The Militarization of American Youth
Across the country, the U.S. military is failing to meet its recruitment goals. To address this problem, the Pentagon has been rapidly expanding its programs designed to entice young people to enlist. It is now spending $3.4 billion dollars annually, an average of $14,000 per new recruit. Using flashy marketing campaigns, television spots, and even developing its own videogames, the Army is bombarding young people with images that glorify guns and violence. Recruiters use elaborate PR strategies: they set up shop at malls, movie theaters, sporting events, and concerts, and they cruise around town in decked-out Humvees that blast music popular among teenagers.
The military presence in our nation’s public schools is growing at an alarming rate. Educational institutions in working-class areas are prime targets of military recruiters, who particularly stalk the corridors of vocational schools. The military considers students to be easy targets who can be manipulated into signing up by promising them career training, money for college, free travel, and adventure. Recruiters are PR experts; like drug dealers and tobacco company representatives, they market a dangerous product with side effects they don’t want their potential customers to know about.
While recruiters tell students that they can receive $70,000 for college through the Montgomery GI Bill, the average payout to veterans is only $2,151. To be eligible for educational benefits, soldiers must commit to serving three years on active duty and must also pay a nonrefundable “deposit” to the military of $100 a month for a year. Considering that only 43% of the soldiers who sign up for the program receive any money, the majority who seek financial assistance through the GI Bill actually end up paying the military $1,200 and get nothing in return. And a soldier who does get the average payment of $2,151 actually receives only $951 beyond his or her own contribution. Only 15% of all recruits graduate with a four-year degree.
The skills learned in the military are often nontransferable to civilian employment, and many people find themselves in need of retraining after leaving the armed services. Veterans in the 20-34 age bracket have a higher unemployment rate than non-veterans and those who are employed typically earn 12% to 15% less. Most people would be surprised to learn that veterans make up one-third of all homeless people and half of all homeless men. While in the military, 65% of enlistees state that they are not satisfied with their current jobs.
There is a variety of other less-than-flattering statistics about the military that recruiters fail to mention. People of color represent 1/3 of all enlisted personnel but only 1/8 of the officers. Nearly 90% of women in the military report being sexually harassed, and 1/3 report being raped. In addition to the more than 3,500 US men and women who have died in the current war in Iraq, tens of thousands have been wounded and are returning home with traumatic brain injuries, loss of limbs, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other serious illnesses related to exposure to the depleted uranium used in US munitions.
Recruiters are under enormous pressure to meet their quota of two recruits a month, which requires them to contact an average of 120 potential enlistees over that time. Since fewer than 10% of all recruits seek out military employment on their own, recruiters face the daunting task of finding the large majority of new military recruits. Thus it’s no surprise that a central recruiting tactic is a combination of deception and omission. One recruiter recently interviewed in The Boston Globe characterized his work: “You have to convince those little punks to do something…I figure if I can sell this, I can sell anything.” By the Army’s own count, there were 320 substantiated cases of what it calls recruitment improprieties in 2004, up from 199 in 1999, and 213 in 2002. The offenses varied from threats and coercion to false promises that applicants would not be sent to Iraq. The number of those investigated rose to 1,118 in 2004, or nearly one in five of all recruiters, up from 913 in 2002, or one in eight. A recruiter interviewed by the New York Times said it best, “The problem is that no one wants to join [and] we have to play fast and loose with the rules to get by.”
The military manual for the high school recruiters offers us a window into their strategies. It suggests that recruiters make themselves “indispensable” to schools and that, in addition to the wealth of student data currently given to recruiters by school administrations, recruiters should access informal sources of information such as school yearbooks. Also stating that it is “only natural for a potential enlistee to resist,” the manual suggests ways to turn aside objections and lists techniques for closing the deal, such as the Challenge Close. It advises that the Challenge Close works best with young men, and that “You must be careful how you use this one. You must be on friendly terms with your prospect, or this may backfire. When you find difficulty in closing, particularly when your prospect’s interest seems to be waning, challenge his ego by suggesting that basic training may be too difficult for him and he might not be able to pass it. Then, if he accepts your challenge, you will be a giant step closer to getting him to enlist.”
Despite the fact that the military is hazardous to young people’s education and their future careers—not to mention their lives—the No Child Left Behind Act makes it easier for the military to gain direct access to students. The Act contains a little known provision that threatens to take away federal funding if a school refuses to hand over to the Military personal information about its students, including names, addresses, and telephone numbers. Before the law went into effect, 1/3 of all high schools in the country felt it inappropriate to give out this information to recruiters. The law now coerces schools into giving the military unimpeded access. By law, parents may request that information about their child be kept private, yet there is no system in place that informs parents or students of these rights, so many remain unaware.
The Pentagon also gets information about students through administering its Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB). This test is offered to schools free of charge, and while it is marketed as a way to help students choose between a variety of military and civilian careers, the test is primarily designed to assess a person’s military qualifications. When a student takes the exam, their contact information and test scores are automatically sent to recruiters, who may use the information as they see fit.
