What It Means to Be a Soldier: Resources on the Realities of Military Service

Brian Boies

Revised and Updated June 2009

As the economy continues to degrade, the two wars that the United States is currently fighting fade from the front to the back pages of media outlets and our minds. Yet the nation still has a huge military commitment to these conflicts and other areas that needs to be manned. The military needs plenty of soldiers. Influenced by the current economy and job market, joining the military looks more promising each day. No matter how desperate a person’s situation might be, however, such a commitment should not be entered into blindly. But where does one find resources to spell out the realities of military service? What claims are true? What truths can be verified in this heated debate?

The resources listed below best address these questions. For my own purposes as a teen services librarian, I originally wanted to find a single, balanced overview of the experience of military service. I found quite a few Web sites with relevant information, but the value of some sites was diminished by an inflammatory tone. None of these materials are very balanced or objective, but it is an important skill to find balance through strategic comparison and contrast. These items should be viewed with this proviso: all materials are biased from different directions.

Read them with scrutiny.

I wanted to provide material that one could use to make rational instead of emotional decisions. Consider the disturbing impact that a recruiter can have on a possible recruit, who might equate the uniform with police or other authority figures and therefore feel obliged to obey the recruiter. A recruit should know that the recruiter holds no power or threat over him; a recruiter is essentially another salesperson. On the other hand, it must be refreshing for a young person to be directly sought after when almost everyone else in today’s culture seems unfriendly or dismissive toward young people.

Parents often have a strong influence on a teen’s decision to join the military. Much of the information in this article has been brought to light by parents upset about recruiters’ access to their children or the misstatements that recruiters sometimes make. The military has sought to counteract these concerns with a marketing campaign directed at parents of potential recruits.

Although I chose the following resources with teens in mind, they could also be used by curious parents.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 includes the stipulation that to qualify for federal aid, schools must provide students’ contact information to military recruiters. Schools also must allow recruiters access to campus, including such activities as gym classes and other classroom presentations. Parents can opt out from letting their teen’s personal records be sent to the military, but they have to take the initiative and contact the school board.

Current long-term conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan place pressure on the military and their recruiters as well as recruits; however, in 2008, all branches of the military met their recruitment goals. Many factors affect this success, including the lack of negative attention these wars have gathered recently, the slowing economy, higher signing bonuses, the new GI Bill, and the lowering of standards (educational and moral) for enlistment. The Army has revised its admission standards to allow the acceptance of 25 percent more high school dropouts. The Marines are offering a $30,000 reenlistment bonus. The military spends almost three billion dollars a year on recruitment.

Several incidents of recruiters acting improperly have been documented recently. The Army itself admits that recruitment improprieties have increased sixty percent between 2001 and 2005.

In April 2005, teen journalist David McSwane caught a recruiter on tape helping him to obtain a fake high school diploma and a drug detoxification kit.

One source of frustration in recent decades has been the inability of the outdated GI Bill in meeting modern educational needs and expenses for veterans, especially in comparison to what recruiters have promised recruits. These problems are outlined in an article that appeared on CNN’s Web site in 2008.

Because of public outcry, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia introduced the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008, which was passed in Summer 2008. Basically this bill gives veterans who served after September 11 full tuition and fees to a local university, a living stipend, and money for books. The bill does not go into effect until August 2009, but it certainly appears that it will ensure truth to what the military’s marketing campaign has been claiming for years. More information can be found at http://www.gibill.va.gov. Almost all of the sources below have not updated their boasts or complaints since this bill’s passage.

Before making the pivotal decision to join the military, a young person must gather as much data from as many different sources as possible. The following resources offer a wide variety of perspectives and  information on the realities of military service.

The resources lean more toward the anti-enlistment side to balance the fact that youth considering military enlistment will probably have already received a sales pitch from recruiters.


Aimee, Allison, and David Solnit. An Army of None: Strategies to Counter Military Recruitment, End War, and Build a Better World. Seven Stories Press, 2007. 194p. $14.95 Trade pb. 978-1-58322-755-8. Illus.

This guide for adults to fight recruitment efforts in schools and communities offers a levelheaded assessment and theoretical basis for these efforts that is easy to read and practical while providing a good introduction to the world of recruitment and its opponents.

Burden, Matthew Currier. The Blog of War: Front-Line Dispatches from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simon & Schuster, 2006. 291p. $15 Trade pb. 978-0-7432-9418-8.

Blogs from soldiers and those close to them give an extremely broad and intimate look at current wars and how they are affecting Americans. The content is hampered by uniform pro-war sermonizing from almost all the bloggers and some dehumanization of the enemy and Iraqi and Afghani citizens that comes from the heat of combat. Despite these hindrances, several powerful passages spell out the realities of these wars as well as the passion of the men and women who fulfill their missions.

