The All-Volunteer Force in Film
By Dr. Katharine Dahlstrand
Team Chief, Research & Books, Army University Press
August 25, 2023
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Goldie Hawn, Bill Murray, and Pauly Shore portrayed U.S. Army soldiers in three popular Hollywood films. They starred in comedy depictions of military service, offering a mixture of satire and slapstick humor in their portrayals of Army recruits. “Private Benjamin” (1980) and “Stripes” (1981) provided a comical glimpse into early social impressions of an All-Volunteer Force. “In the Army Now” (1994) took place over a decade later, in the afterglow of a rapid victory in the Persian Gulf. Taken together, these three films offer insights into Hollywood interpretations of why some Americans join the U.S. Army.
From 1948 through 1973, in periods of war and peace, American men were drafted “to fill vacancies in the armed forces which could not be filled through voluntary means” (Selective Service System, n.d.). President Richard Nixon allowed the act to expire in mid-1973.
The end of conscripted military service sent shockwaves through a nation grappling with its treatment of Vietnam veterans. The threat of the draft reinforced constant communication between military and civilian leaders. It was seen as a duty and an honor celebrated with public support to some, and something to resist at all costs to others, depending on the military operation.
With the draft’s expiration, an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) provided new approaches to understanding military service and its role in society. For years after the AVF was integrated, critics questioned the viability of a peacetime army comprised entirely of volunteers.
A 1977 Military Review article assessed the AVF and concluded “the time has come to conduct a searching and candid evaluation of the AVF, its effectiveness, its cost and its impact on our society.” It suggested more investigations on possible alternatives for manning a standing peacetime army, like compulsory or voluntary national service, universal military training, a “better managed” AVF, or a return to the draft (King, 1977).
Service in Films
Strong sentiments regarding military service revealed themselves in film which “have the ability to reach colossal audiences.” They can influence an audience when they honor a cause or destroy a reputation when they disparage a person. Most importantly, however, films offer a reflection of American thinking at a particular moment in time.
As historian Matthew Hulbert suggested, “films perform two functions on an unremitting cycle: they influence how society thinks and they reflect what a society, or at least a significant segment of it, is actually thinking” (Christopher-Hulbert, 2019).
Private Benjamin (1980)
This film follows Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn), a woman with something to prove to the world, as she navigates her way through initial entry into the U.S. Army. She enlisted after the death of her husband on their wedding night.
The film has aged like skim milk in a parked car on a hot summer day.
After seeing it for the very first time, Staff Sgt. Brandon Cox, the NCO Journal’s senior editor, said “Apparently, all men in 1980 were sex-craving morons.”
It was a fair assessment. The sexual harassment, continued attempts at sexual assault, and women leaders incapable of mentoring subordinate women soldiers were a constant distraction.
Still, there are useful questions to ask of the film. At the beginning, Benjamin viewed military service as a vacation to get away from her troubles. Her character was likable, but her upper-class upbringing did not translate well into military training. Her leaders did not understand her motives. Rooting for Private Benjamin is easy even when watching the movie was not.
The AVF is not positively portrayed in this film. Recruits were depicted as broken in fundamental ways. Benjamin’s peers joined the Army to escape poverty, to open opportunities, or to run away from violent homes. The Hollywood of the time seemed to suggest that joining the Army, especially for women, represented a last chance to find success when all other avenues were exhausted.
While other military films generally use basic training sequences to frame an evolution in attitude, presentation, and lethality, Benjamin’s basic training platoon shows no fundamental growth by the time they graduate. The training exercise portrayed in the film seemed advanced and overly complicated, but it boiled down to a punchline about high-ranking men’s uncontrollable lusts. Laws are broken and lower-enlisted soldiers take matters into their own hands. It did, however, provide the best quotable line of all three films, “If Patton were alive, he would slap your face.”
