40). The final step is interpretation of the data. In order to interpret the data, the researcher needs to consider different questions, such as which patterns and themes are emerging, which connections can be made between the different code categories, and how individual people’s experiences speak to other people’s experiences (Leavy 2011: 46–47).

Using this methodological approach, an attempt must be made to identify segments from the interviews that capture the essence of the veterans’ motivation for enlisting in the Army. In order to code the data, each of these segments must be given a short description which summarises the veterans’ apparent reason for enlisting. This entails a short interpretation of each of the veterans’ statements. In order to elucidate the common patterns, the interviews will be grouped based on the short descriptions. This will be done by grouping interviews that share some common characteristics. Based on this categorisation, the information will be interpreted, and the different motivations for enlisting in the Army will be clarified.

Enlistment Motivation

Enlistment motivation is the study of why people enlist in the military. Sociologists distinguish between extrinsic and intrinsic reasons for enlisting. Extrinsic reasons, or material reasons, comprise the economic and material reasons for enlisting: salary, economic benefits, enlistment bonuses and the prospect of unemployment in civilian life are thus potential extrinsic reasons for enlisting in the military. Intrinsic reasons comprise the psychological or attitudinal reasons for enlisting. The chances to develop self-discipline, to master a challenge or being part of a large organisation in which they can take pride, are some of the typical intrinsic reasons for enlisting. Furthermore, values such as patriotism, duty, the chance of adventure and the concept of service are also among the intrinsic reasons for enlisting (Baker 2006: 15–16; Woodruff et al. 2006: 355).

Recruitment Advertising

Scholars distinguish between different kinds of advertising. Whereas product advertising has to sell a product to a consumer, or target, audience, recruitment advertising has to sell a job opportunity to a potential candidate audience. Recruitment advertising is about persuading someone to apply for a particular job and, thus, offering something that appears unique and special (Asprey 2011: 269–270). Recruitment advertising is e.g. used when recruiting staff or personnel for the armed forces (Jefkins 2000: 47–48). According to various scholars, the purpose of military recruitment advertising is to advertise military opportunities and persuade prospective recruits to join a branch of the military (Wiggin et al. 2003: 268; Hanlon 2013: 50). Correspondingly, Paul Sackett opines that recruitment advertising in the military has two purposes: increasing the propensity to choose military service and increasing the likelihood of an individual choosing one service over another (Sackett 2004: 4). These marketing and recruiting efforts are directed toward catching the attention of the target audience, thereby encouraging them to consider enlisting in the military (Baker 2006: 15).

As Sejin Park puts it, the main purpose of such military advertising is to recruit quality soldiers, and, thus, the military tries to make the organisation attractive to recruitment targets (Park et al. 2016: 605). Since all services rely on recruiting volunteers, each of them attempts to make their service appear distinct and unique (Brown 2012: 7). The possible correlation between the persuasive themes in recruitment advertising and the enlistment motivation of American soldiers is a crucial question, as Anni Baker puts it:

But why, really, do young men and women join the military? Do young people join the military out of patriotism and a desire to serve the country? As a personal challenge, a chance to mature and toughen themselves? Or is it for the money and benefits? … The answer to this question is of critical importance, because a misunderstanding of enlistee motivation means that the “product” (military service) might be portrayed in the wrong way in advertising, or advertising campaigns might be directed at the wrong people. In today’s tough recruiting environment, the military cannot afford to make such mistakes. (Baker 2006: 15).

Thus, any attempt to assess the possible match between the persuasive themes conveyed in recruitment advertisements and enlistment motivation requires a comparison of the persuasive reasons to enlist as presented in the recruitment advertisements and the soldiers’ motivation for enlisting.

The Study of Military Recruitment

The Institutional vs. Occupational Thesis

According to most historians and sociologists, the soldiers’ motivations for enlisting and the role of military recruitment advertising also depend on the military’s policy of recruiting; in other words, a determining factor is whether military service is compulsory or voluntary.

Charles C. Moskos has defined two different concepts of organising the military: the institutional and the occupational army. The institutional army is legitimated in terms of values and norms. Its members usually follow a calling, and the army’s purpose transcends personal self-interest; in the institutional army, soldiers serve in response to a call to duty and honour. Thus, the norms and values of the organisation create a personal sense of obligation (Moskos 1977: 41–42; Moskos 2005: 664; Woodruff et al. 2006: 356; Griffith 2008: 230–231). In this way, the institutional perspective reflects the intrinsic values, such as duty to country, loyalty and commitment, according to John Eighmey (2006: 308).

