Paul Hoppe

In a Central District strip mall, lodged between a Subway franchise and an African imports store, there is a United States Army recruiting office. Inside, soldiers sit beneath bright lights in combat fatigues, the word "ARMY" embroidered into the backs of their padded desk chairs. On the wall is a poster of the Soldier's Creed: "I am an American soldier," it reads. "I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States and live the army values... I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States in close combat."

Sergeant First Class Douglas Washington works out of this office, and one afternoon he receives an e-mail from a female teenager requesting a packet of information to be mailed to her. Within 24 hours he has navigated his car to her address and is ringing the doorbell of her cluttered house. What he finds when she opens the door is not what he'd been promised—an 18-year-old who might be ready, as they say in military speak, to "get shipped." What he finds is me—a tired-looking woman in her 30s with a baby on her hip. I'd written in posing as a potential recruit, and he believed me, and he is disappointed.

I feel guilty—shocked to find him there on my doorstep. I had no idea when I wrote into the website that the army would react so fast, much less send a real person the very next morning. I lie and tell him I was actually getting the information for a young friend, and he asks if I have her name and address. I say, well, I will keep that to myself. Sergeant Washington is a tall, imposing man who looks like he would have no problem tearing a phone book in half, but he has a quiet voice and a lilting Southern accent. Later he consents to an interview and tells me his story.

He is 36 years old—18 years ago he walked into a recruiting office in the small town in Arkansas where he grew up, requesting to join. His sister and father had both served in the military, and he saw it as a way to have "my own money and my own responsibility." He was trained as a light-vehicle mechanic, preparing vehicles to be "mission capable." Now assigned to the Seattle recruiting office, he spends his days making phone calls and ringing doorbells. His goal each day is to "conduct at least one good appointment with a person who doesn't have law problems, medical problems, or drug problems." He explains that the more "face-to-face prospecting" you can do, the better. The goal for recruiters is one enlistment a month and Sergeant Washington admits that lately it's been a difficult goal to meet.

I am talking to Sergeant Washington in the 23rd Avenue and Jackson Street Starbucks. He's decked out in full uniform, all the way down to the purple beret and the gold medals. All around us people steal glances at him, elbow each other, and point. In the midst of these civilians he is a spectacle, an exotic visitor from the planet of the military.

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The army is experiencing a serious manpower shortage; this is why Sergeant Washington hurried to my door, answering my e-mail in person. As news about the war worsens, recruiters can't find warriors. The army's goal is 80,000 recruits a year, about 6,600 a month. At this point, according to various reports, they are at about 75 percent. In June the army sent out press releases saying they had met their goals, and this bit of good news was dutifully reported on the nightly news. Yet this victory only comes after a series of compromises: lowering actual goals, accepting recruits even if they don't meet the Good Warrior criteria (high-school graduate, no drug habits, no medical or mental problems), and raising enlistment bonuses from $20,000 to $40,000.

Because of the shortage the Bush administration has engaged in a "back-door draft," calling up reservists, members of the National Guard, soldiers who thought they were finished with active duty. In the New York Times, Monica Davey wrote about the plight of the Individual Ready Reserve—soldiers who have resigned from active duty but who are being called up because they "didn't formally resign their commissions in writing" and have their resignations accepted. Basically, they are being sent to Iraq through a paperwork loophole, and many of them are suing. As Davey writes, "many of these former soldiers... say they have not trained, held a gun, worn a uniform, or even gone for a jog in years." By calling up these soldiers, the administration has stretched the idea of a volunteer army to the breaking point.

As the back-door draft comes under media scrutiny, recruiters feel the pressure. The army is ordered to stop looking for old soldiers and find some new ones, fast. Thus while the recruiter's job can be monotonous and disappointing, especially lately, theirs is perhaps the most crucial mission in the war on terror as it has been conceived by the administration—that is, as a war we want to be fighting, a war soldiers enter willingly.

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Summer is upon us and for military recruiters that means time to shift into high gear. Although much has been made of recruiters soliciting kids on the grounds of public high schools, the real recruiting starts when school is out. Summer is the time when 17- and 18-year-old "prospects" are in the house alone, waiting for parents to return from work. Perhaps they are dreading another shift at a minimum-wage job. Perhaps they have no job at all, but they need one. This is the perfect time for a recruiter to come calling, promising high salaries, college scholarships, a nice apartment, and world travel.

These are only the scripted promises, the ones recruiters are trained to make. Sometimes recruiters, anxious to meet goals, improvise the script. This spring in Colorado, 17-year-old David McSwane went undercover for his school newspaper, posing as a high-school dropout with a major pot habit. He made tapes of a recruiter promising him a rigged drug test if only he agreed to enlist right away. According to the Rocky Mountain News, the recruiter urged McSwane to take his GED, and when he failed, the recruiter told him to send in for a phony diploma: "It can be Faith Hill Baptist or something," he said. Soon McSwane had a $200 diploma from the very school the recruiter suggested. News outlets around the country picked up McSwane's exposé. On secretly recorded audio tapes, the recruiter sounds worked up—impatient to close the deal.

Recruiters work from a database of names assembled by the Pentagon; it includes the vital information of millions of recent high-school graduates. This vital information is given to the Pentagon by the public schools—as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to hand it over or they risk losing federal funding. Recently, a group of parents started the "Leave My Child Alone" website, which details ways to get a kid's name removed from the database.

