Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – left: author running. Right: author holding an automatic rifle.
All photos: Raymond van Mil

I Asked People Who Want to Join the Army: Why?

I went to an army recruitment event to find out why young people are still enlisting for war.
Tim Fraanje
Amsterdam, NL
Raymond van Mil
photos by Raymond van Mil

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

I’m a hedonist. If you ask me, dancing around in glittery outfits and drinking cocktails sounds more fun than hauling heavy equipment in dirty tactical clothes and eating canned food every day.


I've always thought it’d be best to let the world’s armies slowly die off, rather than replenish them with fresh blood every year. For a while, many people in Europe agreed with me. Governments began investing in diplomacy and de-prioritised the arms race, though the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked a new wave of appreciation for people willing to take up arms in camouflage uniforms.

In the Netherlands, my home country, there was a huge surge in applications to join the army at the beginning of the Ukraine war, although that has now levelled off. We already spend €13 billion a year on defence, but in early March, the Dutch government topped that budget off with an extra €10 billion to be used over the course of the next four years; mostly going towards increasing people’s salaries.

Still, that’s nothing in comparison with other European countries – the UK spends about €64 billion a year on its military, France €53 billion and Germany €52 billion. All in all, global defence spending has increased by 0.7 percent from 2020 to 2021, and that’s before the war in Ukraine even started.

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author, a blond man with long hair, wearing a black, mauve and beige 80s windbreaker and sunglasses, listening to a speech in a crowd of mostly young men.

People standing by at the army recruitment day.

I spoke with military historian Samuël Kruizinga from the University of Amsterdam to make sense of our changing attitudes towards the military. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a confusing time for the armed forces, as they had to do both peacekeeping missions and developmental peace missions,” he said. (For context: Peacekeeping missions involve deploying the military to keep two warring parties from fighting, while developmental peace missions focus on maintaining security while civilian and humanitarian organisations rebuild society.)

“It was difficult to determine exactly how these missions should be implemented, and how much money was needed for them,” Kruizinga said. “Now the army can go back to their core duty: to fight, or to prepare for combat to scare off a potential enemy.” On top of that, the ongoing war in Ukraine has clearly defined characters, at least from a Western perspective: Russia, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the underdog. “This is not about ‘winning hearts and minds’, like in Afghanistan,” Kruizinga continued. “We know we need to support the Ukrainians, because sending them weapons now might just make all the difference.”


Kruizinga helped me understand why people feel more motivated to support the military at the moment. But it also left me wondering what kind of people are currently enlisting. So I decided to attend a recruitment day in Fort 1881, a 19th century coastal defence fortress in the small Dutch town of Hoek van Holland. 

“We get the most bizarre questions, like ‘Where can I pick up my weapon and when can I go [to Ukraine]?,” said Manuel, a cheerful soldier who welcomed me at the entrance. “In reality, you cannot be deployed just like that – you need to go through an inspection process and at least six months of training. And the Dutch army isn’t even in Ukraine right now.”

On the day of the event, over 170 potential recruits turned up, standing at attention during the morning’s roll call. The afternoon’s schedule included: sports, an attack dog performance and an info session. But first we got lunch – bread with sausage, a currant bun and a carton of milk.

I asked Manuel if this is what soldiers eat all year round, but according to him, dinners on the field are far more lavish than one might expect. “You eat very well during deployment,” he said. “I went to Afghanistan as a Marine [as part of the Netherlands Marine Corps] and had lobster in the middle of the desert.”

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – A man in military uniform with a full beard, holding his fists up while speaking.

A sergeant giving a pep talk.

As we watched a man in a protective suit being jumped by an attack dog after lunch, I talked to Luna, a 19-year-old who’s interested in signing up because she believes it’ll help her push her own limits. “In the military, you do things you’d never think you could do or that a person could do in general,” she said. 

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – A man in a black protective suit being attacked by a big dog.

The attack dog.

Luna has already done a week-long bootcamp on the Dutch island of Texel. “It was very tough, but once you've done it, it makes you feel like a champion,” she said. “The group dynamic really appeals to me, and also you are doing something good for fellow human beings.” 