On the other hand, the occupational military is legitimated in terms of the marketplace. From this perspective, military service is like a civilian job. Soldiers serve in the organisation because of self-interest and extrinsic incentives such as monetary rewards, bonuses and the chance of promotion (Moskos 1977: 43; Moskos 2005: 664; Griffith 2008: 231).

At the same time, the distinction between the two concepts should not be overstated, since the armed forces have had, and continue to have, elements of both types throughout history, according to Moskos (1977: 43–44). Without defying Moskos’s point of view, David R. Segal has nonetheless argued for the existence of an alternative construct: pragmatic professionalism. This is defined by Segal as a combination of economic and mission-oriented concerns with short term fluctuations in an economic direction, when the structure of traditional benefits is weakened or in accordance with fluctuations in a mission-oriented direction during the early stages of a war (Segal 1986: 370).

Military Recruitment in the United States

From an Institutional Army to an Occupational Army

Prior to 1917, the United States relied on volunteer soldiers during wartime. Originally, the colonists adopted the British militia system, in which all able-bodied citizens of a colony became part of a common militia. The active militia was supposed to be filled with volunteers, but in case of low numbers, conscription was introduced in order to fill up the ranks.

On May 18 1917, following the United States’ entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Selective Draft Act and, thus, ushered in the draft era. Following a pause during the inter-war period, the United States – in 1940, prior to entering World War II in December 1941 – instituted its first peacetime draft. With a brief exception, the draft, or Selective Service System, remained in force until the AVF was introduced in 1973. The introduction of the draft meant that the military’s manpower policy was based on conscription. Thus, military service was compulsory. By the late 1960s, two generations of Americans had thus been subject to the draft (Kindsvatter 2003: 1; Bailey 2009: 4–7; Taylor 2016: 8–13).

During the draft era, the United States military was an embodiment of the institutional model, since the draft was based on the citizens’ obligation to serve (Moskos 1977: 43–44; Griffith 2008: 231).

The growing resistance to the Vietnam War and the draft in the 1960s paved the way for the introduction of the AVF. Besides promising to end the war in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon also promised to abolish the draft during the 1968 presidential election. Instead of large ground forces, the U.S. should rely on a smaller, but highly specialised force. According to Nixon, this force could be created through voluntary enlistments. Using an economic argument, Nixon claimed that the demand for recruits would be satisfied through higher pay and increased benefits, thereby making military life more competitive with the attractions of the civilian world. Nixon kept his promise after being elected. By 1973, the United States had abolished the draft and the AVF was a reality (Bailey 2009: 3–32; Segal 1989: 38–39; Taylor 2016: 111–126). In the absence of the coercive power of the draft, the military now had to rely on persuasion as a means of attracting recruits. Especially the Army had relied heavily on the draft to fill up its ranks, while the other services for the most part had been able to rely on volunteers (Shyles 1990: 369; Bailey 2009: 66; Taylor 2016: 116). As William Taylor asserts, “Without successful advertising and recruiting efforts, the AVF would fail to attract sufficient numbers of volunteers” (Taylor 2016: 116; Bailey 2009: 66). According to Moskos, the introduction of the AVF marked the transition from an institutional army to an occupational army, since the AVF was not based on the normative values of an institution, but instead relied on monetary inducements to serve (Moskos 1977: 43–44; Lewis 2018: 1–2).

Enlistment Motivation and Recruitment Advertising in the Institutional Army

During the draft era from 1917–1973, military service was compulsory for some Americans. National Headquarters determined quotas based on attempts at assessing the national manpower needs of the armed forces and the wartime industry. Local draft boards composed of civilians were created, vested with the responsibility of determining who should serve. Equipped with loose guidelines, the local draft boards applied their own judgment in determining which men should serve in the armed forces and which men could stay at home. Thus, as Dorit Geva points out, not all American men were drafted for military service. Various mechanisms ensured that some men were more likely to be drafted for military service than others. Thus, during World War I, national Selective Service headquarters, members of Congress, local draft board members and Wilson maintained that men with economic dependents should receive special treatment when determining their draft status. Thus, some men were exempted from military service and were allowed to stay at home with their families (Geva 2013: 19, 20, 110, 130).

