“Back when we started, recruiters were just blatantly lying to the kids,” said Susan Quinlan, the co-founder and volunteer coordinator of the peace and justice group, Better Alternatives for Youth–Peace (BAY-Peace). For 12 years, she’s been bringing teams of youth into Oakland, California, schools to inform students about deceptive military recruiting practices. In that time, she has seen the recruitment climate in schools change drastically — and not necessarily for the better.
“It used to be that recruiters would make promises to the kids that were patently untrue, like offering benefits that wouldn’t materialize, for example, so our job was to go in and say, ‘No, that’s not true,'” Quinlan said. Then over the years, as the wars grew increasingly unpopular and recruitment dropped, the military beefed up the benefits and incentives to more closely match its promises. Many student activists saw that as a victory, she said, and as a result, the work lost urgency.
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“The recruiters are still being dishonest,” she said, “but it’s become less obvious. And they haven’t gone away. Now, recruitment is back up where it was before we started, and we’re losing our funding.”
Divestment from Truth
Rick Jahnkow remembers a time when the military did not have any official presence in schools. But in 1973, the draft ended, the “all-volunteer” force began, and a new era of military recruitment strode through American classroom doors. Right behind it, hustling to keep up, came the counter-recruitment movement. Nearly 50 years later, the race to reach the youth has become a marathon, and the Department of Defense has continuously stepped up its game.
“Since the end of conscription, military recruiting began to evolve based on the assumption that they couldn’t open up a tap and have bodies come pouring out anymore,” said Jahnkow, a former activist in the Vietnam War-era draft-resistance movement and current program coordinator of the San Diego-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO). “Recruitment had marketing and strategists,” he explained. “That was how it evolved. As a response, counter-recruitment evolved as well.”
Evolution doesn’t always mean progress, however. Although activists keep moving toward the goal of bringing transparency to the military’s messaging, the once-thriving movement’s pace has slowed to a crawl. With funding and public involvement in a lull, the question haunting the minds of counter-recruiters like Quinlan and Jahnkow is, “What’s next?”
Perpetual War — Fighting and Recruitment
The two competing sides, military and counter-recruitment, are as closely matched in strength as a bull and a Corgi, but counter-recruiters still attempt to make up in grit, creativity and adaptability for what they lack in resources, numbers and establishment backing. They’ve avoided being entirely consumed by the military’s superior staying power in schools because the counter-recruitment movement is fueled by the one factor that reliably hinders recruitment — war.
“We now have a movement that’s distinguished itself as specifically counter-recruitment, and it has ebbed and flowed during active wartime,” said Seth Kershner, co-author of the 2015 book Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools. “When the war dies down, so does counter-recruitment. The big change in the movement now is that everyone doing full-time counter-recruitment is doing it on a volunteer basis. Since public interest in war has changed, funding has diminished.”
The United States has been actively waging two controversial wars for 15 years, but now even progressive support for counter-recruitment is drying up, Kershner said.
The movement has gone through cycles, Jahnkow said, and the current state of “perpetual war-fighting,” as he and Kershner both call it, has made Americans less sensitive to aggressive military recruitment tactics. Counter-recruiters have had to use several alternative strategies to communicate with youth, due to the unlimited resources and access to schools that military recruiters enjoy in this climate. As well as visiting high schools and talking with students about the realities of military service, counter-recruiters work diligently to promote non-military alternatives for students and to push legislation regulating the presence of recruiters on campuses.
In the decades since recruitment in schools began, the practice has grown considerably.
“This ‘new American militarism’ … is a response to the challenge of annually recruiting more than 240,000 new volunteers into the military,” Kershner said. “The result has been the pervasive penetration of the nation’s schools by military recruiters and a massive propaganda effort to shape public consciousness and culture.”
This appropriately named “pervasive penetration” takes many forms — not only does the military have a recruitment budget of over $1.4 billion, but federal policies like the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and its 2015 successor, the Every Child Succeeds Act, actually tie schools’ funding to a requirement to turn over students’ information to military recruiters unless parents specifically “opt out.” There’s also the massive Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, whose goal is to channel students into the military after graduation.
Fed up with having their privacy invaded and their curriculum militarized, students in Oakland, San Diego and Santa Barbara, California, have used both the hands-on and legislative approaches to counter-recruitment in an effort to keep the military out of their places of learning. Student activists in those cities successfully ousted JROTC from the Santa Barbara campus and won policy changes to restrict military access to students’ information and recruiters’ access to schools.
“The legislative approach takes longer, but victories are much easier to see,” Kershner said. “In Massachusetts, for example, a veteran and a high school student led a coalition to pass a state bill that regulates ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery] testing in schools. In New Hampshire, the ASVAB used to be mandatory, and now it isn’t. These legislative victories are important to see as progress — and motivation to keep working.”
Ideally, organizations would focus on high schools, but would also have the numbers and interest to work with middle and elementary schools, Kershner said. In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, he reported that the Department of Defense was administering more than a dozen different programs and spending close to $50 million on K–12 outreach, targeting students pursuing the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
“Twenty years ago, there was hardly anything that sophisticated,” Kershner said. “Now we have these programs, as well as the growth of military-style charter schools all over the country. It used to just be in Chicago, but now there are more like two dozen public schools putting students in uniforms every day.”
Despite (or perhaps, because of) the increased military presence in schools, he said counter-recruitment groups have had difficulty with their own access.
“It’s interesting to note that there is a legal precedent for counter-recruiters to have equal access … there are more and more groups that want to be involved in counter-recruiting, but they have great difficulty getting into schools,” Kershner said. “Districts will just reflexively refuse, but … by allowing recruiters in, schools are creating a public forum, and opposing views are allowed to be present.”
