Why We Still Need a Movement to Keep Youth From Joining the Military

A scrappy counter-recruitment movement is trying to starve the military of labor.

Elizabeth King June 27, 2019

Marine recruiter Gunnery Sergeant Brian Bensen poses in front of his office at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center on May 9, 2007 in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania (Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

­Eigh­teen is the youngest age at which some­one can join the U.S. mil­i­tary with­out their par­ents’ per­mis­sion, yet the mil­i­tary mar­kets itself to — which is to say recruits — chil­dren at much younger ages. This is in part accom­plished by mil­i­tary recruiters who vis­it high schools around the coun­try, recruit­ing chil­dren dur­ing career fairs and often set­ting up recruit­ment tables in cafeteri­as and hall­ways. As a result, most stu­dents in the U.S. will meet a mil­i­tary recruiter for the first time at just 17 years old, and chil­dren are get­ting exposed to mil­i­tary pro­pa­gan­da younger and younger.

Out of the spotlight, dedicated counter-recruiters around the country are steadfast in their organizing to cut off the human supply chain to the U.S. military.

The recruit­ment of young peo­ple to the mil­i­tary is as old as the mil­i­tary itself, and has become more and more nor­mal­ized along with the gen­er­al mil­i­ta­riza­tion of schools. Accord­ing to the Urban Insti­tute, more than two-thirds of pub­lic high school stu­dents attend schools where there are school resource offi­cers,” a name for school-based police. This police pres­ences comes on top of the role of mil­i­tary recruiters on cam­pus­es, or at col­lege and career fairs. 

Counter-recruit­ment surged in pop­u­lar­i­ty dur­ing George W. Bush’s Iraq War, when the U.S. mil­i­tary ratch­eted up recruit­ment for the war. But these days you don’t hear much about this move­ment, despite the fact that the U.S. is still engaged in bru­tal wars, from Yemen to Afghanistan, and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been threat­en­ing war with Iran. Out of the spot­light, ded­i­cat­ed counter-recruiters around the coun­try are stead­fast in their orga­niz­ing to cut off the human sup­ply chain to the U.S. mil­i­tary. U.S. wars have caused innu­mer­able deaths, cre­at­ed long-term hard­ships in occu­pied nations, and cost tril­lions of dol­lars. Counter-recruit­ment, then, is about starv­ing the mil­i­tary of the labor it needs to accom­plish these destruc­tive mis­sions. When work­ing with stu­dents, par­ents and school lead­er­ship, counter-recruiters focus on a vari­ety of issues, includ­ing the neg­a­tive per­son­al con­se­quences that come with being a sol­dier and broad­er prob­lems like racism and U.S. imperialism.

Kate Con­nell, the direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia counter-recruit­ment orga­ni­za­tion Truth in Recruit­ment, a par­ent, and a Quak­er, tells In These Times that one rea­son counter-recruit­ment efforts are so over­looked these days is that U.S. casu­al­ties in Iraq and Afghanistan have fall­en out of the news. I think that’s kind of what got peo­ple con­cerned and out in the streets” in the past, she says. Though this move­ment doesn’t get as much atten­tion these days, orga­niz­ers and activists say that counter-recruit­ment efforts remain crit­i­cal­ly important.

For the most part, activists who do counter-recruit­ment work in schools focus on match­ing or exceed­ing mil­i­tary recruiters in face-time with kids. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, mil­i­tary recruiters are required to have the same lev­el of access to stu­dents as col­lege and career pro­fes­sion­als who recruit in schools.

Hart Viges, a U.S. Army vet­er­an who has been vol­un­teer­ing in counter-recruit­ment for around a decade and works with Sus­tain­able Options for Youth-Austin (SOY-Austin), says his role is to edu­cate chil­dren using inter­ac­tive tabling in schools. The group brings t‑shirts and a peace wheel” the stu­dents can spin to learn more facts about the mil­i­tary. Chil­dren also get to dis­cuss how they’d like tax­pay­er dol­lars spent. For exam­ple, they might dis­cuss whether they want to spend bil­lions on war, or allo­cate that mon­ey else­where. Viges is blunt with them about what life will be like after time spent in the military.

I ask them, Do you like fire­works?’” Viges says. When they respond yes, he explains, you won’t like them any­more” after com­ing back from a war. He tells them the real­i­ties of liv­ing with post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der brought about by com­bat, and how it does last­ing dam­age to vet­er­ans. Being real with chil­dren about the mil­i­tary has proven effec­tive for Viges. There’s so many wins in counter recruit­ment I feel,” he adds. I talk to kids who are think­ing about join­ing and I tell them the real­i­ties of it, and you can see their minds start to change… With politi­cians it’s like a stale­mate, but counter-recruit­ment is like a punch in the gut that will top­ple the mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex.” Hart also talks to chil­dren about oth­er issues con­nect­ed to the mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex that con­cerns them, such as war in gen­er­al, racism, sex­ism and cli­mate change.