When I asked her if she would go to war in Ukraine, she replied that she likes the idea of being able to make a difference. “War is never fun,” she said, “But you go there anyway to give someone else their freedom back.”

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – the author (left) and luna, a girl with long red hear wearing a band tee and leggins smoking a cigarette in front of a parking lot.

The author and Luna (right) watch the attack dog demonstration

Then, it was time for some exercise. We were asked to run for 12 minutes straight, an activity which brought back some painful high school memories for me. Much to my own – and other soldiers' – surprise, I could easily keep up despite my dressy shoes – or “nice slippers”, as one of the soldiers called them. For a moment, I felt that champion buzz Luna was talking about – until I realised that running around during your actual deployment in full combat gear while juggling challenging weather conditions and the fear of getting shot is probably a lot harder.

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author, wearing a striped white shirt and beige shorts, running laps in a row with young men in athletic clothes.

The author running laps.

Moments later, I found myself on the ground, pointing the laser from a rifle scope onto the grass. The shooting instructor said soldiers are trained to mainly shoot at the ground first whilst in combat, to try to scare off the approaching enemy. If the enemy doesn't retreat, then shooting them is pretty much inevitable. 

The instructor himself has never been deployed in his four years of service due to an injury. Soon, though, he’ll go to Lithuania to strengthen NATO's borders. When I asked if he was afraid, he replied: “If you are a doubtful or fearful person, you are usually told that the military is not for you.”

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – the author lying on his belly, looking through the viewfinder of an automatic rifle stood on a tripod on the ground.

The author with an automatic rifle.

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – A close-up of the previous shot.

After that, I met Marjolein, 23, who has previously worked in children's day care and is now a dental assistant. She said she wants to join the military because she likes to be “energetic” and because of the many career opportunities on offer. Ideally, she would like to be the Netherlands Marine Corps. 

Marjolein said she knows there are downsides to being in the army, but she is prepared to kill if necessary. “It's not the nicest thing, but you're not just recklessly shooting people,” she said. “I think that makes a big difference."

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – three young women posing in casual clothes in front of a tank.

Marjolein (left), posing with two other participants.

Unlike Marjolein, Esther, whom I ran into later on in the day, did not like the idea of having to shoot guns. “Other people can do that,” she said. “Let me tinker with the machines.” Esther, who is currently a service engineer at her father's company, is hoping for a technical position that will involve working on tanks, helicopters and aeroplanes. 

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – young woman with long brown hair and glasses, posing in front of a red and blue flag.


I also met two people who are already in the army: two reserve soldiers who were slumped in chairs, smoking cigarettes in the sun. Their job today was to enrol new recruits. They told me that they’ll only be summoned to war if a NATO country is attacked, “but then it's all over anyway”, one of them said.

The other reservist, Milo, is a self-described “huge pacifist”, an odd statement given that he enlisted voluntarily. Milo, who joined the Dutch Marines in the 90s and then left for a career in IT, said he later became a reserve soldier to be able to exercise some influence inside the organisation. 

“If I don't agree with something, I sometimes send an email to the commanders of the army,” Milo said, adding by way of example that he told his superiors he disagreed with sending bombers to Syria. His words fell on deaf ears, but his goal is to at least be a thorn in the side of this hierarchical organisation. “I often get an email back that starts with, ‘Good question’,” he said.

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – the author and other young men listening to a soldier giving out instructions.

The day ended with some drinks and the chance to enlist, which I passed on. I finally had some clarity as to why people join the army: Some people just thrive in this environment, and there’s the added bonus of accessing solid career opportunities in these times of job insecurity and expensive housing. Unfortunately for me and for beauty pageant contestants all over the globe, world peace is still a far-off dream for now.


Scroll down to see more pictures:

Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author doing crunches on the grass.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author and a group of young people lined up in a row, playing with different objects including some balls.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author doing push ups on a grassy field together with some other young men and women.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author posing with the tank and a yellow flower.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author doing squats on a grassy field as instructed by another soldier.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author and other young people standing in a row.
Army recruitment, Fort 1881 – The author and other young people performing a group exercise with a long stick.