Unsplash/Joel Rivera-Camacho

March is the best month for college basketball. There are games everyday, wild upsets and impressive comebacks — it really is madness. But one aspect of this madness I was not prepared for was being subjected to repeated propagandizing by the United States military.

There are several military advertising campaigns running at the same time, on various platforms, thanks to the military’s over $600 million advertising budget. Some months of the year, YouTube appears overrun by military ad campaigns with videogame-like graphics, appealing to young Americans with the prospect of nationalistic heroism. They present the military as a benevolent actor, a powerful force for justice and salvation. But these ads reveal the failure of the U.S. to address the problems facing young people (low wages, expensive health care, underfunded schools); issues remain unaddressed while the military’s budget increases.

During nearly every commercial break this March, an ad for the Army National Guard is played. At first glance, this Army commercial feels relatively tame, compared to the overstimulating and drama-filled recruitment videos the military tends to produce. It features three young, determined-looking individuals running through muddy roads and into the woods before transitioning to those same people, now dressed in military uniforms. They hold assault rifles, jump out of planes and rescue young children in their arms. Many of the Army’s commercials give war a Hollywood flair, removing the gruesome reality and turning it into a scene from a Michael Bay film. The fact that I passively perceived this ad as “tame” — which it by no means is — is telling of the military’s obsessive tendency toward the glorification of war. 

“A rogue virus, no jobs, sky-high student loan debt. Life is trying to put our generation on the sidelines, but we refuse to just sit back and watch it pass us by … Watch us become the next greatest generation.” When you choose to focus on the voiceover, the ad’s marketing tactics become clear — a manipulation against young Americans. 

While outlining the apparent hopelessness that young people are facing, the ad offers an attractive offer: put your life on the line in a needless military endeavor for the same country that caused you hardships. The Army expects us to see them as the only option to escape the struggles of the real world, while using America’s unaddressed issues as a cruel recruitment tactic. The U.S. disregards its own failures as a means to convince people to enlist. The irony is maddeningly obvious.

The issues the ad mentions — COVID-19, lack of jobs and student loan debt — are directly tied to the government’s failure to prioritize the health and future of our country. Young people are indeed drowning in student loan debt, but the federal government spends over eight times more on national defense than it does on education. To put this further into perspective, only 0.2% of our tax dollars go to public education, compared to the 24% that the military receives. Additionally, the option to permanently cancel student loan debt has not been seriously considered, while military spending continues to increase.

Young people are feeling lost because the U.S. prioritizes its war and propaganda machine over social safety nets, community resources and affordable post-secondary education. This confusion is reflective of the failure of our government and social institutions to adequately prepare young people for adulthood. A Gallup study found that only 22% of adults believe that high school grads are prepared to be successful in college, and only 17% believe they are prepared to enter the workplace. Our systems of education are not achieving their primary aim: ensuring the next generation’s success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy, with close to one million Americans dying, and many more hospitalized. Much of these devastating impacts could have been avoided, had we been more prepared. The U.S.’s poor handling of the pandemic reveals how skewed our priorities are toward national defense. While military spending increased over $30 billion in 2020, the emergency response funding and the pandemic response systems we had in place were gutted. The ad’s use of “rogue virus” turns COVID-19 into a marketing tactic, allowing them to profit off of disaster. The U.S.’s obsession with national defense blinds us from domestic concerns which desperately need attention.

“Watch us become the next greatest generation” is an especially striking message, and is a phrase repeated at least three times during the ad’s 30-second runtime. It shows how our notions of generational success and achievement are intrinsically linked to war and destruction. The nostalgic greatness of the postwar era — when the U.S. emerged as a global economic and cultural superpower —is something that Americans continue to cling to, as if its memory is being threatened. This conception of greatness is rooted in imperial action, with the end of the Second World War setting the stage for American interference in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. The U.S. has not abandoned this image of hegemonic greatness; it remains embedded in our rhetoric and our actions, abroad and at home. The ad encourages us to be a part of the continuation of this greatness, the next generation of Americans fighting to maintain global control. Why must we continue to aspire toward dominance?

The underlying message of the ad, and of all other military promotional materials, is that when you enlist and put your life on the line for your country, you will do so with pride. After describing how young people feel lost, hopeless and angry at the institutions that failed them, the Army expects us to turn around and risk our lives with pride for the same country that caused this misery. 

The military makes no attempts at subtlety. They present themselves as the only form of salvation from the destitution of the real world. But this salvation comes at a cost: the possibility of losing your life. 

Our conception of national service should not be rooted in violence. We need to create institutions in which people serving as teachers, doctors, researchers and engineers can work to address education inequality, public health and infrastructure. The U.S. needs to prioritize the future of young people, and with them, the future of the country. 

Carson Kindred (23Ox, 25C) is from Minneapolis, Minnesota.