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Military Recruiting

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by Paula Backscheider, author of Women in Wartime: Theatrical Representations in the Long Eighteenth Century

A student wrote of my book, “What I found most interesting were … resonant examples of wartime women and the similarities that continue to be exemplified in the present day.” The most critical and challenging need when war or even the threat of war arises is recruitment. The US Army just announced that over the next two years it will have to reduce the number of soldiers they expect to have and that they believe that they will be 50% below their recruiting goal on 1 October 2020. As military needs arose all over the globe and roiling diplomatic relations with Russia and China increased, Air Force recruiters fanned out to the premiers of Top Gun Maverick with boxes of lanyards and mugs. They and the Navy hoped for the ”bump” the 1986 Top Gun delivered. In August the Air Force was still 4,000 below its goal. My new book traces how actresses and plays with new, revolutionary parts for them became powerful recruiting forces. The U.S. Army needs 57,000 new soldiers a year, and, at the beginning of the American Revolution, England, a much smaller country than ours, needed to recruit 80,000 Navy men, 60,000 Army men, and substantial numbers of women who provided important parts of the infrastructure.


The student continued with her first example of similarities to today: “The female body as an object of war propaganda.” Beginning in 2005, the Department of Defense (DoD) created a series of videos similar to those pioneered in my book. A phenomenally successful 10-minute play, The Parting Lovers later called “Nancy,” opened in 1739 at the beginning of the War of Jenkins Ear, the war in declared after the appearance before Parliament of the captain with his ear in a bottle, allegedly cut off by the Spanish. It played on the London stage and all over the country for the rest of the century. The author, Henry Carey, was inspired by seeing “a young Fellow hurried away by a Press-Gang, and follow’d by his Sweet-heart; a very pretty Wench, and perfectly neat, tho’ plain in her Dress; her Tears, her Distress, and moving Softness, drew Attention and Compassion from all who beheld her.”


Wars demand rapid, often drastic recruiting. Women like Nancy when faced with quotas for each county and the cancellation of deferments for merchant seamen, dockworkers, and many others, greeted recruiting “gangs” by throwing bottles, rocks, and chunks of coal. Naval impressment was one of the causes of the Revolutionary War. Students resisted the draft and were killed in demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Plays like Nancy were employed in large numbers to change the image of recruiters. Dread-naught, the head recruiter, becomes nicer to Nancy as the years pass and in a late century revision becomes an Admiral. Humanizing recruiters became the work of women in these and the DoD dramatizations. Dread-Nought names the nation’s enemy and the personal benefit: “Honour calls, he must obey;/ Love to Glory must give Way:/ Loaden with the Spoils of Spain,/ Triumphant he’ll return again” (251). The reference is to the division of prize money after the capture of an enemy ship, one of the most common recruiting baits. One of the earliest DoD videos highlights a young man explaining to his mother that military service Is a good way to pay for college. 


The eighteenth-century plays scrupulously publicized the monetary benefits recruits received. Enlistment money rose and began to include money for wives or mothers. Today the Army is making much of offering up to $50,000 enlistment bonuses. For what we call “civilian acquired skills,” the U.S. offers up to $40,000, and England increased the same for blacksmiths, experienced dock workers, and even cooks. Some DoD videos include sons telling a parent that it is time they were on their own.


Few think of today’s military recruiting strategies as a legacy of eighteenth-century English
plays, but the employment of actresses, the targets of persuasion, and the appeals within them are.

(See news item Getting to Know Camp Followers).

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Paula R. Backscheider
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Paula R. Backscheider

Paula R. Backscheider is the Philpott-Stevens Eminent Scholar in the Department of English at Auburn University. She is the author of several books, including Daniel Defoe: His Life, Spectacular Politics: Theatrical Power and Mass Culture in Early Modern England, and Reflections on Biography, and editor of Revising Women: Eighteenth-Century "Women's Fiction" and Social Engagement.
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