This book was inspired by a TV commercial. In early 1999, the U.S. Air Force was gearing up for Operation Allied Force. The United States had warned Serb leader Slobodan Milosević that if ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians didn’t cease, his military would be bombed by NATO forces. While serving Air Force pilots were on the verge of combat, American television stations began showing a recruiting commercial for the Air Force. Facing recruiting shortfalls, the Air Force was paying for television airtime for the first time in its history. The ad’s focus on personal growth and fulfillment—young people were asking themselves what or who they wanted to be—was entirely disconnected from the impending military action by the Air Force. The commercial’s portrayals also seemed far removed from the traditional masculine ideal of the warrior. The strong, heroic fighters of a World War II-era recruiting poster wouldn’t recognize the kids in the Air Force commercial as brothers in arms. In the preceding decades, the U.S. military lost a war, Congress abolished the draft, Americans stopped thinking of military service as an obligation of male citizenship, and gender had become a contentious issue for the armed forces. In this context, the military branches have struggled with the question of how to depict themselves to convince potential recruits to enlist.
Military service has strong historical ties to masculinity and the transformation of boys into men. In the early 1970s, in the period when the U.S. military was making the transition to an all-volunteer force (AVF), masculinity was widely considered to be in crisis. Key elements of this crisis included the challenges to men’s roles and male privileges by the women’s movement; the loss of good-paying, blue-collar industrial jobs that gave working-class men status, economic independence, and the ability to support a family; and the loss of the Vietnam War. So, at the very moment when the military needed to begin finding ways to entice young people, and mainly young men, into military service, a key