Some men volunteered, or rather enlisted before being drafted. The reasons for this could be manyfold. According to Kindsvatter, some volunteers did feel an obligation to serve the country, whereas others saw military service as a chance to learn a skill useful in civilian life as a way of seeking socioeconomic benefits. If a sufficient number of young men did not enlist by themselves, the country coerced growing numbers of reluctant, even resentful, draftees into serving (Kindsvatter 2003: 4–13; Vance 2012: 28–40). Therefore, the draft induced some men to enlist before they were drafted. According to William Taylor, one purpose of the draft was to motivate enlistment by individuals who might not have enlisted in the absence of the draft. Thus, many who enlisted were motivated by the draft. These were the so-called draft-motivated volunteers. When volunteering before being drafted, recruits had some influence on their choice of service and benefits (Taylor 2016: 111–112; Bailey 2009: 11–12). As David R. Segal asserts, “the threat of conscription produced large numbers of draft-motivated volunteers, who enlisted to get their choice of service and time period, rather than leaving themselves at the mercy of local draft boards” (Segal 1989: 33; Kindsvatter 2003: 11).

As statistics suggest, draft-motivated volunteers constituted a significant phenomenon during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, there was a significant increase in these voluntary enlistments during the Cold War. This, in turn, led to fewer draft inductions, a reduction from more than a third of accessions during the mid-1950s to less than 10% during the early 1960s (Segal 1989: 33). Except for brief periods, the Army was the only one of the services that had to rely on the draft to fill up its ranks, whereas the other services could rely on draft-motivated volunteers. Many of these recruits had enlisted to avoid being drafted into the Army (Segal et al. 2013: 112).

Despite the fact that military service was compulsory during the draft era, military recruitment advertising did exist (Pieslak 2009: 16). According to Lisa Mundey, military recruitment advertising at the time primarily emphasised how military service could benefit civilian job opportunities. Even during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, respectively, recruitment advertising primarily focused on education and training rather than combat (Mundey 2012: 9–13; Segal 1989: 11). The military wanted to create an image of the military that would gain public approval of the draft as well as attract volunteers to fill the ranks, rather than forcing young men into the military by conscription. Thus, recruitment advertising tried to project an image of the military as based on good democratic citizens and as more dependable than civilian life. Advertisers toned down references to combat and focused instead on qualities such as leadership and management (Mundey 2012: 33; Grandstaff 1996: 303).

According to Jeremy Saucier, the threat of being drafted rather than enlisting, and thereby having influence on the choice of service, was also present in recruitment advertisements. Thus, the Army’s slogan in the late 1960s “Your Future, your decision … choose ARMY” suggested that whether or not young men were motivated by an obligation to country, the draft was an unavoidable part of their future. The purpose of the campaign was to induce young men to enlist in the Army now, or lose any power over their future (Saucier 2010: 39–44). Recruitment advertising during the draft era was not a decisive factor in recruiting soldiers, since they would sooner or later be drafted anyway. As Beth Bailey asserts, “Army recruiting advertisements were intended to convince draft-induced volunteers to join the army instead of one of the other services. The role of advertising was peripheral, at best” (Bailey 2009: 70).

Enlistment Motivation and Military Advertising in the Occupational Army

The introduction of the AVF in 1973 fundamentally changed the relationship between recruitment advertising and enlistment motivation, or at least the perceived significance of advertising. First of all, the expenditure on military recruitment advertising has increased manyfold since 1973, trying to persuade potential recruits to enlist in the armed forces (Shyles et al. 1990: 369; Bailey 2009: 66). Between 1979 and 1986, the military’s budget for recruitment efforts thus increased by 85% (Baker 2006: 6).

In its advertising, the Army has generally appealed to extrinsic values (Eighmey 2006: 323). According to Melissa T. Brown, the U.S. Army has generally made economic appeals and emphasised military service as a path to economic security and social mobility (Brown 2012: 41; Fu 2013: 111). Thus, the 1981–2001 “Be All You Can Be” campaign focused on the acquisition of job skills (Eighmey 2006: 323–324). According to other studies corroborating this argument, Army advertising does not, however, focus on intrinsic values such as duty to country, patriotism, and heroism (Sackett et al. 2003: 228; Moore 2009: 1).

