Book Reviews

Lies Military Recruiters Tell

By Ron Jacobs

Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public School

By Scott Harding and Seth Kershner

Growing up as a military dependent in the 1960s and early 1970s, I developed an especially cynical opinion about the institution and its hype. I knew that the life of a GI stunk. Hell, my dad was an officer and I knew the men and women of that ranking were not much better off when it came to their personal autonomy. By the time my father left for Vietnam in 1968, I knew I would never join the military of my own free will. Furthermore, I figured that if they tried to draft me, I would leave the country or go underground. There was no way I was going to be in Uncle Sam’s military even if all I had to do was type forms in triplicate. Besides opposing the war in Vietnam, my friendship with half-a-dozen GIs during high school convinced me that military life had nothing to offer me. Even then, though, my opinion was in the minority. A few of my friends enlisted or went into ROTC in college. Some even stayed in for twenty and thirty years. Many others who did not get drafted or join up are now proud to paste bumper stickers on their cars telling the world about their children who enlisted. As for me, I continue to organize against the military and its wars.

Like those wars, my organizing comes and goes. When wars are “hot” and taking bodies at a vicious rate, that organizing takes priority over every other aspect of my life (except for my children when they were at home.) Even in today’s climate of drone wars and Special Forces death squads, I try to maintain some level of antiwar activity. However, as Scott Harding and Seth Kershner’s newly-published book Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools makes clear, there has been an ongoing movement against military recruitment in the United States for decades. This campaign is composed of parents, students, military veterans and others, all of whom find the predatory practices of military recruiters reprehensible enough to actively oppose them.

Harding and Kershner’s text utilizes a social sciences approach to explore the contemporary movement against military recruitment in U.S. middle schools and high schools. They explore different approaches counter-recruiters take in their work and discuss the rationales for each approach and their effectiveness. Numerous examples of individuals and groups involved in counter-recruitment are provided, with explanations of their motivations, histories and the activities they have undertaken in their various campaigns. A broader history of the movement underlies these individual stories, providing a political and philosophical context.

As I hinted at before, the U.S. military is one of the few governmental institutions that have overwhelming respect from almost all residents of the United States. This phenomenon is largely due to a very concerted campaign by the ruling elites of this nation to place the Pentagon and its troops above reproach. This can be seen in the ever-constant presence of the military and its advertising at sporting events, civic festivals, and even some music concerts and festivals (especially country music.) As the authors point out, this barrage of advertising, or (let’s be honest) propaganda began almost immediately after the military draft was ended in 1973. As of 2012, direct recruitment advertising by all branches of the military stood at around 667 million dollars. This figure does not include the cost of buildings and staffing of actual military recruitment offices around the country, nor does it include the money spent on recruitment efforts in schools and other places youths congregate.

When my son was in high school (late 1990s-early 2000s), he received a number of calls on the home landline from an Army recruiter. He had not knowingly provided his name to any military representative and, as far as I know, the school he was attending did not provide students’ names to the Pentagon for any purpose. I suppose one of his friends had given the recruiter his name. Anyhow, at first my son liked the attention he received from the recruiter. The guy talked to him like an adult. However, after a couple of such calls, he told me about them and, to put it plainly, I got pissed off. Not at my son, but at the recruiter. After verifying that my son was not interested in the military, I asked him if he had told the recruiter not to call. He told me he had not. I happened to answer the phone the next time the recruiter called. I made it very clear to him (without swearing or otherwise being abusive) that he should not call my number again. As far as I know, he never did.

Other recruiters are less ethical. Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools includes a few examples of such behavior. Beyond these individual acts of questionable ethics, though, lies the entire question of the ethics involved in targeting boys and girls for recruitment into the military. The ages targeted are 15-18 year old youths. In most of U.S. society, young people in this age group are not allowed to drive after dark, if at all. They are not considered old enough to know whether or not they should use tobacco or drink alcohol. In some states, they are not allowed to work after dark. Yet, the Pentagon wants us to believe they can make a decision about committing several years of their lives to a profession whose fundamental raison d’etre is killing other humans or being killed.

To get their quotas of troops, military recruiters have invaded high schools. When combined with cutbacks affecting schools systems around the country, the omnipresence of military recruiters in school lunchrooms, as teachers in JROTC programs, and even as de facto career counselors in schools where the cuts have eliminated traditional counseling staffs, has given them a profile much greater than civilian schools should have. This is where the bulk of the counter-recruitment efforts take place today.

Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools is more than a social science study. It is also a guidebook for current and potential counter-recruiters around the United States. The combination of activist narratives and discussions of lessons learned provides useful strategies for opposing the military recruitment in high schools that are legally bound to allow recruiters in. Means to overcome the undeserved high regard the military has in U.S. schools and the broader community are also presented. The text concludes with some lesson plans composed by counter-recruitment educators and a list of resources.

In 1966, Special Forces Master Sergeant Donald Duncan wrote an article for the New Left magazine Ramparts. Duncan had recently given up a military career after what he was asked to do and what he saw others doing in Vietnam. The article was part of a book. Ramparts titled the article with this quote from Duncan: “The whole damn thing was a lie.” As Harding and Kershner’s text makes clear, much of what military recruiters tell the young is no different than the conclusion reached by Mr. Duncan. Unfortunately, the lies they tell can have deadly consequences. The reasons for the counter-recruitment efforts examined here remain as important as ever.

Counterpunch, May 13, 2016