Losing the “Influencers”

In the jargon of military recruiters, “influencers” is the term used to refer to the family members, close friends, and peers of those young women and men who are considering enlistment in the U.S. armed forces.  It’s the circle of people in the daily home, school, work, religious, and social life of the potential inductee who are, or might be, capable of — and willing — to assist the military recruiter in their task.  Recruiters frequently rely on the assistance of “influencers” to cinch enlistment deals with the often high school or college aged recruits.  The all-volunteer military has necessitated an expanded and costly apparatus dedicated solely to finding, identifying, enticing, and, if need be, pressuring young people to enlist in one branch of the service or another.  Recruiters have quotas to meet, and they aggressively pursue their goal of restocking the manpower of the military machine.

The Bush “war on terror” — especially the Iraq debacle — isn’t making things any easier for military recruiters, it appears.  The news media regularly report on recruiting problems, shortfalls, and lowered standards being applied to possible recruits.  This recruiting difficulty is highlighted bluntly in a March 2007 interview in Government Executive magazine with United States Marine Corps (USMC) Commandant General James T. Conway.  Marine Commandant General Conway points out that, before the September 11 attacks, USMC recruiters would plan on spending about 4 hours with the potential recruit and a like number of hours with the “influencers.”  Today, the Corps must now spend the same 4 hours with the recruit, but a full 14 hours with the “influencers.”

For whatever else it might mean, this trend is confirmation that the “influencers” are in need of a tremendous increase in recruiter “influence” themselves.  The reasons for this are self-evident, reported daily in any newspaper or on any TV news report.  The “war on terror” has turned out to be a politically-driven fiasco possessing less-and-less believability and authenticity with each passing day even in Middle America.

The abuses and excesses of overzealous or desperate recruiters are well documented.   One of my favorite articles exposing a slice of this is “Lies Military Recruiters Tell,” authored by Ron Jacobs back in March 2005 and published by CounterPunch.  In my own experience with the recruiter phenomenon back in 1980, the personnel director for the Florida municipality where I worked tried to act as an indirect “influencer.”  Outraged with my efforts to organize a union in “her” city, she contacted the Navy recruiter who hounded me for months with the offer of “a dream job” far better than anything I would ever live to experience in that small city sanitation department.  This was arguably not your typical “influencer” scenario, but it gave me a firsthand look at how military recruiters worked closely with anyone who might help deliver to them another recruit.  It was also an eye-opening view of the lengths to which bosses will go to try to decapitate a union organizing drive.

It didn’t work.  We organized a union, won an election, and a first union contract, and the recruiter was left with an unfilled slot in the Navy.  He also had a lot of miles and wasted hours to show for his scheme to win me over.  Me being too poor back then to afford the phone company deposit needed to qualify for a home phone, the recruiter decided to stake out my ramshackle apartment for several months as his means of trying to pitch me.  Several of my workmates — and an uncle who had seen combat duty in the Korean war — saw what was happening back then, and made sure to reinforce my resolve not to take the bait and sign my life away to the recruiter.  Their advice was a hodgepodge, but it was appreciated.  I owe my own “influencers” a great debt of gratitude.  More than once, I have tried to pay back this favor done for me by engaging potential recruits in a conversation about what they might really get themselves into should they succumb to the lures of the recruiters.  With any luck, we can help expand that number of hours needed to be spent with the “influencers” from 14, to 24, to 54, and more.  Maybe it will eventually get to the point when the recruiters spend all their time arguing with the “influencers,” forced to answer the questions about the “war on terror” that the Bush Administration refuses to answer.

Chris Townsend is Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE), www.ranknfile-ue.org.

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