20 years after the Berlin Wall: Attitude of today’s recruits echoes Cold War’s motivation
November 9, 2009
WASHINGTON — The fall of the Berlin Wall may have been good for democracy and world peace. But it wasn’t so hot for the U.S. military’s recruiting efforts.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the communist "Evil Empire" eliminated much of the patriotic incentive for joining America’s armed forces.
"The signature ad for the Army in the 1980s was their ‘Freedom isn’t free’ commercial," said Beth Bailey, author of "America’s Army: Making the All-Volunteer Force." "But by the mid-1990s, you had U.S. News & World Report asking ‘Does America need an Army?’ on its front cover. They had to convince people they were still useful."
After the Berlin Wall fell, the military began publicly talking about lowering its end-strength and retaining fewer soldiers, according to Jerry Pionk, chief of the Army’s Enlisted Incentives Branch. Over the next few years that uncertainty, combined with a strong U.S. job market, hurt recruiting efforts. Advertising pitches began focusing less on defending America and more on defending the military’s relevance.
As a result, the Army phased out the ubiquitous "Be All You Can Be" campaign in favor of "Army of One." The Marine Corps’ most popular commercial in the late 1990s depicted a fictional recruit climbing a mountain and battling a mythical fire monster.
Today, the ads for Army and the Marines feature real-life heroes in real-life war zones.
The difference was 9/11. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon instantly revived patriotism as a primary motivation for joining the military.
"After Sept. 11, I was stunned at how rapidly it transformed back into a Cold War-era system," said Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Infantrymen suddenly found themselves in high demand for the first time in decades. Troops who signed up for a quiet military career were anxious to get to the fight, Tarantino said.
And the Army soon launched new recruiting commercials featuring photos of soldiers in combat and a voiceover reading of the Army Creed:
I will never accept defeat …
I am a guardian of freedom, and the American way of life …
I am an American soldier …
Today’s shaky economy and the build-up in military funding — both echoes of the recruiting climate during Ronald Reagan’s presidency — make for a receptive pool of potential enlistees. But Tarantino said those factors, as well as the global security climate, only go so far in determining whether a recruit signs on.
"You join the military because you want to be part of something bigger than you," Tarantino said. "That was the case back in the 1980s, the 1990s and today."