But parents can't get recruiters removed from other places their kids might hang out. Along with phone calls and house visits, recruiters also spend the summer in malls. The mall is a good place for prospects because often teenagers drift here aimlessly, wishing they could afford things. Sometimes recruiters take part in job fairs, setting up booths alongside employers like Jiffy Lube and Babies R Us. In this context, the military is presented as a quick way to enter the ranks of the employed. Recruiters pass out bags of literature and their business cards; they tell prospects to get in touch any time. The Army of One brochures use phrases like Meet Strength, Your New Best Friend; Get an Education Before College; and A Great Start on Life. There is no mention of Iraq—indeed the whole notion of fighting is absent from the promotional literature.

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Like realtors trying to sell a house with a cracked foundation, the recruiters are on shifting ground, never sure of the product they're selling. "This is a different kind of war," one recruiter told me. "You don't know who's friend or foe." Often they don't make their goals and they're forced to tell the boss they've failed.

"It sucks," says 22-year-old Staff Sergeant Anthony Doud, who works out of the Central District office. "A lot of people hang up on you." Most mornings he works on a list of calls, but sometimes he gets bored, so he sends jokes out on his laptop computer to the serious guy across the office from him, trying to get him to laugh. Doud grew up in Shelton, and joined the army to make money for school. But school has receded in his mind and now he's dreaming about the war. His brother and his best friend are over in Iraq, and he wants to go fight alongside them. His brother hasn't seen much fighting, but his friend, Doud says, "has really seen action." When Doud says the word "action" sitting in this boring office, his voice fills with admiration and maybe a little envy.

Neither Sergeant Washington nor Sergeant Doud described their enlistment as an act of patriotism. Rather it was a way of doing something other people were doing, family members and friends. It was just something you did in the world they came from. This is something anti-war activists don't seem to get when they surround recruiters and shout at them in the hallways, as they did recently at Seattle Central Community College. It is easy to turn recruiters into monsters, but they aren't making the war; the war is making them.

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"What about fighting?" This is the question 20-year-old Peter posed to a recruiter at the Central District offices. Peter is a college kid and a pacifist—he wouldn't join the army even if he was drafted. But he's curious about the process whereby people are turned into soldiers, and so one afternoon he walked in pretending to be a potential recruit. He told the woman who greeted him, "I don't know, I am just thinking about it." He played the part of a high-school graduate suffering from entropy, hoping to flee this town and his left-wing parents. The recruiter ushered him to her desk and gave him the pitch. Afterward, Peter described the meeting to me.

She asked him for vital statistics, his age and weight, whether he had any felonies, his name and address and e-mail address, all of which he faked. She told Peter he seemed like a good candidate for active duty: young and ready to explore the world. She told him that actually active duty was much better than reserve—reserve was only one weekend a year, not nearly as much money, not something that can really change your life. She described active duty as luxurious. She asked Peter if he was single, and when he told her yes, she described the bachelor pad where he would live on the base. She talked about how the army would provide him with his own dinette set.

She described the army as an organization that teaches you to overcome obstacles, that can structure your whole life. She told Peter if he joined and things went well he would never have to worry about finding another job. She showed him the army pay scale; as an active-duty soldier he would start at around $2,500 a month. She explained that once he enlisted he'd choose a field of expertise and soon he would be proficient in it—maybe he would become an electrician, or a mechanic, or a computer specialist. Once he was an expert, he would teach others, become a supervisor with people working under him. She said he would be surprised at all the big responsibilities he would be capable of handling, that he would be like a different person from the one sitting in front of her.

She asked Peter if he played any instruments and he told her, actually, drums. She told him this was very lucky, there was an audition the following week at Fort Lewis for the band, and they needed drummers. She told him active-duty men fly all over the world and never have to pay airfare. She mentioned travel to Germany and Japan, but never the Middle East. For a long time she tried to leave Iraq out of the story, as if it was some unmentionable topic. Peter made her talk about it when he asked about fighting.

At that point, he says, "she really started to talk a lot." She reassured him that if he joined, he probably wouldn't ever see battle. She said there are certain kinds of soldiers in demand in Iraq—those who have trained in heavy construction or medical support. If Peter didn't sign up for these jobs, he probably wouldn't have to go at all. Probably? He asked. Probably, she said.

He asked her, "What if I want to join, but I am afraid, in my gut?" She told him that this is a crazy world and you never know what's going to happen. She talked about the army like it had saved her life. She said she didn't let herself get defeated anymore, and it had allowed her to be creative. She described the great feeling of someone walking up to you in a restaurant and saying how much they respect you. She told Peter she was getting emotional.

After about 45 minutes the interview finished; Peter left with a handful of brochures. He says the recruiter had "gotten really intense by the end." She must've thought she'd found an authentic soldier, that she'd accomplished the sought-after good appointment, a meeting with someone who could fill the quota. Until she tried his bad phone number, she must've believed their interview had been a victory.

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Talking to recruiters I realized I am reflexively afraid of soldiers. I know this is supposed to be a free country, yet I realized there was some martial law at work in me, causing me to panic when Sergeant Washington appeared at my door. This fear showed itself again at Starbucks, the way people stole glances at him like he was some kind of celebrity or king. Maybe the awe and hush around soldiers is the military's greatest selling point. Imagine the 18-year-old prospect who's never been treated with awe, who has barely been noticed, much less feared. For him or her the military life might sound like a kind of redemption.

But as the casualties mount, even the best prospects are getting harder to convince. The war grows messy and limitless, and fewer and fewer young adults can see themselves as heroes within it. In June, Bush declared to an audience of soldiers that they were "patriots willing to serve a cause greater than themselves... the story of freedom." In the service of that vague story the recruiters persist, dressed too hot for the weather, driving immaculate cars, hoping to find some restless soul ready to invite them in. ■

editor@thestranger.com