Youth are active in this work, too. Jen­ny, a 16-year-old incom­ing junior at San­ta Maria High School in Cal­i­for­nia, interns with Truth in Recruit­ment. She tells In These Times that she got involved with the orga­ni­za­tion after a friend told her it would be a good way to stand up for her­self and her peers who are fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed by mil­i­tary recruiters at school.

When she start­ed high school, Jen­ny says she noticed that the mil­i­tary recruiters fre­quent­ed her school, but oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents post-high school were not well rep­re­sent­ed. I thought this was a prob­lem, espe­cial­ly since the major­i­ty of us are stu­dents of col­or and I thought that we were being dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get­ed because we are peo­ple of col­or,” she says.

Angel fur­ther notes that many stu­dents at her school are undoc­u­ment­ed, and she noticed that mil­i­tary recruiters were telling her peers dis­tort­ed infor­ma­tion about the ben­e­fits of mil­i­tary ser­vice based on their undoc­u­ment­ed sta­tus. She says that after speak­ing to mil­i­tary recruiters, a num­ber of her peers have said that they were promised they would get U.S. cit­i­zen­ship if they served in the mil­i­tary. While there is some path­way for non-cit­i­zens who serve in the mil­i­tary to become nat­u­ral­ized, this is not a guar­an­teed ben­e­fit. In fact, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has a his­to­ry of deport­ing for­eign nation­als who were employed by the mil­i­tary. I always have to cor­rect them because I don’t want them to join and not know the full truth about it,” Angel says. We would­n’t be see­ing these things at schools rich, white stu­dents attend.”

The mil­i­tary does, in fact, tend to recruit in poor and work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly among Black and Lat­inx youth. The strat­e­gy of tar­get­ing poor, work­ing-class, and Black and Lat­inx peo­ple for mil­i­tary con­scrip­tion is known as the pover­ty draft.” The tac­tics of this strat­e­gy can be seen in mil­i­tary recruit­ment efforts at schools like San­ta Maria High School where Angel attends, and is evi­dent in stud­ies on the socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus of peo­ple who fought in recent US wars. Accord­ing to a 2016 study out of Boston Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Law School, Today, unlike in World War II, the Amer­i­cans who die or are wound­ed in war are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly com­ing from poor­er parts of the country.”

Con­nell, the Truth in Recruit­ment direc­tor, says that the tac­tics used by mil­i­tary recruiters on chil­dren are very much a groom­ing process.” She notes that branch­es of the mil­i­tary oper­ate social media accounts, where they will fol­low and com­mu­ni­cate with stu­dents who are poten­tial­ly inter­est­ed in join­ing up. In this way, recruiters have direct, unsu­per­vised access to young teens, who may or not be dis­cussing recruit­ment efforts with trust­ed adults in their lives. This type of behav­ior, Con­nell says, is inap­pro­pri­ate.”

Still, the pres­ence of the mil­i­tary in schools has become nor­mal­ized. I feel that the idea that the mil­i­tary is an untouch­able sub­ject as far as crit­i­cism or cut­ting the bud­get, [makes counter-recruit­ment] a real­ly tricky con­ver­sa­tion to have, so peo­ple avoid it.” The insti­tu­tion­al pow­er and not to men­tion fund­ing and broad sup­port that the mil­i­tary has makes counter-recruit­ment a challenge.

But the group has seen con­crete results from their orga­niz­ing and advo­ca­cy. Work­ing with stu­dents, par­ents, and school and dis­trict lead­er­ship in San­ta Bar­bara in 2014, Truth in Recruit­ment was able to con­vince the dis­trict to cre­ate bet­ter resources for par­ents to more eas­i­ly opt their stu­dents out of hav­ing their infor­ma­tion shared with mil­i­tary recruiters.

Though counter-recruit­ment is per­haps not as promi­nent as it was more than a decade ago, orga­niz­ers in this field are unequiv­o­cal about the need to sup­port stu­dents by offer­ing alter­na­tives to the mil­i­tary, such as col­lege or the work­force. As the mil­i­tary con­tin­ues to tar­get chil­dren, espe­cial­ly in low-income and Black and Lat­inx com­mu­ni­ties, counter-recruiters will con­tin­ue to work with chil­dren and their care-tak­ers to offer safer, more dig­ni­fied options for life after high school.

Eliz­a­beth King is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist in Chicago.
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