Ensign, Tod, et al. America’s Military Today: The Challenge of Militarism. The New Press, 2004. 480p. $27.95. 978-1-56584-883-2. $18.95 Trade pb. 978-1-59558-085-6. Index. Source Notes. Biblio.

The critical perspective of this in-depth, well-researched book looks into several facets of military service, many of which are not mentioned in Ostrow’s Guide to Joining the Military. It includes chapters on military recruiting, basic training, letters from soldiers in Iraq, women and homosexuals in the military, the health effects of depleted uranium use in the battlefield, and a discussion of the possible return of the draft. Ensign is a lawyer who specializes in the rights of soldiers.

Although this weighty book offers a few references for youth, its real target seems to be left-leaning adults. The book contains a thirty-page chapter on Vietnam-era basic training as well as a theoretical feminist critique of the military as a whole. The wealth of good information here takes some commitment to find amid all the material not directly addressed to young people.

Yet another important aspect is that this expansive text provides a vastly different view of basic training than Ostrow’s Guide. It includes quite a bit of information on the recruitment process, a practical section called Words of Advice If You’re Considering Enlistment, and a useful index that allows young adults to gather whatever information they need.

Friedman, Devin, and GQ Magazine Edi tors . This Is Our War: A Soldier’s Portfolio: Servicemen’s Photographs of Life in Iraq. Artisan, 2006. 224p. $29.95. 978-1-57965-309-5. Illus.

In this collection of photographs and captions from soldiers in the current conflict in Iraq, the digital camera sheds intimate, enlightening, and powerful light on almost all aspects of a soldier’s life in combat.

Gay, Kathlyn. The Military and Teens: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Scarecrow Press, 2008. 152p. PLB $40. 978-0-8108-5801-5. Index. Illus. Source Notes. Further Reading. VOYA December 2008. 3Q 3P J S A/YA

This book fails to give a realistic picture of military service, barely mentions the well-documented practice of deception among some recruiters, and does not divulge that most career training in the military is not applicable to civilian life. The smattering of history and cutesiness (dolphins in the military, etc.) only further clouds the picture and does great disservice to youth.

It’s My Life! A Guide to Alternatives After High School. Janine Schwab, Ed. American Friends Service Committee, 2008. 89p. $9.95 Trade pb. 978-0-910082-51-8.

This interesting take on counter-recruitment of the military fails to mention it at all. Instead the well-designed, useful, and energetic book offers lots of alternatives to military service, providing a practical, positive  survival guide with chapters on social services, career finding, volunteering, travel volunteering, training, apprenticeships, green jobs, and paying for college. The highly recommended work is available at http://www.afsc.org/itsmylife.

Ostrow, Scott A. Guide to Joining the Military, 2nd Ed. OP.

In this pro-military overview of recruitment, enlistment, and basic-training processes, Ostrow includes chapters such as “Your First Meeting with a Recruiter: Facing the Best Trained Salesperson on Earth,”  “Getting the Facts Together: Should or Shouldn’t I Enlist?”, and “Women in the Military.” Although it appears to sensibly calm most fears or concerns about military service, the book ignores or minimizes many  issues raised by other resources, such as homosexuality, the GI Bill and Veterans’ benefits, soldiers’ rights, rates of sexual harassment, and more.

Among this guide’s many good points is its admission that, like representatives of any profession, some recruiters are unscrupulous. It gives the reader basic parameters to help determine whether a recruiter is  stepping beyond limits. Ostrow also explains a big reason for much enlistee disgruntlement: “Why then all those horror stories of ‘how my recruiter lied to me’? In most cases, it’s a matter of ‘selective listening’ on  the applicant’s part. This book helps you to understand the enlistment process and keeps you from being a selective listener.” Despite its many strengths, it is best paired with other resources.

War Is . . . Soldiers, Survivors, and Storytellers Talk About War. Marc Aronson and Patt i Campbel l, Eds. Candlewick, 2008. 208p. $17.99. 978-0-7636-3625-8. Source Notes. Further Reading. VOYA February 2009. 5Q 4P J S

This interesting and fairly objective anthology about the reality of being a soldier and at war contains plenty of good information in a visceral reading experience. Especially notable are the essays where women  relate their experiences in the military and the harassment they received. This book’s flaw is that it is watered down with some irrelevant passages such as one of the editor’s ancestor’s description of a librated  Paris.