There seems to be agreement among scholars that advertising does influence people’s decision to enlist. It is believed by military planners and analysts that recruitment advertising is conducive to the success of meeting the recruitment goals of the AVF (Shyles et al. 1990: 370). According to one study, military recruitment advertising appears to have been effective in increasing enlistments in the early 1980s and during the mid-1990s and, furthermore, compares favourably with other options for attracting new recruits into the armed forces (Dertouzos et al. 2003: 87). Another study supports this, indicating that Army advertising in the early 1980s increased potential enlistments by 32% (Dertouzos et al. 2006: 122). Anni Baker has a similar view, asserting that the marketing campaigns were one of the reasons why the quality of the armed forces increased between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s (Baker 2006: 5–6). Another study argues that people’s propensity to enlist is influenced by advertising as well as other factors such as the level of unemployment and knowledge of the military. Aside from the advertising campaigns, military recruiters also play a vital role in persuading people to enlist in the military (Sackett et al. 2003: 223–226; Baker 2006: 11–12). According to Paul Sackett, the primary role of advertising is to support recruiting by influencing youth attitudes about military service (Sackett et al. 2003: 226). The question whether people enlist in response to the persuasive messages in recruitment advertisements has also been addressed in research: According to Anni Baker, extrinsic reasons are important. Nonetheless, she opines that intrinsic values are important as well and in fact underestimated by many (Baker 2006: 17). In a survey from 1999 concerning the reasons for enlisting, 60% of the respondents gave answers related to extrinsic reasons such as career preparation benefits such as work skills, and 25% answered in relation to intrinsic benefits such as duty to country (Sackett et al. 2003: 230). According to another study, young people join the military for material reasons, but also for value-oriented reasons: duty to country, self-discipline and leadership skills are some of the reasons mentioned (Eighmey 2006: 313, 326). Similarly, other studies opine that intrinsic values such as patriotism still play a key role in the decision-making process to join the military (Park et al. 2016: 608; Lewis 2018: 2).

Army Recruitment Advertising During the War on Terror

The terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 resulted in changes in the Army’s recruitment advertising strategy which had hitherto primarily addressed extrinsic values. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, a patriotic sentiment pervaded the country, and promises of economic benefits seemed inappropriate. Hence, Army advertising began emphasising intrinsic appeals such as guarding the country and adventurism (Fu 2013: 121). According to Jeremy K. Saucier, the contents of Army advertisements after 9/11 shifted its focus to patriotic narratives. A crucial component of the advertising was a comparison of the current generation to the World War II generation. Thus, a late 2001 print advertisement expressed the myth of a new generation who was sharing the values of the World War II generation which would be called upon to fight America’s new wars. The advertisement features a picture of an American soldier combined with the text “Every generation has its heroes. This one is no different” (Saucier 2010). A similar advertisement from 2002–2003 emphasised the same theme and included a quotation from the erstwhile President George Bush: “In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America because we are freedom’s home and defender. The commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time” (Saucier 2010: 319–327). Clearly, the message in these advertisements was that the current generation had a commitment to fulfil its duty, just like previous generations had done. The Defense Department also cooperated with Hollywood studios in order to create positive portrayals of American soldiers. Thus, Hollywood movies began linking virtues between the World War II generation and the new generation of soldiers. In that way, the War Against Terror was linked to World War II in both Hollywood movies and Army advertisements (Moore 2009: 71–75). World War II images were also used in Army advertisements to further emphasise the suggested link between the soldiers in World War II and the soldiers in the War Against Terror. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Army advertisements forged a link between World War II and the war in Iraq (Saucier 2010: 319–327; Moore 2009: 71–75). Thus, “Cut from the Same Cloth”, a 2004 Army television commercial, mixed pictures of American soldiers in Iraq with pictures of American soldiers in World War II and Vietnam. A voice-over explained, “What we did was the same thing American soldiers have been doing for generations – soldiers now and soldiers then. There’s the same courage, the same dedication, the same willingness to serve” (Cut from the Same Cloth 2006). Clearly, the message in this commercial was that the soldiers serving in Iraq fulfilled their duty to country, just like previous generations had done.

Despite a patriotic feeling among Americans in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the effect of the Army’s advertising was not overwhelming. A large percentage of college undergraduates expressed patriotic sentiments in polls conducted after 9/11, but only 15% of them intended to enlist in the military. The Army only just met its recruitment goals from 2000–2004. By 2005, Americans had become disillusioned with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. That year, the Army missed its recruiting goals, falling short by 7,000 soldiers (Moore 2009: 71–75; Saucier 2010: 331). Searching for a new convincing message to make young Americans enlist, the Army launched a new advertising campaign in November 2006 called “Army Strong”. According to Beth Bailey, the “Army Strong” campaign was intended for an army at war. The signature video thus conveyed images of an army at war, which understood its purpose. The campaign defined Army Strong as “The strength to get over yourself”. The campaign video drew connections to the war in Iraq and emphasised the possibility of serving in a combat unit if one chose to enlist in the Army. The central claim in the video was as follows: “There is nothing on this green earth that is stronger than the U.S. Army because there is nothing on this green earth that is stronger than a U.S. Army soldier” (Bailey 2009: 252). Thus, according to Jordan Bradford, the campaign was intended to deliver the message that the Army made people better, especially in a time of war (Bradford 2017: 31). According to Shawn Paul Apostel (2011: 95–99), the Army Strong campaign connected the public’s desire for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, with the desire to be strong and patriotic. Hence, the campaign’s argument was that the Army was strong and would be victorious in the end. However, this did not last, according to Thomas Moore (2009), who claims that “[it] initially appeared as though the ‘Army Strong’ campaign would strike the balance between promoting the material benefits of enlistments and highlighting the values that shaped the service. Eventually, however, the ‘Army Strong’ commercials reverted to the traditional ‘Be All You Can Be’ style promises of job skills training and educational opportunities” (Moore 2009: 76–77; Rowland 2009: 42). Thus, a 2007 recruitment advertisement, also brought in Sports Illustrated, portrayed a picture of an American Army recruit with the following text: “There’s strong. And then there’s Army Strong. There is no limit to the things you can learn from one of over 150 career opportunities available to you in the Army. You can also receive money for college” (Time, Inc. 2009). Likewise, a 2009 print advertisement portraying an Army recruit contained the text: “Learn how you can earn money for college and get enlistment bonuses by visiting us at” (Leaphart 2015).

