Student or Soldier: Youth Take the Lead in Countering Recruitment

Kevin Ramirez and Steve Morse

2005 has been a pivotal year for counter-recruiters as the Army, Army National Guard, Army Reserve, Navy Reserve and Air National Guard all missed their recruiting goals by thousands, effectively bringing about the worst year in recruiting since 1979!

Last year also saw an explosion of interest and membership in the movement to end the war in Iraq, particularly among those most at risk of being recruited in that war: American youth aged 18-22. Despite the barrage of war-promoting video games, fashion, music, and pop culture aimed at youth, young adults can't ignore the daily news of their peers dying in war. This forces them to put themselves in their peers' combat boots and wonder, "would I ever sign up for this?" The growing answer among high school and college students seems to be a resounding 'NO"!

The strength of our movement last year was put to the test in many ways. Parents and other adults such as veterans, educators and activists have for years been working to demilitarize high schools; they organized Opt Out Week to distribute flyers about the No Child Left Behind Act (The No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's education law, contains a paragraph that requires school districts to make student contact information available to military recruiters unless the student or parent "opts out" in writing) and have directed pressure on school boards to adopt policies that restrict recruiting and advocate for more "truth" in recruiting. Policy changes at high schools regarding military recruiters are happening in states such as Maine, Maryland, Ohio. Likewise, the struggle to remove JROTC units from high schools has garnered more interest as the war in Iraq drags on, as more former JROTC cadets return home from Iraq in body bags, and more people begin to realize the direct link between JROTC and military recruitment.

On college campuses, the counter-recruitment efforts differ significantly from the high school model and center mainly around organizing actions and protests to recruiter visits to the school, ROTC recruitment and training, and organizing opposition to the military's discriminatory policy against homosexuals known as "don't ask, don't tell".

One of the largest and fastest growing counter-recruitment groups on college campuses today is the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN). They recently co-organized a very successful counter-recruitment regional conference in the San Francisco Bay Area, and were recently building relationships abroad at the International Peace Conference that took place in London, England.

CAN is largely responsible, all across the country, for organizing anti-war and counter-recruitment conferences and events, building chapters on college campuses, and picketing and protesting military recruiters at their schools. Recruiters have been forced to leave schools early, visits have been cancelled, sit-ins have been organized, with the end goal being to shut them down. This has become a tense subject among college administrators as highly visible and at-times confrontational protests have occurred and conflict among student counter- recruiters, military recruiters, and campus police continues to draw negative media attention to the school. These types of counter-recruitment actions are increasingly being viewed by the military, and by educational institutions, as potential "threats", and students are being threatened as a result. Luckily, as successful as CAN is in organizing protests, they are equally as effective at organizing support campaigns for students facing disciplinary actions by the school.

A similar effort taking place in the high schools is the group Youth Against War and Racism (YAWR), with several chapters in Washington State, Minnesota and Massachussetts. YAWR recently called for and organized a student walkout on November 2, culminating in thousands of high school and college students walking out of their classes to protest the war in Iraq at the nearest military recruitment center. With groups and actions like this, high school and college students are bulldozing their way to the forefront of the counter-recruitment movement. Countless stories in the media detail students leading protests at their schools against military recruitment for a needless war. March and April have also seen large numbers of students walking out of school all across the US to join huge demonstrations opposing repressive legislation against undocumented immigrants

Unfortunately, some of these actions have led to severe campus repression and police misconduct, landing some student counter-recruiters in hot water in places like Holyoke Community College (Massachusetts), Kent State University (Ohio) George Mason University and Hampton University (both in Virginia) among others. Fortunately, in each of these cases, students have vigorously organized protests and defense campaigns for those students singled out for retaliation.

As 2006 rolls along, we must kick it up another notch! The Army's pool of new recruits in the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) has dropped significantly and there are predictions that it will be even tougher to recruit young people. What we need to do is keep on pluggin' away, and not be discouraged, or afraid of just how effective this work is. Counter-recruitment information empowers people every day, so we must be patient and work in small steps. It's important that we utilize all tools at our disposal and embrace a diverse range of strategies. All anti-war and counter- recruitment groups must support each other and particularly students who have faced repression for their counter-recruitment activities. As recruiters continue to make promises and guarantees to young recruits about college money, job training, and traveling the world, there must continue to be a presence in the schools to make sure that students understand that the only real thing the military can guarantee you today is war. The choice has been presented: student or soldier. It's hopeful that more youth are deci- ding to be students, and not soldiers.

Note: ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) and JROTC are quite different programs.

ROTC gives college money to students who do a relatively small amount of military training during college and commit to four years of active duty as an officer.

JROTC (Junior ROTC) is a high school program that includes regular drills with uniforms and weapons on campus. It doesn't require a commitment to joining the military and purports to build character among youth, but the military privately acknowledges that it is a key aspect of military recruitment. JROTC, in contrast to ROTC, is focused on working class youth who rarely become officers. Each, however, is the main way that militarism is institutionalized in the respective educational institutions.