JROTC AND TEEN SOLDIERS
Another major way in which the military attracts young people is through the Junior Reserves Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program, which the Pentagon has been enthusiastically expanding since early 1990s. There are currently 500,000 students, aged 14 and over, enrolled in JROTC programs throughout the country. The JROTC claims that its goal is “to motivate young people to be better citizens” by “teaching high school students the value of citizenship, leadership, service to the community, personal responsibility,and a sense of accomplishment, while instilling in them self-esteem, teamwork, and self-discipline.” In the program, teenagers are taught military-style drills and are given military-style discipline. All JROTC recruits drill with weapons and study military history, and 90% of them are trained to use guns. The US Army insists that the JROTC is not a recruiting tool or public relations ploy designed to give the military a better face, yet half of all JROTC graduates join the military. Of these, only one-third enter a higher education program. William Cohen, Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, bluntly told Congress in February 2000 that the JROTC is “one of the best recruiting devices we could have.”
The government initially set up JROTC as an elective high school class. However, many schools have begun to enroll students in the program automatically. Federal law mandates that at least 100 students or 10% of the student body must be enrolled in each JROTC unit in order to maintain the program in a school. Thus, school administrators can feel pressured to bend, if not break, the rules regarding the voluntary nature of the program by making it difficult for students to find alternative courses. A JROTC unit costs a school an average of $75,000, which drains resources from other school activities and vital programs.
School administrators often think of JROTC as a good alternative for students who do not excel at academics or who have behavioral problems, but the JROTC track record at helping at-risk youth is far from perfect. Since 1990, there have been numerous violent incidents involving JROTC recruits. Murders, gang activity, sexual assaults, and violent hazing have been linked JROTC instructors, members, and graduates. Rather than teaching students about peaceful alternatives, the JROTC promotes violence by teaching students to use guns and to take part in mindless drills that train them to follow orders without hesitation and without thought.
n response to the growing military presence in schools throughout the country, counter-recruitment efforts have also been growing. In 1986, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, schools creating a forum for proponents of the military must also provide equal access for those with opposing points of view. Counter recruitment programs help students understand the real implications of military service and educate them about alternatives to military enlistment and ways to get out once already signed up.
The majority of young people who join the military enlist through the Delayed Entry Program (DEP), which allows them up to a year before they must report for active duty training. Many of these recruits are unaware that they have the option of leaving the military during the time period before training begins. All they need to do is write a letter requesting separation that fully explains the reasons why the recruit is unable or unwilling to serve. While the military defines specific separation categories, almost any reason is acceptable so long as the recruit states clearly that he or she is no longer interested in serving in the military.
Fight the Draft
To reduce the chances of being selected during a draft, there are a couple things young people can do. When turning 18, all males are supposed to register with the Selective Service and join the draft-ready pool of their peers. However, they can actually wait until their 26th birthday before registering. While federal Government threatens a fine of $250,000 and a maximum of five years in prison for those who don’t register, there are no known recent cases of this being imposed. State penalties vary and include denial of admittance to public colleges and universities, denial of state employment and denial of student financial aid. States are also beginning to link drivers’ licenses to selective service registration.
When filling out the selective service form, the registrant has the option of registering as a conscientious objector (CO). A CO writes that he is totally opposed to war and cannot conceive of any situation where he would be willing or able to take the life of another human. This statement can be written on the margins of the selective service form and/or in a separate letter. He should make a copy for his records, place it in a sealed envelope, mail it to himself, and keep it, along with additional personal documentation that shows he is against war (for example, journal entries, articles, letters, poems, and the like).
In addition to having a complete understanding of the disparities between what recruiters say about military service and the reality, young people are advised to take some precautionary steps when meeting with recruiters. They should take along a family member and/or a trusted ally as a witness and advocate and have them read over the enlistment agreement. Potential recruits should always ask questions about parts of the agreement they don’t understand and should keep a copy for their records. They should be truthful about their police records and medical conditions and not allow recruiters to falsify documents on their behalf. They should know that everything about their service contract is negotiable but that the military can override any contract in a time of crisis (as is the case with Stop Loss orders). Enlistees should also be aware that spoken promises are worthless and should require the recruiter to put all of his or her promises in writing.
Militarism in our schools is an issue of serious and growing importance. Using a variety of clever tricks and persuasive tactics, the Pentagon takes advantage of our nation’s youth, especially the underprivileged, by marketing dead-end military jobs. With its vast budget and immense political power, the military is trying to sell itself as a cure for our country’s social and economic problems, even in the face of considerable evidence showing that a military career can cut short a student’s education and make it even harder to find a productive livelihood. Despite its best efforts, however, military recruitment rates continue to decline. This testifies to the fact that the real implications of military service are slowly gaining widespread attention and that counter-recruitment campaigns are succeeding. As the antiwar movement and all people concerned about the welfare of our nation’s youth continue to expose the military’s lies about enlistment, it will become more and more difficult for the Pentagon to continue fighting its wars abroad and to mislead and misuse the country’s young citizens at home.