Firsthand Accounts

Several soldiers from both conflicts in Iraq have written memoirs detailing their experiences in the military, in and out of combat. These books are quickly becoming, along with books by embedded journalists, a new  subgenre. The books speak of being undersupplied and of an at-best frustrating disconnect between the ground soldiers and the military administration.

Buzzell, Colby. My War: Killing Time in Iraq. G. P. Putman’s Sons, 2006, ©2005. 358p. $15 Trade pb. 978-0-425-21136-6.

This book is based on a blog that Buzzell kept during his 2004 tour of duty in Iraq—shut down by the military after a few months.

Crawford, John. The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. Riverhead, 2006, ©2005. 220p. $14 Trade pb. 978-1-59448-201-4.

In disconnected stories leading to no conducive whole—much like his experiences in Iraq—Crawford provides a warts-and-all picture of his tour of duty, including dehumanizing descriptions of Iraqis.

Fick, Nathaniel C. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Marine Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, ©2005. 372p. $14.95 Trade pb. 978-0-618-77343-5.

After serving in recent conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq and retiring following two tours of duty, Fick writes, “Great Marine commanders . . . are able to kill what they love most—their men.”

Hartley, Jason Christopher. Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq. HarperCollins, 2005. $13.95 Trade pb. 978-0-06-084367-0. Illus.

This memoir is based on the author’s wartime blog, for which he was punished by the military.

Swofford, Anthony. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles. Scribner, 2005, ©2003. 272p. $15 Trade pb. 978-0-7432-8721-0.

This well-written and well-reviewed book, which was made into a movie in 2005 starring Jake Gyllenahal and Jamie Foxx, is about the first conflict in Iraq, serving as something of a template for each book on this list. The author thoughtfully expresses regrets about joining the Marines, not just for the immediate experience but also for the way it changed him, making him “one of them”—a Marine. He eloquently describes the  burden of Marine culture that lasts long after one has left the service. Swofford also shows how the Marine culture reacts to seven months on the Iraq/Saudi Arabia border waiting for combat to begin.

Williams, Kayla. Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. W. W. Norton, 2005. 290p. $24.95. 978-0-393-06098-0. $14.95 Trade pb. 978-0-393-32922-3.

This memoir of the current Iraqi conflict and military life from a female perspective details Williams’s experiences as an Arabic interpreter who found herself inadvertently on the front lines of combat, where  women are not supposed to be, and also describes her participation in an Abu Ghirab-type interrogation.

Pamphlets and Web Sites

Several political organizations run Web sites that contain printable pamphlets about military service. These organizations make no pretense toward objectivity, but they raise several interesting points that go against the grain of standard military recruitment claims. One wonders how a military recruiter would respond to these pamphlets.

The Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities

(Project YANO).


The latest edition of the pamphlet, “The Military’s Not Just A Job: What You Should Know Before Joining the Military,” is available through a link on the site’s home page. The pamphlet’s strongest statistic states, “In 2005 only 47 percent of enlistees in their first term were satisfied with the military way of life.” Refuting the standard claims of recruiters, the pamphlet also suggests questions that a person should ask herself before  enlisting, such as “Do you enjoy being bossed around?” and “Do you want someone constantly telling you what to do and how to do it?” It also offers other options for a career and finding funding for college. The site contains other similar pamphlets, some in Spanish.  This site has a link to a good video on YouTube called “Before You Enlist.” YouTube hosts many, many other videos—both good and bad—about military  recruitment and the realities of military service from both sides of the discussion. It is worth a recruit’s time to spend a few hours looking through them.

American Friends Service Committee—National Youth and Militarism Program.


The pamphlet, “Do You Know Enough to Enlist?”, is reproduced on the Quaker-founded AFSC Web site and is available for order there as well. The pamphlet takes a psychological approach based on several direct questions that are  designed to encourage teens to think about what they might be getting into. It talks about how most job training in the military is not applicable to the civilian world (e.g. tank mechanic) and advises talking to veterans or those still  in the military before making a decision. Teens are also encouraged to bring a relative or friend when meeting a recruiter. The AFSC main Web site also contains information about conscientious objection, gay and lesbian  issues, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, and the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC).

Center on Conscience and War.


This Web site has information, advice, and opinions about selective service registration, conscientious objection, and the possible return of the draft.

GI Rights Hotline.

(800) 394-9544.


This Web site and telephone hotline provide information to those already in the military about military discharges, grievance and complaint procedures, and other civil rights.

Citizen Soldier.


