I’m sure Iraq is full of a bunch of nice people, but should my son die for them? That’s the conflict I have.
— Bobby’s father
“I don’t have a pitch,” says Staff Sergeant Clay Usie. “I go out and look for patriots. I look for those young men and women that want to serve.” The sergeant’s search, of course, has become more difficult in recent years. Stationed in Houma, Louisiana, he spends much of his time at high schools, telling graduates to be about the financial and social benefits of signing up. Not only will the government help with education costs, he says, but time spent in the military builds character. “We’re gonna establish some goals for you,” he promises one student. “It’s your life after graduation, you’re in the driver’s seat, you gotta take the bull by the horns.”
The pitch — and it plainly is a pitch — comes a few short minutes into Edet Belzberg’s The Recruiter (formerly An American Soldier, and airing as part of HBO’s summer documentary series). While Usie’s success suggests that his use of such clichés works, it’s hard not to feel discomfited as he leans toward his listener. “Elvis Presley, Axel Rose, and Dave Thomas,” he lists. “What do they have in common?” the young man pauses, then notes they are all famous. Usie doesn’t miss a beat. Besides that, he explains patiently, “United States Army.”
If he’s convincing face to face, Usie, like his fellow recruiters, endures his share of hang-ups during phone calls. “Every time you get on the phone,” he says, “There’s two sales being made. Someone’s selling you on why they don’t want do it and you’re selling ’em on why they should do it.” It appears, in the four relationships with recruits he develops during the course of this film, that he takes his job very seriously.
For 18-year-old Matt, Usie fills in for a dad who left years before, encouraging the boy to believe in himself, going so far as to give him a St, Michael’s medallion, patron saint of the paratrooper. Here the medallion is passed from one hand to another in the foreground, while Matt’s little sister’s face hovers, the next plane back, watchful and wide-eyed as her brother heads off to basic training in South Carolina. (Usie again plays paternal at Matt’s wedding, entertaining guests with bloody deer hunting stories.)
Though Usie doesn’t offer advice to 17-year-old Lauren as to how to keep closeted in the Army, she has her own reasons for signing up. An independent-minded basketball player who admits she’s “scared” of what enlisting now entails (specifically, deployment to a war zone), she sees her choice this way: “In order for me to reach my goals, I’m going to have to go through somewhere.” It appears that at least one of those goals is escaping Houma and her mother’s judgment (“It’s going to be nice to see you in army clothes,” her mom says while Lauren rolls her eyes, “Because then I’m gonna know you look decent”).
Usie himself was recruited out of Houma, and sees his return to the town as a meaningful circle. When he was first assigned to recruit there, he says, he felt guilty about leaving behind buddies who were redeployed in Afghanistan (“I had buddies that rode from one dance to the next, and here I was in an air-conditioned room”). Soon he came to see his work as a recruiter in relation to his fellow warriors: “I need to send them guys and gals out there that are willing to defend their country,” he asserts.
Though Usie remains determinedly enthusiastic about what he does, another recruiter, Hall, is visibly frustrated when a first sergeant reminds him of his lagging numbers. At home in his apartment, surrounded by his dogs, Hall sighs. “The majority of my time in Iraq was spent doing raids patrols and security,” he remembers, cryptically. “And I personally saw people hurt, and it was a life-changing experience. I don’t like talking about stuff that I saw in Iraq.”
Usie doesn’t talk specifically about what he saw in country, though he does repeat the abstractions, emphasizing for one worried recruit that he’s entering into an “organization that will never leave you behind.” Usie’s wife Tammy supports him whole-heartedly (until his schedule impinges one time too many on plans with their kids). Still, Usie’s self-confidence takes occasional hits. Visibly deflated when a room full of parents looking for college financial aid options all but clears out when he stands to speak, he sighs, “I’m good at this, but I’m sick and tired of recruiting. I think we should have some type of federally mandated service.” Not a draft, he insists, but a more general expectation that young people contribute to the nation he loves. The film’s repeated shots of Houma’s depressed neighborhoods indicate why so many kids sign up: they’re looking for ways to go to college and support families. Their career options are obviously limited.
This is underscored when Bobby decides to enlist. His father, a war veteran, is apprehensive. “I think he sees the Army as, in part, an adventure,” he tells the interviewer. “Old men start wars that young men fight,” he adds, his voice choking. “That’s what I’m going to be thinking when I drive him to the airport.” During basic and then again when he makes it to Special Forces training, Bobby gains self-confidence. “I’ve seen a lot of guys drop out,” he says during his advanced training. A harp on the soundtrack suggests his own sense of devotion to his new life. “I like it here a lot, this is almost like home to me now. It’s starting to get that way.”
During basic and Bobby’s extra training, The Recruiter loses sight of Usie, focusing on how his recruits fare inside the military. As Lauren observes, unhappily, the experience is not what she expected. “My mom don’t think I know about reality,” she says. But in her own mind, reality involves a sense of place. “You get to go home, you don’t go back to a barracks. The barracks ain’t nobody’s home.” Except, perhaps, those who more fully believe Usie’s pitch.