Monday, July 28, 2008

"The Recruiter" is a compelling look at Army recruiting and at Basic Training; DADT does come up


Well, join the Army and you may appear in a movie. You won’t get to join the jet set in Beverly Hills, though. In the film reviewed here, a few “ordinary” soldiers do get to see them portrayed in a movie.

The Recruiter (The Film Sales Company, Propeller Films, Sundance Channel, HBO Films, 87 min) directed by Edet Belzberg, aired on HBO tonight, and apparently it received some acclaim at Sundance. It is marketed as the story of the recruiting efforts of one Sgt First Class Clay Ulie (E-6) in Houma, LA, south of New Orleans in the famous Terrebone Parish. But it moves into chronicles of the experiences of several soldiers in Basic Training and at least one in Special Forces and provides a compelling commentary of the moral issues surrounding military service today.

Army recruiters operate like other sales businesses. They have to build lists of prospects and leads and contact them, and nurture the contacts. Ulie personally starts training a few of the recruits, who prepare to leave their families and go to Basic Training. Half way through the film, Ulie says that we should have “mandatory federal service” which would be national service, but that we should not have a draft per se. But he also says that one is in the military to protect the freedom of others, and to protect the freedom of one’s family. The later is true even if one (at 18, as are most of the recruits here) is too young to have married and/or had his own children. The film shows one male recruit getting married after graduating from Basic.

The sequences in Basic are quite visual and bring back memories. In one scene, the soldiers do pushups on a wet barracks floor and have to stay dry. Later they get bazooka and bayonet training. There is a graphic scene in the gas chamber, where they unmask and are unable to get their masks back on while tear gas pours on them. We had tear gas at Fort Jackson in 1968; sometimes Chlorine was also used. We also had a tear gas attack on bivouac.

Some of the characters, like Matt and Bobby are quite likeable. Matt will receive a purple heart in Iraq but survive. Bobby now serves in special forces in a classified location.

One female has a panic attack in basic while the soldiers are being clothed at quartermaster. Another female, Lauren, discloses to the filmmaker that she has a girl friend, and that her mother thought that the Army would “change” her. At home, she has an argument with her mother about it and goes AWOL. Eventually she is disciplined and discharged, and winds up working in a fast-food restaurant. The film is not really clear on this, but apparently the Army does not take her claim of being a lesbian as a reason for automatic honorable discharge under “don’t ask don’t tell.” At one point, Ulie comments that a few soldiers try to get out during Basic by saying they are gay when (he thinks) they are not. The irony is that “don’t ask don’t tell” could well be repealed, particularly in Barack Obama is elected and if there is enough political pressure on Congress to repeal it, as reported on my GLBT blog last week. One well made independent film on the topic could tip the scales on this issue. Then, someone like Lauren really couldn’t get out this way.

It's important to remember that the military does not have "employment at will" the way a civilian company does. A soldier is not free to go AWOL and not free to "leave" without consequences once in the service, even in an "all volunteer" Armed Forces environment.

I don't think the film showed the contributions of women in the Army in a positive way. Maybe more attention could have been paid to a "successful" female recruit.

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