In 2006, I was riding in a friend’s car down a major thoroughfare in the town in which we lived. We had grown up down the street from each other, had both entered the Army, and had recently ended up as roommates. On this day, a large group of protestors had gathered in the parking lot of a large grocery store near a major intersection. The messages on their placards enraged my friend, who had served in Kuwait, and she rolled down her window to engage in a less-than-friendly conversation with the protestors. One sign in particular grabbed my attention because it stated that soldiers should come home where they belonged, and not be off fighting in a war. What on earth do they think soldiers do? I wondered. War is what we train for, it’s why we spend weeks on end at the range perfecting our marksmanship skills, it’s why we study land navigation and push ourselves to our physical limits during training. It’s not what we want to do, but it’s what we are prepared to do on behalf of our country. How could they say they support soldiers without an awareness of what soldiers do?
I had forgotten about this memory until I began working on a topic for a DBQ project. Initially, I was interested in exploring the theme: What is American manhood? However, after spending time sharing ideas with my fellow classmates, I honed in on a slightly more specific theme to explore: Who is the American soldier? Some of the related questions that came to mind were:
- How are soldiers expected to behave?
- How are soldiers viewed (public perception) and treated?
- How has race changed the makeup of the American military force?
- How has gender changed the makeup of the American military force?
- How do socioeconomics relate to the composition of the American fighting force?
As a veteran of the United States Army Reserve, I believe I am uniquely qualified to address this line of questioning. I am well versed in military jargon and familiar with the structure of Field Manuals and other TRADOC (training and doctrine) materials. I am neither embittered or in love with the U.S. military. I also remember many of the early sources of my own information on what it means to be an American soldier. It is an image created from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues, and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. It is an idea informed by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square and John Filo’s photographs of Ohio National Guard troops firing on student protestors at Kent State. It is a picture that first formed after watching an Army advertisement on television as a small child, when I misheard the lyrics, and thought that the happy faces of young soldiers were being accompanied by a song that said “be all that you can be, you can lose your life in the Army,” and wondering if the soldiers in the ad knew what lie in store for them.
As I begin assembling this project, I don’t have an established answer in mind. My plan is to follow the documents to see where they lead. Thus far, I have found a wealth of sources related to popular culture, in the form of movies, songs, articles in Time magazine, and Disney and Looney Toons animated cartoons. I plan to explore political cartoons, newsreels, speeches, and newspaper articles. I have not set a specific time frame, but there is such a plethora of documentation for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that it may be extraneous to include the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, and the Spanish-American War.