November 1st, 2021
Why do people join the U.S. military?
There really isn’t a definitive answer to that question. There are as many reasons to join as there are people who choose to do so. Some of the reasons are logical, some…not so much. The decision to join the military comes from the heart as much as it comes from the head. Some of the reasons for making this life choice are crystal clear. Some of them are not apparent to anyone, even the person making the decision, until much later in life.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for going into the service has to do with money, or lack thereof. Some of my peace activist friends insist that we don’t really have a volunteer army. They say that we actually have an “economic draft”, implying that most of those who enlist are persons who are struggling financially. There is some truth to that. My son, Hans, joined up during the Great Recession in order to get room and board, health care, and a steady paycheck. He also hoped to learn some skills that would make him better able to find work once he returned to the civilian world. Additionally, he was thinking about using the G.I. Bill to go to college or a trade school eventually.
I went to West Point because I wanted to go to college, and my father made it clear that he could not, or would not, help me to pay for my education. The folks in the Army offered to pay for my bachelor degree, as long as I sold (or rented) my soul to them for at least five years following my graduation. It was a Faustian deal, but I don’t regret it.
Hans did not join the Army just because of money issues. Neither did I. I don’t think anybody does that. There are other, easier ways to become financially successful than being a soldier. Poverty can push a person toward enlisting, but I doubt that it is sufficient motivation. There have to be other reasons to join up.
A neighbor of mine joined the Marines last year because he needed structure. His parents certainly thought so. In any case, the military can provide plenty of structure for a young person who does not yet have a direction in life. Paradoxically, the military also provides plenty of noise and confusion. It has always fascinated me how an organization so regimented can still be filled with so much chaos. Well, people can learn from chaos as well as from structure.
For a young person there is often the need to prove themselves. All traditional societies have a rite of passage, at least for the young men. American culture has no rite of passage. Young people in the United States seem to fumble and flounder into adulthood. It’s not their fault. Nobody teaches how to be an adult. By default, the military takes on the role of rite of passage for many people. Hans went into the Army to prove himself to himself. He wanted to find out what he could really do, and he did.
Family plays a role in the decision to join up. I wanted to go to West Point partly to make my father proud of me. Hans went into the Army to prove that he was his own man, and that I wasn’t calling the shots any more. Years after he deployed to Iraq, I talked him about how I had felt about his enlistment. Hans grinned at me and said,
“Yeah, that was a pretty big ‘fuck you’, wasn’t it?”
Another reason for joining is that some of us just want to do crazy shit. I really can’t explain it any other way. Some of us like to blow things up. Some of us like to fly fast aircraft. Some of us like to jump out of perfectly good aircraft. Hans still gets a wistful look in his eyes when he talks about driving an Abrams tank or firing a salvo round down range. These reasons are not at all rational, but they make a difference.
Finally, people join the military because they want to serve. This reason may not be at the top of the person’s list. The individual might not even be conscious of this desire. However, this particular reason is always there. A person who is drawn to military service wants to be part of something bigger than his or her own ego. The person who joins up wants to be part of something noble.
That last reason is impossible to dispute.