New responses to youth-targeted militarism are regularly being developed, Jahnkow said, often using technological advances to “present information in a distilled way.” From designing computer games in the 1980s to developing apps in the 2010s, he and his colleagues in the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY) are constantly tracking the best ways to inform students.
Students and Veterans as Powerful Voices
Throughout the decades, word-of-mouth has continued to be a crucial way to spread the word about the realities of recruitment, according to Jahnkow.
“If we stand near schools on the corner handing out leaflets to the kids, they’ll bring them into school and start talking about them with their friends,” he said. He believes the second most effective messengers for the counter-recruitment movement are students themselves, especially those supported by organizations like NNOMY, BAY-Peace or Project YANO, with whose help San Diego students effectively organized to rid their schools of the JROTC program.
But the most powerful voice is that of military veterans, Jahnkow emphasized. “Veterans expose contradictions,” he said. “When we get students to question what they’re told about the military, to think critically, we’re helping them to evolve.”
In Counter-Recruitment, Kershner interviews a veteran named Yvette, who “relishes the chance to talk with the military recruiters she meets in schools and to challenge the stories they tell students”:
She always introduces herself as a veteran when approaching a recruiter and takes care to be cordial, not confrontational. She shares the pamphlets … photocopied flyers with titles like Know Before You Go and What Every Girl Should Know About the U.S. Military. The response from recruiters varies wildly. “I’ve had lots of recruiters say, ‘Yeah, they need to know that information’,” [Yvette said.] “But then a lot of recruiters look at me like I’m the scum of the earth.”
This pushback from recruiters, as well as the need to relive painful experiences, can be “an occupational hazard of counter-recruitment” to veterans, who are already prone to post-traumatic stress that can be triggered by confrontations, Kershner said. “If you have war trauma, activism can be very draining.”
“In 2009, half of our conference attendees were youth activists,” he said. “Youth are not as interested now. Most of the people doing counter-recruitment are older folks, and they’ve reported difficulty relating to teens. They wish they had more youth and veterans to work with.”
June Brumer is one of the “older folks” who has been counter-recruiting for decades, first as a member of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and currently with Grandmothers Against War. Based in Oakland, she’s been visiting classrooms and career fairs with veterans since the 1990s. As grandmothers, it’s not too difficult for members of her group to get into schools (“white hair is helpful,” she smiled), but it’s not the grandmothers who capture the students’ attention.
“The veteran who speaks to the kids makes the biggest impact,” she said. “The kids want to hear about the veterans’ experience, and they want to ask questions … although over the years, the kids’ reaction has changed to ‘What war?'”
But these days, Brumer said, it’s hard to find enough veterans to participate.
Even veterans committed to the cause are often unable to keep up the work, Kershner said. Ever since the so-called “end” of the Iraq war (in quotes because there are still around 3,600 U.S. troops in Iraq on any given day), he said both veteran and youth interest in counter-recruitment has dropped.
Hart Viges, an Iraq veteran in Austin, Texas, spends many of his days talking with high school students about his military experience. He has been doing counter-recruitment work for nearly 10 years and sees it as a major part of the long-term struggle against militarism. He finds the work he does with the direct-outreach group Sustainable Options for Youth to be healing, if also exhausting.
“To me, every action is significant,” he said. “It’s the slow grind to the long game. Every time I leave a school, there is a feeling of accomplishment that replenishes the soul.”
“Plant a Seed, Sow a Harvest”
It’s the long game that matters, Jahnkow believes.
“When it comes to planning and strategy, the military is all about that, and when we don’t do that, we shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “The movement does see the big picture, but until many more people who are actively involved in working on various issues pay attention to [long-term strategy], they’re going to keep having to put out fires.”
He added, “You might be concerned about Palestine, women’s right to choose, etc., but if seeds are being planted by the military at this point for people in elementary and high school, you’re going to keep having your movement depressed.”
The metaphor of planting seeds is a familiar one, Kershner said. “‘Plant a seed, sow a harvest’ — this is recruiters’ language. Counter-recruiters need to be using this language, too.” To be most effective, he said, activists should work with teachers’ unions, as individual control over their curriculum is being lost to the Department of Defense and JROTC programs.
The movement also needs to be training the next generation of activists, Kershner asserted. “Veterans, especially members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, can help by sharing their recruitment stories,” he said. “Counter-recruiters can reach out to educators’ journals and conferences.”
He suggested Americans should be concerned about the privacy violations schools flirt with when they mandate ASVAB testing and release of students’ scores to recruiters, noting that privacy “isn’t just a left-wing issue.”
“People aren’t aware that recruiters can wander around schools at all times,” he said. “No other group has that kind of access, not even college recruiters. And there are documented cases of sexual assault by military recruiters. It really underlines the need for more regulation.”
With the military firmly implanted within the educational system, the future looks like a bumpy one for the counter-recruitment movement, unless organizations like BAY-Peace and are able to find funding and volunteers to continue their work. There’s literature to be researched and printed, classrooms to visit, career fairs to attend, school boards and city councils to petition — all this requires more time, energy and money.
However, counter-recruitment activists aren’t giving up anytime soon. Brumer, who’s now in her sixth decade of organizing for peace, has some advice for those who are interested in getting involved.
“Bring it down to you, what you can do,” she said. “There’s a saying in the Talmud: ‘If you save one life, you save the world.’ So I feel like if I keep one kid out of the military, I’ve done my job.”