This organization is run by the author of America’s Military Today (see above) and contains some of the same problems as the book in that it seems more focused on leftwing activists than potential recruits. The printable  pamphlet titled “The Military Enlistment Contract and You: The Facts; Your Rights,” however, is a good primer on how to deal with a recruiter whether one is interested in the military or just getting contacted by them. Their Web  site also has information about resistance within the military and the possibility of Canada as a haven, an option that is not as simple as it was in the sixties.

Why Not Peace.


War veterans of the wars talk about their experiences and why these experiences inspired them to work toward peace on this Web site.


Bigelow, Bill. “The Recruitment Minefield.” Rethinking Schools Online, Spring 2005. http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/19_03/recr193.shtml. Accessed February 24, 2009.

This article describes a political science unit taught by the author in collaboration with Julie O’Neill, a teacher at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. The students, all seniors, share their experiences with military recruiters.  “One hundred percent of O’Neill’s students—three untracked classes of almost 40 students each—had been recruited in some manner by one or another branch of the military,” says Bigelow. “Even students whose parents  had asked the school in writing not to share information with recruiters [as per No Child Left Behind] reported being contacted multiple times.” One student wrote, “‘When I see them talking to high schoolers, they remind  me of a pack of lions going in for the kill. They try to get them into a corner or up against a wall.” Included in the article is a PDF of a difficult-to-obtain enlistment contract used in the unit, which recruiters refuse to allow prospects,  parents, or teachers to take home. The students’ analysis of this “scary” contract shows that it allows the military to do almost anything without a breach. Declares Bigelow, “A critical examination of this document should be part of  the core curriculum in every high school in the United States.” The class studied a real case resulting from this boundless contract: Emiliano Santiago’s service obligation was extended twenty-seven years and four months until 2031, following his recent honorable discharge from an eight-year term of service. Two students’ reacted to the contract, saying, “How can one sign a contract that is always changing?” and “How can the Army focus so much on honor but not agree to honor agreements?”

Bronner, Michael. “The Recruiter’s War.” Vanity Fair, September 2005. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2005/09/recruiters200509. Accessed February 24, 2009.

This article is a scathing indictment of a corrupt system that serves no one well—neither the recruits, the recruiters, nor the military. The author interviews ten current and former recruiters who reveal, “Out of 75 kids I put in the Marine Corps, 70 of them were fraudulent (did not meet physical, ethical,etc. standards) enlistments,” “There’s no way to recruit within the rules and be successful,” and “Every single one of them (recruiters) went from being   bright-eyed and eager to do the job to ‘I can’t believe this job,’ to ‘Okay, my marriage is over,’ to ‘Okay, I’ll do anything I need to do to get a kid in the army.’”

There are tales of recruiters telling recruits to get off prescription medications and lie about the existence of medical conditions including asthma, ADHD, and a heart murmur. There is mention of recruiters encouraging mothers to give up custody of their children in order to enlist. The article also contains this startling fact that should be known by every person (and/or their guardians) affected: “In June, the Pentagon went a step further, contracting a  private marketing firm to compile a database of high-school students aged 16 to 18 and all college students—listing personal information from birth dates to Social Security numbers, grade-point averages, ethnicities, e-mail  addresses, and interests—to help identify potential recruits.”

Dobie, Kathy. “AWOL in America: When Desertion is the Only Option.” Harper’s Magazine, March 2005. http://www.harpers.org/AWOLInAmerica.html. Accessed February 24, 2009.

The author of this article spends time with several men who are currently AWOL after contacting them through the GI Rights Hotline. She reports that as of March 2005, more than 5,500 personnel have left the military since the  beginning of the current conflict in Iraq, a large increase over the past ten years, and that GI Rights Hotline calls are up from 17,000 in 2001 to 33,000 in 2004, and the majority of these calls are people who want to leave the  service. She states that “almost all the deserters I spoke to described the kind of person they thought succeeded in the military as ‘an alpha male who can take orders real well,’ as one Marine put it. ‘If you can’t do both? Don’t join.’”

The author also spends time delving into the harsh realities and philosophy behind basic training. “You have to understand that after all the soft, inspiring talk of educational opportunities, financial bonuses, job skills, cool gear, and  easy sex from uniform-loving girls and German prostitutes, recruits arrive at boot camp and are assaulted by a completely different reality . . . . In a matter of weeks the military must take teenagers from . . . the most  extravagantly individualistic . . . society and turn them into . . . selfless, obedient fighters.” The article goes on to describe how the military has honed basic training to bring the percentage of soldiers firing in combat from 55  percent in the Korean War to 90–95 percent in the Vietnam conflict. Dobie states that the Army creates the perception that one cannot leave the service, leading desperate soldiers to “purposefully injure themselves or become  clinically depressed; they try to kill themselves or set out to fail the drug test.” The article draws to an end with advice from Douglas Smith of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, who says, “Recruits need to read their contracts carefully before signing them; if the recruiter’s ‘possibilities’ are not written into the contract, they don’t exist.”