Enlistment Motivation in the US Army 2001–2005

Since the Army failed to meet its recruitment quota in 2005, that year marks a turning point in the analysis which is, therefore, divided into two parts. The first part examines the soldiers’ enlistment motivation between the years 2001–2005, thereby covering the period from the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the beginning of the subsequent War Against Terror to the turning point in 2005. The second part deals with the years 2006–2010, and, thereby, covering the years from the turning point in Army recruitment to the exit from Iraq in 2010.

When scrutinising the interviews with soldiers enlisting during the years 2001–2005, some basic patterns emerge in their reasons for enlisting. Some soldiers expressed intrinsic values, when explaining their motivation for enlisting, as reflected in the following examples: “I enlisted right after September 11th because I was concerned about the bombing in New York” (Cofield 2007: 1) Apparently, this soldier was motivated to enlist by the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001. “I understood that it happened other places in the world, but not here in the U.S. So it sort of sparked my patriotic sense at that point” (Tracy 2014: 1). This soldier explains that a feeling of patriotism after the 11 September attacks motivated him to enlist in the Army.

While expressing themselves differently, both of these soldiers suggest that they joined the Army shortly after 11 September 2001 because of the terrorist attacks in the United States. While not being more specific in their explanations, their apparent considerations about why they enlisted concur with other soldiers’ explanations. Other soldiers enlisting in the following years up until 2005 expressed similar thoughts that help establish a common pattern:

And someone convinced me to go to college and I went to UAB. No real plans. That first semester was in 2001 and then September 11th happened in 2001. And that was – I didn’t see it as a career change. I just saw it as I was 20 years old and I was physically fit. And I knew our country was going to go to war. So I ended up joining the military (Galloway 2014: 1).

This statement reveals that the soldier enlisted because he knew the country was going to war and he was fit for military service.

Well, I joined the military for – for a few reasons. Well, first of all, I was 25. So like I said, I was quite a bit older. 9/11 had happened, and I decided to give school a shot and I started working as a steelworker. And I just felt that there were [sic] still something yet that I could offer my country, and I just – I felt that there was a sense of duty that I needed to fulfil and I You [sic] know, I knew that the war was going on, and I just wanted to do everything that I could to be a part of that at the time. So I joined at 25 (Ruiz 2015: 1).

According to this soldier, a feeling of duty was the sole motivation for enlisting. 9/11 was still kind of fresh on everybody’s mind. And I’ve always admired the Army and what they did, and – even going through high school, and it was something that I felt I needed to do to serve my community (Crawson 2015: 1). This soldier enlisted, ostensibly because he felt a need to serve his country. “I had a desire to serve my nation and experience war, [sic] that was one of my goals, especially because there was a war going on” (Ruesch 2011: 01.25–02.20). According to this statement, the desire to serve and experience war motivated this soldier to enlist.

First of all, the information in these statements establishes a common pattern among these soldiers. Whether enlisting because of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, a feeling of patriotism, a need to serve the country or a feeling of duty, these statements reveal a desire to do something for their country as the primary reason for enlisting. This pattern must be interpreted as a feeling of patriotism and duty to country. At the same time, some of these soldiers also indicate that the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, further contributed to this feeling of duty as some of them wanted to go to war. Other accounts from soldiers enlisting during the same period indicate the same. Most of them include similar explanations, such as a wish to go to war to serve their country and a wish to do something and help their country (Bopp n.d.: 00.40–01.00; Gonzalez n.d.: 1; Lathrop 2004: 1; Castro n.d.: 02.25–04.30; Edmonds n.d.: 01.00–01.50; Sprangers n.d.: 00.30–01.20; McCaw 2014: 02.40–04.20; Scott 2010: 00.45–01.20; Traister 2007: 01.00–04.00).

