Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Should the Armed Forces Be Advertising for Reasons Other than Recruiting?

Faced with serious manpower shortfalls, the U.S. armed forces are pulling out the stops in their recruiting. That's fair enough, although there are legitimate complaints that the recruiting strategies are in fact not fair at all. For example, the "Try 1" program was advertised as a means for veterans to try enlisting again for a year to see whether they liked serving again, but then, pursuant to the small print, many of the people who wanted out were kept in by stop-loss orders.

Still, so long as the recruitment is not misleading, the government is certainly entitled to advertise the virtues of military service to potential recruits. But what about more general advertising? An arresting full-page ad in Monday's New York Times touted the virtues of the Air Force in a way that was pretty clearly not designed primarily as a recruitment tool. I have been unable to find an online version of the print ad, but I did learn from this Washington Post story that my read was correct: The Air Force has embarked on an ambitious program of advertising aimed at persuading the public---and thus the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and Congress---of the valuable role the Air Force plays in national defense.

Here is a brief video portion of the campaign:

Okay, so that could plausibly be seen as recruitment but the print campaign cannot. More importantly, as the Washington Post story notes, the Air Force is unabashed in its goal of influencing policy. The story states: "The Air Force plans to spend $26 million this year and $55 million next year to better compete with the other armed services for America's admiration."

I checked around and discovered that this sort of thing is pretty standard among the armed services, which leads to the following question: Even assuming that the government may constitutionally spend money on "government speech" aimed at persuading the public about the appropriate course of national defense policy, is it a sensible use of millions of taxpayer dollars for Congress to appropriate money to various branches of the armed forces for them in turn to make a case to Congress itself and the American people about how much additional money should be spent on the various branches of the military? Doesn't that question answer itself?

Posted by Mike Dorf