When the first “Be All You Can Be” recruitment ads hit the airwaves in 1981, the U.S. Army was on its sixth recruiting slogan in nine years. Nothing stuck. Five months after the spot saw airtime, “Stripes” debuted at the box office and Americans watched John Winger (Bill Murray) and Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) debate the benefits of joining the Army as the jingle played in the background. Winger quit his job as a taxi-cab driver and then got home to a girlfriend ready to leave him. Winger talked Ziskey into visiting an Army recruiting office. Like Private Benjamin’s recruiting experience, the two men are fed lies about Army life and enlist.
Like “Private Benjamin,” moments in the film elicited groans of frustration. Also like “Private Benjamin,” this film never sought to portray the Army accurately. It gets close, though, in various small moments they discuss the reasons why they joined the army, tell stories of their past and explain what compelled them to enlist.
In this film, the AVF is portrayed as something requiring unit cohesion. While preparing for their basic training graduation ceremony, the soldiers are left on their own to train and practice drill. Their future is threatened because they lost their platoon sergeant halfway through training and must finish it themselves.
While wildly implausible, but entertaining, Winger transformed a platoon of fundamentally broken men into a tight-knit group of non-traditional Soldiers who served razzle-dazzle to the parade stand.
In the Army Now (1994)
“In The Army Now” was by far the best film and, bizarrely, the most accurate portrayal of initial entry into the U.S. Army of the three reviewed films. Bones (Pauly Shore) and Jack (Andy Dick) have vague ambitions and are unsure how to achieve their goals after getting fired from a job they did not like or want. Not ready to commit to the Army lifestyle full-time, their recruiter talks them into joining the Reserves. Bones is a likable character after he wears you down with his charm and you stop wanting to punch him in the face. His character evolves during the story arc showing a young man learning responsibilities and leadership skills through military service.
Unlike “Stripes” or “Private Benjamin,” the two main characters don’t carry unrealistic expectations about military service. Private Benjamin was lured into the Army with a recruiter’s lies about luxury. Winger and Ziskey discussed how much smarter they were than the other recruits when they joined, which seemed a critical part of why they joined.
In those films, Hollywood seemed to think very little of the people who voluntarily enlisted into the AVF, but “In the Army Now” came out just two years after Operation Desert Storm and it gave the audience a vague sense of permissive patriotism.
The nation had just come out of a successful military engagement in the Middle East and popular culture made patriotism acceptable at a level not seen since before Vietnam. Bones and Jack’s fellow Soldiers joined the Army because they wanted to serve their country. By 1994, Hollywood’s depiction of potential Army recruits included young adults seeking an admirable career path with long-term benefits.
All Volunteer Force film portrayals in the decades following its institution made assumptions about who joined the Army, what the Army offered people who raised their right hand willingly and what those people offered the Army in return. When films provide a glimpse of the American experience, they simultaneously help shape and reflect what audiences think about that specific topic.
Hollywood described the Army’s newest recruits in these films as dimwitted, broke or out of alternative options. The people who entered service did so because it benefited them after they reached a point in life where the future seemed uncertain. The Army was the answer. It was the solution to personal problems and economic fragility. The Army offered structure and experience.
All three films were comedies and did not strive for accuracy or realism in their portrayal of military service. The scripts and storylines, however, stayed aligned with one reality that resonated with those of us who’ve worn a uniform.
Where military movies featuring conscripted service commonly highlight how the wars disrupted the draftees’ regular lives, the AVF in cinema tacitly acknowledges the wide range of reasons someone might join the Army. The universal truth offered in these movies, however, is that when Soldiers are physically and mentally exhausted, when they are stuck in a room or on the back of a truck or on a range, when they have hurried up and are waiting for whatever comes next, they tell each other their stories.
Selective Service System. (n.d.). History of the Selective Service System. https://www.sss.gov/history-and-records/
Christopher-Hulbert, M. (2019). Writing History with Lighting: Cinematic Representation. LSU.
King, W.R. (1977). The All-Volunteer Armed Forces
Status, Prospects and Alternatives. Military Review. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Journals/Military-Review/English-Edition-Archives/January-February-2022/King-All-Volunteer-1977/
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