Monday, October 19, 2009

Militarism in Schools

By: Seth Kershner

A Pentagon stretched to the limit by more than eight years of war is finally enjoying an improved military recruitment climate, helped in part by the current recession. All branches of the military, active and reserve, exceeded their recruiting goals for the 2008 fiscal year. According to a recent article in the Baton Rouge Advocate, the recruiting command of the Louisiana National Guard, second in the nation in the number of Guardsmen sent to serve in Iraq-Afghanistan, hasn't had it this easy since the surge of patriotism following September 11. Aside from demonstrating the twisted way military recruitment preys upon a poor economy, the Pentagon's success in attracting (mostly) young people to enlist also signals a solid endorsement of their sophisticated and often deceptive recruiting strategy.

Ever since the end of the draft in 1973, the Pentagon has viewed military recruiters' presence in schools as a key element in their recruiting strategy. That the U.S. Army School Recruiting Handbook goes so far as to instruct recruiters to “own the school” reflects one of the unspoken assumptions of military recruitment policy: schools are seen as factories for producing soldiers. Overly protective of their turf, the Pentagon has in the past tried to repress efforts to end its monopoly on school access. So it was that in the 1980s a group of peace activists sued to win access to Atlanta public schools. The U.S. Justice Department intervened and charged that military recruiters should have “preferred access” to schools for what they called “compelling” reasons of national defense. The Justice Department lost that case, supporting a legal precedent – known as “equal access” - for peace activists to counter the military viewpoint in schools.

Contemporary counter recruitment activists certainly have their work cut out for them. Annual Pentagon spending on military recruitment regularly exceeds $1 billion. While much of that money bankrolls a constant military recruiter presence in schools, a good deal also goes to building and buying access to databases of student information that recruiters can use to develop leads, make calls, and secure enlistments. In 2005, controversy erupted over the revelation that the Pentagon had been secretly collecting information on kids as young as 15. One expert on electronic privacy recently told Mother Jones magazine that the Pentagon likely violated the Privacy Act by keeping the program under wraps until advocacy groups finally forced its disclosure.

The sources of data on these young adults were state and federal government agencies, as well as data brokers, or businesses which collect information on certain demographic groups in order to sell the data to a third party. Despite their controversial past use of data brokers, the Pentagon continues to rely on their services. Journalist David Goodman, in the same Mother Jones article as cited above, notes that the Pentagon spends $600,000 a year to support its habit with data brokers like Student Marketing Group. Does anyone at the Pentagon care that SMG has been sued for using deceptive practices to collect information on high school students? Perhaps not, considering that military recruiters are themselves regularly accused of using deceptive practices in order to boost enlistment numbers. Just four years ago the Pentagon ordered all the nation's military recruiters to observe a one-day “stand down” amidst national news coverage of recruiting fraud.

With so many reasons to be cautious concerning young people's interactions with the military, it is worth noting that for many youth the decision to join the armed forces is informed and conscientious. Thus, for young people growing up in under-resourced communities, the motivation to become involved with the military springs not just from the economic benefits to be had by signing up, but also from the desire to make a positive contribution to society. Gina Perez, a cultural anthropologist at Oberlin College, Ohio, spoke on this topic at a summer convention in Chicago of the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth. According to Dr. Perez, whose research focuses on high schoolers enrolled in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), youth of color are often motivated to join JROTC out of a desire to shed the negative stereotypes surrounding them and their communities. For these young people, many of whom must deal with a persistent police presence in their schools or neighborhoods, what makes joining JROTC so attractive is the respect that comes from wearing the uniform, from feeling as though they are contributing in a positive way to their communities.

What Dr. Perez's research shows is that for neighborhood activists concerned about the military in our schools, there needs to be more of a focused effort on providing real alternatives to enlistment. Jobs that pay as much as the military, opportunities to travel or learn a trade – these are markers of real alternatives, and this is where we need to focus our attention. Fortunately, some of that work has already begun right here in New Orleans.

On a Saturday in mid-September, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Southeastern Office, was the lead sponsor in organizing an “Alternative Jobs and Resources” fair on Bayou Road, between North Dorgenois and Broad Streets. About one hundred people came out that day, braving the rain to talk with representatives from JOB 1 Business & Career Solutions, Operation Reach, Delgado Community College, and others. In an email, Alice Lovelace, the AFSC Associate Regional Director, wrote: “We do plan to do more events like this ... taking the job fair into the communities that are most affected by unemployment and working hard to connect with high schools that will support a fair on their premises.”

During the planning stages of this event, Lovelace and her co-sponsors drew on the experiences of an earlier alternatives fair in Greensboro, NC. In a phone interview, Ann Lennon, AFSC Area Coordinator for the Carolinas, spoke of how the fairs are “not only about alternatives to the military, but alternative ways to think about strengthening our communities, and building a more sustainable community-centered future for all of us.”

It is heartening to know that while the Pentagon may spend billions to propagandize our youth, the activists have the power of organizing on their side.

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