South to the Future

November 17, 1999

WASHINGTON — A high-tech, heavily armed force descends on a small city in the Pacific Northwest. Its mission: to clean up a chemical spill at an energy research lab. But these are no weekend eco-warriors, they're Marines. Welcome to the U.S. military circa 2010.

Military brass are banking on a series of commercials portraying scenarios such as the one above to woo a new generation to a career in uniform. Dangling the prospect of an “alternative” Army, recruiters are setting their sights on high school-age activists, environmentalists, and other freethinking rabble-rousers.

The U.S. military is having a hard time attracting recruits, and retention of current personnel has reached an all-time low. At the same time the military is scrambling to find a new mission in a post-Cold War global economic age. Retired Marine Gen. P.R. Farrell envisions the military of the future as a network of small, issue-oriented armed forces. “Without a radical reorganization of resources and personnel, the military cannot survive in the next century,” the former strategist says. Such a reorganization, Farrell predicts, would include special divisions that would respond to environmental crises and economic catastrophes.

While planners in war-college classrooms and think-tank outposts continue to hash out the most likely threats of the next century, officials in the U.S. Marine Corps have hit the ground running with a politically correct recruitment and training campaign. Drawing on a long-standing tradition of emphasizing personnel over technology, the Marines Corp is the first service branch to court enlistees with a pro-environment, pro-economic justice message.

A series of cutting-edge commercials set to air on select cable networks in January portrays the Marines as futuristic guerrilla fighters engaged in battles to save the planet from global polluters, political bullies, and even sweatshop operators. The “I could do this every day” ad campaign, created by Foote, Cone & Belding, features the music of contemporary artists Rage Against the Machine and Queen Latifah.

As an additional incentive, Marines are staging special training camps in Costa Rica and the Himalayas to prepare recruits for deployment in environmental and political hot spots. Training scenarios in these exotic locations include media warfare, public health sorties, and agricultural relief.

In the boot camp of tomorrow buzz cuts may still be the rule, but recruits are given much more leeway in terms of personal expression. Eighteen-year-old Clay Thompson plans to devote three years “to his conscience” (and the Marines) before attending college on the GI Bill. Thompson still considers himself a rebel, and says the transition to military life hasn't been as difficult as he expected.

“I used to have a bumper sticker that said 'Free Tibet,'” he boasts. “Now I might get to do it.”

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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