Aside from duty and patriotism, there were other intrinsic motivations for enlisting at this time. Thus, other patterns emerge as shown in the following examples: “My grandfather was in World War II, and he was in the Army; and I think that was the [motivating] factor for me actually” (Ruiz 2015: 1). This soldier explains that he enlisted in the Army to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather’s military exploits.

My father served currently 31 years in the National Guard. My brother has served in the Army Reserve also. He now has 12 years in the Army Reserve. My grandfather went to Korea. My uncles have served in Vietnam. And my great-great-grandfather served in World War II. So there’s a little bit of family history of serving in combat and serving in the military. So I took a little bit of pride – actually a lot of pride in serving in the military and actually joining the service (Arguelles 2009: 1).

This soldier enlisted in the Army because other members of his family had also served in the military. “My family is pretty much Army oriented and a lot of them are veterans and I just want to do my part… My Dad and three uncles were all Army so I thought I would do the same” (Perez 2008: 1). This soldier was motivated to enlist because other family members had served in the military.

Another soldier mentions the huge influence from his grandfather’s service during World War II as decisive in making him enlist in the Army. 11 September 2001 was, according to him, his “Pearl Harbor” and gave him the opportunity to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps (Blazer 2012: 04.15–06.30).

Similarly, other soldiers express that they had always wanted to join the Army to uphold family traditions and/or that their grandfather’s military exploits influenced them in enlisting (Getz 2010: 00.56–02.05; Hillberry 2013: 00.30–01.05; Reinold 2007: 02.55–03.30; Kindelberger n.d.: 00.20–01.25; Ruesch 2011: 01.25–02.20; Wallen n.d.: 01.00–02.11).

There is an overt pattern in these examples. The common denominator is a desire to serve in the military to follow in the footsteps of other family members who also served in the military. This must be interpreted as a feeling of serving in the military to uphold family traditions.

On a higher level, this desire to uphold family military traditions could be interpreted as a feeling of duty to country. After all, these soldiers wanted to serve their country in the same way as their grandparents, brothers or fathers did; in other words, they wanted to do their part just like their older relatives had done. The contents in Army advertising at the time are consistent with these soldiers’ enlistment motivations. The persuasive messages in Army recruitment advertising at the time emphasised the current generation’s commitment to fulfil a duty, by comparing the current generation to the World War II generation. As the examples clarify, some soldiers express the feeling of commitment to their fathers’ or grandfathers’ generations.

Aside from duty to country, other intrinsic values were prevalent in motivating people to enlist in the Army at this time. Considering the following examples, another pattern emerges:

I liked one, the opportunity, the traveling aspect of it, to, you know, see different places. And also, there was something about it – I liked the idea of joining like a combat unit. I had read some books, seen some – read some literature, seen some movies out there about other, the combat units and it’s kind of like a, I thought it was kind of a, there was a mystique, a gentleman’s side of it that I can’t, couldn’t put into words, but I knew it was something that I would like to be a part of (Mercer 2010: 1).

This soldier was attracted to military service by the opportunity to travel and by a notion of military service formed by popular culture. “There were 3 reasons why I originally joined. One was to be able to travel, to help people, and money for college” (Kontz 2014: 00.55–02.05). As he succinctly puts it, this soldier enlisted because of the opportunity to travel, a notion of helping people, and because of the economic benefits. Thus, both intrinsic and extrinsic values could apparently attract some potential recruits. Other soldiers corroborate these examples and emphasise the opportunity to see the world and a desire to be in the Army (Schulze 2010: 1; Edmonds n.d.: 01.00–02.00). Thus, another pattern emerges. First of all, the soldiers emphasise the opportunity to travel or see the world as one of the main reasons for enlisting in the Army. By itself, this desire to travel and see the world can be interpreted as a longing for adventure, which they obviously associated with military service at the time of their enlistment. These soldiers’ apparent reasons for enlisting did not reflect the patriotic messages conveyed in Army recruitment advertising at the time.

