The Solomon Amendment and propaganda

The University will not protect you from unsolicited military recruitment.

by Trent M. Kays

I received an unclassified email a few days ago from the National Guard. The subject line read “(UNCLASSIFIED).” For some reason, I thought the National Guard must have needed a writing teacher, so I quickly opened it. However, all I found was a poorly written paragraph extoling the virtues of military service.

Under normal circumstances, I would have just marked the email as spam and moved on. But, this time, I noticed a curious disclaimer at the bottom of the email that read: “The Solomon Amendment mandates that institutions of education must provide to military recruiters, upon request, access to names, addresses and phone numbers of students attending their institution.”

Beyond the syntactical issues, a lot of this disclaimer is vexing.

Despite my dedication to education, I’m ashamed to admit that I wasn’t familiar with the Solomon Amendment. Enacted in 1996, the amendment allows the secretary of defense — currently Chuck Hagel — to deny federal grants to higher education institutions that prohibit or prevent military recruitment on their campuses. So, if a university accepts federal monies, they must allow military recruiters on their campuses.

I suppose it’s perfectly reasonable that the government should be part beneficiary of the research carried out with its money. However, it seems the government expects more.

Most disturbing, though, is that students have no choice. Since most universities accept federal monies, the Solomon Amendment operates more as government extortion than a survey of options.

I find this intimacy of higher education and the government problematic and unseemly. I don’t think the government should force itself into the lives and goals of colleges and universities. The government should ensure regulation, but it shouldn’t hold higher education hostage.

The issue of money in higher education walks a fine line, because there isn’t always enough money for universities to both educate and research. I feel like the government knows this, so it dangles money in front of institutions and put them in a position where it would be foolish not to bite. It’s a ghastly and completely disingenuous technique, but it isn’t completely unexpected.

The U.S. government — and, by extension, the military — is one of the greatest propaganda machines of the 21st century. I use military recruitment commercials to teach propaganda techniques to students. My favorite military recruitment commercials are for the Army.

The Army has gone through many different commercials and mottos. Its current slogan is “Army Strong.”

During the countless nights I lay awake with insomnia, I watch a lot of commercials. I’ve seen the “Army Strong” commercial so many times that I almost have it memorized. The apex of the commercial is the end, when actor Gary Sinise’s soothing voice says, “There’s strong, and then there’s Army strong.” As soon as I hear this line, I want to run out the door and join the military.

Well, that might be a little hyperbolic. I don’t really want to join the military after its commercials. Instead, I feel revulsion. These commercials are so clearly propagandistic that I lament any person who is persuaded by them. These commercials show soldiers flying jets, in combat and even battling the enemies of the United States. What these commercials don’t show are the sanitation crews, the soldiers who need to account for every bullet and those who stand guard at gates.

No one wants to defend America by cleaning latrines, right? The oft-glamorized vision of what it is to be in the military is nothing more than propaganda.

The concept of propaganda is neither good nor bad. People have always tried to convince others to adopt their point of view. The rhetorical techniques it takes to convince people to do something are as old as Aristotle. They are not unique, but the way in which military recruitment commercials employ them is clearly propagandistic.

Consider the “Army Strong” commercial. It implies that while you may be strong, you will never be as strong as someone in the Army. There’s no way to prove this, and therefore, we must treat it as untrue. The commercial creates space where people are reminded of their inadequacies — not their strengths. It also creates a moralistic sense of duty to serve one’s country. That’s fine, but not everyone wants to do that. We have a volunteer military for a reason.

Yet, we can’t escape the onslaught of messages or propaganda that oozes from the pores of the government. The invasion of privacy via the Solomon Amendment is just one more cannon ball hurled at unsuspecting people. We’re surrounded by military commercials, billboards, signs and now, for students, emails. We can’t escape.

For me, it feels as though the University of Minnesota has broken its trust with students. Why must we choose between giving up federal funds and sacrificing students’ privacy in the name of military recruitment?

Students know they can join the military. Do we really need another idealized commercial with fighter jets in the background or military recruiters evangelizing to us via email?

I think not.