Spong, John. “Would You Buy What This Man Is Selling?” Texas Monthly, March 2006. http://www.texasmonthly.com/preview/2006-03-01/feature5. Accessed February 13, 2009.

This in-depth portrait of a charming, eager, and honest recruiter offers a nice counterpoint to the stories of breaking the rules by revealing someone simply doing their difficult, important job, and doing it well. [Author’s Note: If you cannot find print versions of these magazines go to your local public library and a librarian will most likely be able to locate these for you in a database.]

Audio-Visual Resources

Generation Kill. DVD. Color. 7hours, 50 min. Produced and dist. by HBO Films. $59.99.

From the creators of the television series, The Wire, comes this highly re commended HBO miniseries based on the book by embedded reporter Evan Wright. Wright worked alongside elite Marines during the first forty days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many veterans have called this version of his book the most accurate war film ever, powerfully portraying the often-dangerous disconnect between commanding officers and  frontline soldiers. Bonus features include a roundtable with the book’s author and several reallife soldiers who are behind the characters in the miniseries speaking about their experiences since the war. Many of them reenlisted and remain in the Marines.

Gunner Palace. DVD. Color. 85 min. Directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Produced by Palm Pictures, 2005. $24.99. http://www.gunnerpalace.com.

This documentary follows a group of soldiers over a period of time in Iraq. The soldiers live in Saddam Hussein’s son’s palace and participate in Baghdad raids. The film has been hailed for its objective view of the war,  with The San Francisco Chronicle calling it “the best glimpse yet of what it’s like to be in Iraq,” and one teen journalist saying that it is “the greatest film in the history of American cinema.” The film starts out  simply and makes these soldiers’ lives seem almost fun and enviable, but as the truly engaging film progresses, complexities, horrors, and frustrations emerge.

Stop-Loss. DVD. Color. 1 hour, 51 min. Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Produced and di s t . by MTV/Paramount, 2008. $34.99.

This powerful movie from the director of Boys Don’t Cry, details the effect of the Iraq War on a small Texas town as the home unit gets called back to duty when they expect a discharge. The movie over dramatizes the  effects of war in an almost horror-movie-like production. The soldiers shown are profoundly traumatized and disabled, both mentally and physically, by the war, making it similar in suspense to the Final Destination movies. This technique might be more effective in showing teens the horrors of war than a more standard treatment. The honor of duty is also well portrayed here.

Soldiers of Conscience. DVD. Color. Directed by Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg. Produced and dist. by Luna Productions, 2008. $19.99. http://www.soldiers-themovie.com/buyDVD.htm.

This PBS documentary begins with the military study that found up to 75 percent of American soldiers in World War II failed to shoot at the enemy when given a chance. Training was modified to counteract this  tendency, but a significant number of soldiers still fail to fire. Powerful interviews with veterans and conscientious objectors tell both sides of the story. Any possible recruit should watch this highly recommended  movie before making his or her decision as it surgically goes to the heart of combat.


No doubt many people benefit greatly from military service, yet in my research for this article, I came across many sobering facts. The decision to join the military is perhaps the most important commitment that an  eighteen-year-old man or woman can make. By providing these resources, I hope to help young people make informed decisions about whether military service is right for them.


Cave, Damien. “Army Recruiters Say They Feel Pressure to Bend Rules.” The New York Times, May 3, 2005, A23.

___________. “Growing Problem for Military Recruiters: Parents.” The New York Times, June 3, 2005, A1.

Dickinson, Tim. “The Return of the Draft.” Rolling Stone, January 27, 2005, 48-50.

Dobie, Kathy. “AWOL in America: When Desertion Is the Only Option.” Harper’s Magazine, March 2005, 33-44.

LaSalle, Mick. “Shooting the Action in Iraq Without Taking Sides.” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 2005, E5.

Morse, Russell. “Why Gunner Palace Is the Greatest Film in the History of American Cinema.” Youth Outlook, March/April 2005, 24.

Schmitt, Eric. “Marines Miss January Goal for Recruits.” The New York Times, February 3, 2005, A12.

Brian Boies is the Teen Services Librarian at the Dimond Branch of the Oakland Public Library in California. He has been a teen services librarian for seven years in Oakland and Hayward, California, and Brooklyn, New York. He is a member of the YALSA Intellectual Freedom Committee. He lives in San Francisco. Reach him at bboies@oaklandlibrary.org.


Leave a Reply