Aside from these apparent intrinsic reasons for enlisting, other soldiers were rather motivated by extrinsic incentives: “I felt the Army was the best way to get a chance to have money and go to college” (Graff n.d.: 00.15–01.00). As he explains, the decisive motivation for this soldier was money. “Actually I was planning on going to college and I needed some college money so I enlisted strictly for the financial aid” (Conticelli n.d.: 1). Obviously, this soldier also enlisted because of money, which he needed for his college education. “College money, it was college money. It wasn’t anything else, most kids, or most people today, actually don’t do it for the patriotic thing, and it’s more about the college thing and the benefits with economy right now” (Holt 2012: 1). While deemphasising patriotic values as a motivator, this soldier also enlisted because of money, which he could use for college education. This motivation is also evident in a large number of other accounts that mention money for college, or simply just money, as the only reason for enlisting (Hay 2006: 1; Ferretti 2007: 1; Montana 2010: 1; Burd n.d.: 02.27–03.10; Lewis n.d.: 02.50–03.47; Spencer 2007: 03.08–04.00; Woodmansee 2009: 03.00–04.30; Yannekis n.d.: 00.20–01.15; Kontz 2014: 00.55–02.05; Martinez n.d.: 01.20–02.30).

These statements also reveal a visible pattern. Despite some of them enlisting shortly after 11 September 2001, these soldiers had no patriotic considerations, in contrast to some of their fellow soldiers. According to their statements, the sole reason for enlisting was the chance to earn money in the Army. In this case, there can be only one interpretation. They enlisted because of economic benefits. Clearly, these soldiers’ reasons for enlisting did not reflect the contents in Army recruitment advertising at the time.

Considering the examples below, another extrinsic incentive to enlist can be induced from some soldiers:

The Army really had the widest range of opportunities for me, jobs I could do and what have you. The Air Force had some good stuff for me but they couldn’t guarantee me the job I wanted at the time so I went with the Army because they could … Looking for something I could use when I got out and continued in the civilian world (Bartling 2004: 1).

The important segment in this statement is that, in the Army, he could get a job he could use in civilian life, which was the reason he enlisted. In other words, a useful education was his reason for enlisting. “The Army guarantees you in writing a contract of what job you want, and I wanted to do Airborne infantry” (Valis 2011: 02.50–03.15). This soldier also emphasises the job opportunity as his reason for enlisting. Other soldiers accordingly emphasise the educational benefits, which could also be used in civilian life, as their reason for enlisting in the Army (Arguelles 2009: 1; Blackburn 2012: 00.30–02.00; Shah 2010: 1; Rachow n.d.: 00.30–01.30; Wheeler 2009: 00.09–00.35; McConnell n.d.: 02.05–05.00).

There is a pattern in these statements. These soldiers emphasise the job opportunities as the reason why they enlisted. This leads to an obvious interpretation. They chose the Army because of the educational benefits, which would be useful in civilian life after they left the Army. The reasons for enlisting expressed by this group of soldiers did not correspond to the contents of Army recruitment advertising either.

Apparently, far from all soldiers at this time heeded the call to fulfil their patriotic duty, which was emphasised in Army recruitment advertising.

Enlistment Motivation in the US Army 2006–2010

There were also different reasons for joining the Army among the soldiers enlisting during 2006–2010. Apparently, some intrinsic values were still behind some of the soldiers’ decisions to enlist as the following examples from soldiers enlisting in 2007 reveal: “It was an honor. My father served in Korea… My uncle served in Vietnam… I just felt it was my duty and my responsibility to carry on the tradition” (Carello 2008: 00.21–01.30). Obviously, this soldier emphasises his family’s military traditions. “I felt that everyone needs to serve their time, however they can” (Charles 2009: 02.00–03.00). According to his statement, this soldier feels that everyone needs to serve in the military.

A sense of obligation. Maybe it was my generation’s turn to maybe do something and to step up where other generations have. I didn’t want to look back. I didn’t want to be 50 or 60 and look back and go, “Man, you know, I missed an opportunity”. Everybody else did it, you know, and – maybe just a sense of obligation (Facer 2015: 1).

This soldier apparently perceived military service as an obligation to previous generations. Other accounts corroborate these statements and express the desire to uphold family military traditions (Brown n.d.: 00.30–01.30; White 2014: 1). There is an overt pattern in these statements. These soldiers express either the feeling of an obligation to previous generations or the desire to uphold family military traditions. This pattern was also evident among some of the soldiers enlisting between 2001 and 2005. Once again, it must be interpreted as a feeling of duty to country and especially a feeling of obligation to do their part like previous generations had done. Interestingly, Army recruitment advertising, at this time, had shifted to emphasising traditional extrinsic values, such as job skills and economic benefits. Nonetheless, these soldiers still clung to patriotic virtues in their reasons for enlisting and did not reflect the contents of the current recruitment ads. Hence, despite the fact that public opinion in the United States had turned against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, a number of soldiers still felt compelled to serve their country out of a sense of duty.

