Overstretched and short on recruits, the U.S. military has been going to great lengths to find out everything they can about potential enlistees. The only problem is most of these prospective soldiers are under 18 and, in many cases, are disclosing personal information without their (or their parents) knowledge. Mother Jones columnist David Goodman explains how the U.S. military is working behind the scenes to enlist the youth of America.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone, with a brief update. This week we learned that the U.S. military has cancelled a 1.5–million-dollar contract with the Rendon Group. The private contractor was hired, among other things, to produce background profiles of journalists seeking to embed with the military in Afghanistan, grading their past work as positive, negative or neutral. The announcement came after a week of scoops from the newspaper Stars and Stripes, which decided to investigate after a reporter heard Army captain and erstwhile journalist Matt Mabe mention the profiling on our show. Mabe spoke to Bob a few weeks ago from his post in Afghanistan where he witnessed the profiling. Good work, Captain Mabe, and you too, Stars and Stripes. Thanks for listening.
BOB GARFIELD: Nearly eight years into an unpopular war in Afghanistan and more than six years into an even less popular war in Iraq, the U.S. military is in need of far more than just a few good men, and so it’s embarked on a campaign of market research that is sure to inspire shock and awe, compiling data on every young American man who might be convinced to sign up for a four-year stint. How might the military know if you would be willing to consider a tour, or two, or three of duty? By getting to know you in ways you didn't think possible.
DAVID GOODMAN: The Army is currently spending 24,500 dollars on recruiting each recruit. By contrast, a four-year college spends an average of about 2,000 dollars per incoming student. So that gives you an idea of the kind of firepower being directed at unwitting high school students.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s David Goodman whose article, Data Minefield, is in the current issue of Mother Jones Magazine. He writes that one effective form of military outreach to young men is through blockbuster video games, though the player may not realize that, in a sense, he’s being played.
DAVID GOODMAN: Halo 3 is one of the most popular video games released several years ago. What is unknown is that the primary underwriter has been the U.S. Army.
[VIDEO GAME SOUNDS UP AND UNDER] The Army’s presence can be seen in the use of actual U.S. Army-provided graphics throughout the game. There are also links to the U.S. Army recruiting website, GoArmy.com, which is, the Army tells me, probably its most effective recruiting tool. And the other video game that the military takes a very high profile is America’s Army 3.
[VIDEO GAME SOUNDS UP AND UNDER] America’s Army 3 is one of the most popular video games among young men. It’s an attempt to supposedly give players a view of the Army, although many would argue it is a very fantasy-driven view of Army life. And it also will link to Army websites. And the issue in all of these things is that the military is, in fact, prohibited from recruiting people below the age of 18. If they recruit 17-year-olds it must be done with the consent of their parents. Well, these video games, there’s no way to police who’s on it. And so, what they're finding is that children down to the ages of 11 are in what is essentially part of the recruiting pipeline.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is an even stealthier example in your piece about a website called March2Success.com. Had nothing to do with combat or the military life -- au contraire.
DAVID GOODMAN: That's right. March2Success.com is a website that purports to be a test prep and a college or career planning website. However, it would take a pretty careful user to notice in the lower corner that March2Success links to the main Army recruiting website, once again. It turns out that March2Success is a creation of the U.S. Army. They are spending 1.2 million dollars on the website this year. And the Army hired the top test prep firms, including Peterson’s, Kaplan, Princeton Review to prepare the questions. The kind of information you'd get from March2Success would be the same kind of information you get from a test that’s administered in high schools called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. And it matches people with jobs in the military. What this provides the military with is the Social Security number, GPA, ethnicity, career interests, all of which are logged in a huge central database maintained by the Pentagon and subcontracted to a private company.
BOB GARFIELD: Is that different from how any marketer collects data nowadays, by offering utility or entertainment as a quid pro quo? In the digital world, personal data is increasingly a commodity, is it not?
DAVID GOODMAN: We are certainly growing accustomed to learning that we are being data mined at every purchase that we make. Where we have agreed that we draw a line is on the issue of children. In fact, in 2002 the Senate ratified an international treaty that prohibits the United States from recruiting children under 18, as I mentioned earlier. And it’s adhered to by just about every country in the world because we accept that special rules apply to kids. And the reason for this is that the military is not just any employer and it’s not just any data harvester. The consequences of joining the military can be life or death consequences.
BOB GARFIELD: The most alarming revelation in your piece, I believe, referred to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act that is a sort of Trojan horse. Can you describe this?
DAVID GOODMAN: The No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2001 as the signature education law of then-President George Bush. But unbeknownst to most people, including its sponsors, because I spoke to people in the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s office about this, it’s a provision that requires all high schools to turn over directory information to the military on all juniors and seniors. So that’s contact information ranging from phone numbers, email addresses, cell phone numbers. So the No Child Left Behind Act has, in fact, become the most aggressive military recruitment tool since the draft itself. And there are stiff penalties for high schools that don't comply with this law. The Pentagon is now, they say themselves, the largest repository of information on 16-to-24-year-olds in the country; they have 34 million names.
BOB GARFIELD: Does the Pentagon then give this information to recruiters? Do recruiters sitting there with a dossier on me give me a call?
DAVID GOODMAN: Yes, that would certainly [LAUGHS] be the idea. They would now have your phone number. That’s not something they had before. They used to have to hang out at high school football games and basketball games or just cruise the malls. Well, now they can call you. They know, through new data mining activities, that you subscribe to Hot Rod Magazine, so they can basically cut right to the chase. Your interest in cars could translate very nicely and neatly into fixing large equipment for the Army. It’s a free education. And it can make it a much more productive call and get them to the goal that they're hoping to get to as quickly as they can, which is having you sign on the dotted line.
BOB GARFIELD: David, once again, thanks very much.
DAVID GOODMAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Writer David Goodman is the author of a piece called Data Minefield in the current issue of Mother Jones.