Another intrinsic value that motivated soldiers to enlist at this time is demonstrated in the following examples. Thus, one soldier mentions that the idea of being deployed was attractive, and that joining the military, in his opinion, was a passage to manhood. Furthermore, he states: “To me, deploying was an honorable thing to do and an adventure (McIntosh 2012: 03.30–04.40). Thus, he considered military service as an adventure. Other soldiers explain that the Army seemed like a good possibility to get away from home or away from their hometown (Buffkin 2014: 02.00–02.42; Simkowski 2016: 01.35–02.12). The essential segment in these statements is the possibility to get away from home.

According to another soldier’s account, he joined the Army because he did not know what to do in life (Fortun 2015: 01.39–02.30). In other words, he joined the Army out of boredom.

A pattern also emerges from these interviews. Whether enlisting in search of adventure, to get away from home or because of boredom, it must lead to the same interpretation. These soldiers joined the Army in search of something adventurous in contrast to an ordinary life. Considering their reasons for enlisting, this group of soldiers did also not reflect the contents of the Army’s recruitment advertising.

Aside from pure intrinsic values, extrinsic values were also prevalent motivators at this time. Thus, some soldiers simply mentioned money as the sole reason for their enlistment. Promises of enlistment bonuses and a steady income were enough for them to make their decision (Silvis 2017: 01.00–02.15; McIntosh 2012: 03.30–04.40; Treat 2016: 01.16–02.12). Their reasons for enlisting actually mirrored the economic benefits of military service emphasised in Army recruitment advertising at the time.

There were also other extrinsic reasons for enlisting at the time, as expressed in the examples below: “Then the army was a good mix between something that I could choose physically exciting and get an education about my job at the process” (Ancona n.d.: 1). Education is the keyword in this statement.

I wanted to kick-start how things were going with my life so I decided to enlist… I wanted opportunities I guess… I went to the Army recruiter and he told me they gave me a contract for what I wanted to do so that’s ultimately why I picked the Army (Anderson 2012: 1).

The keyword in this statement is his search for opportunities. Other soldiers at the time also enlisted in the Army because of the Army’s alleged opportunities for education (Mixon n.d.: 01.00–02.00; Nielsen n.d.: 00.55–01.50). The pattern in these interviews is also quite evident. By emphasising the educational opportunities associated with the Army, these soldiers enlisted for that purpose. These soldiers’ reasons for enlisting corresponded with the contents in Army recruitment advertising at the time which conveyed messages about educational skills and money as the primary incentives for enlisting.


Considering the enlistment motivation of the soldiers joining the Army during the years 2001–2010, the Army displayed aspects of both the institutional and the occupational model, as the soldiers were motivated to enlist out of extrinsic as well as intrinsic reasons. Insofar as the American Army today embodies Moskos’s definition of an occupational army, institutional or intrinsic values are obviously still prevalent in the current Army.

Considering the public’s general opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, from 2006 onwards, one might have anticipated a significant shift in the soldiers’ motivations for enlisting during the years 2006–2010. However, that does not seem to be the case. Instead, a comparison of the enlistment motivation during both periods reveals some comparable patterns. The soldiers expressed the same reasons for joining the Army, whether they enlisted during the years 2001–2005 or 2006–2010. Intrinsic values such as duty and adventure and extrinsic values such as money and educational benefits were prevalent among the soldiers enlisting during both periods. Compared with the persuasive themes used in Army advertising at the time, it is obvious that only some of the motivations were consistent with these themes. Thus, the patriotic themes used in Army advertisements from 2001–2005 reflected only some soldiers’ motivations for enlisting at the time, and the extrinsic values emphasised in Army advertising from 2006 onwards reflected only some soldiers’ motivations for enlisting during this period. In other words, there was never a robust consistency between the themes used in recruitment advertising and the enlistment motivation of soldiers – not even after the country had been attacked and gone to war.

As for the question of enlistment motivation, the examination reveals another important fact. The feeling of duty to country was an important motivator during both periods. In spite of the Army’s recruitment challenges from 2005 onwards combined with the public’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, a significant number of the soldiers who enlisted at this time still expressed a feeling of duty and commitment to their country. As some scholars argued, the significance of intrinsic values has been underestimated. This does indeed seem to be the case with the feeling of duty; in other words, among the soldiers enlisting in the Army, the feeling of duty to country is apparently a very strong motivator notwithstanding public sentiment. Finally, it seems that young people’s propensity to enlist are basically a “force” that can only partially be controlled. The Army may have to reconsider whether it actually succeeds in getting value for the money spent on advertising.

Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.


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