Top Menu

Hearts and Minds: Military Recruitment and the High School Battlefield

Purple HeartsIn Purple Hearts, the documentary photographer Nina Berman (2004) presents forty photographs — two each of twenty US veterans of the American war in Iraq — plus a couple of accompanying paragraphs of commentary from each vet in his or her own words.  Their comments cohere around their service, their sacrifice, their suffering.  Purple Hearts bind them together — this award is their common experience, this distinction is what they embrace and what embraces them.  This is what they live with. 

Their views on war, on their time in arms, on where they hope they are headed with their lives are various, their sense-making about the US military mission wildly divergent.  Josh Olson, 24-years-old, begins:

We bent over backwards for these people but they ended up screwing us over, stabbing us in the back.  A lot of them, I mean, they’re going to have to be killed. . . .

As Americans we’ve taken it upon ourselves to almost cure the world’s problems I guess, give everybody else a chance.  I guess that’s how we’re good-hearted. . . .

He’s missing his right leg now, and he was presented with his Purple Heart at Walter Reed Military Hospital by President Bush himself.  He feels it all — pride, anger, loss.

Jermaine Lewis, 23, describes growing up in a Chicago neighborhood where “death has always been around.” He describes basic training as a place where “they break you down and then they try to build you up.” To him the “reasons for going to war were bogus but we were right to go in there.”

The vets are all young, and several describe their decision to join the armed forces when they were much younger, more innocent, more vulnerable but feeling somehow invincible.  Jermaine Lewis says: “I’ve been dealing with the military since I was a sophomore in high school.  They came to the school like six times a year all military branches.  They had a recruiting station like a block from our high school.  It was just right there.”

Tyson Johnson, III, 22, joined after high school to get away from the poverty and death he saw all around him.  His life was going nowhere, he thought, and he joined up to get away: “And here I am, back here. . . . I don’t know where it’s going to end up.”

Joseph Mosner joined when he was nineteen. “There was nothing out there,” he writes. “There was no good jobs so I figured this would have been a good thing.”

Frederick Allen thought going to war would be “jumping out of planes.” He joined up when recruiters came to his high school. “I thought it would be fun.”

Adam Zaremba, 20, also joined up while still in high school: “The recruiter called the house, he was actually looking for my brother and he happened to get me.  I think it was because I didn’t want to do homework for a while, and then I don’t know, you get to wear a cool uniform.  It just went on from there.  I still don’t even understand a lot about the army.” The Purple Heart seemed like a good thing from a distance, “[b]ut then when it happens you realize that you have to do something, or something has to happen to you in order to get it.”

* * *

Military recruiting in high schools has been a mainstay of the so-called all-volunteer armed forces from the start.  High school kids are at an age when being a member of an identifiable group with a grand mission and a shared spirit — and never underestimate a distinctive uniform — is of exaggerated importance, something gang recruiters in big cities also note with interest and exploit with skill.  Being cool, going along with the crowd, conforming, fitting in — this, too, is a big thing.  Add the matter of proving oneself to be a macho, strong, tough, capable person, combined with an unrealistic calculus of invulnerability and a constricted sense of options specifically in poor and working-class communities — all of this creates the toxic mix in a young person’s head that can be a military recruiter’s dream. 

One of the most effective recruitment tools is Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) which was established by an act of Congress in 1916 “to develop citizenship and responsibility in young people” by installing ROTC in high schools nationwide (Goodman, 2002).  JROTC is now experiencing the most rapid expansion in its history.  Some credit the upsurge to Colin Powell’s visit to South Central Los Angeles after the 1992 riots when he was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Powell stated that the solution to the problems of city youth was the kind of discipline and structure offered by the U.S. military.  In the ensuing decade the number of JROTC programs doubled, with over half-a-million students enrolled at over 3,000 schools coast-to-coast, and a Pentagon budget allocation in excess of $250 million annually.  Today the evidence is clear: 40% of JROTC graduates eventually join the military, making it a powerful recruiting device (Goodman, 2002, p. 8).

Chicago has the largest JROTC program in the country and the “most militarized school system in America” (Goodman, 2002), with more than 9,000 students enrolled in 45 JROTC programs, including five Army and one Navy JROTC academies, which are run as “schools-within-a-school,” and three full-time Army military academies.  That distinction is only the start: Chicago is also in the vanguard of the Middle School Cadet Corps (MSCC) with 26 programs in Junior Highs and Middle Schools involving 850 kids as young as 11 (Wedekind, 2005).

Defenders of the JROTC and MSCC claim that the goal is leadership and citizen development, drop-out prevention, or simply the fun of dressing up and parading around.  Skeptics point out that the Pentagon money pumps needed resources into starving public schools and question why the military has become such an important route to adequate school funding.  Chicago spends $2.8 million on JROTC and another $5 million on two military academies — “more than it spends on any other special or magnet program” (Goodman, 2002) — and the Defense Department puts in an additional $600,000 for salaries and supplies. 

There is no doubt that JROTC programs target poor, Black, and Latino kids who don’t have the widest range of options to begin with.  Recruiters know where to go: Whitney Young High School, a large selective magnet school in Chicago, had seven military recruiter visits last year compared to 150 visits from university recruiters; Schurz High School, which is 80% Hispanic, had nine military and ten university visits (Reed, 2005). Bob Herbert (2005) points out that all high schools are not equal in the eyes of the recruiters: “Schools with kids from wealthier families (and a high percentage of college-bound students) are not viewed as good prospects. . . . The kids in those schools are not the kids who fight America’s wars.” Absent arts and sports programs or a generous array of clubs and activities, JROTC and its accompanying culture of war — militarism, aggression, violence, repression, the demonization of others, and mindless obedience — becomes the default choice for these kids. 

* * *

Today, two years into the invasion of Iraq, recruiters are consistently failing to meet monthly enlistment quotas despite deep penetration into high schools, sponsorship of NASCAR and other sports events, and a $3 billion Pentagon recruitment budget.  Increasingly recruiters are offering higher bonuses and shortened tours of duty, and widespread violations of ethical guidelines and the military’s own putative standards are becoming commonplace — in one highly publicized case a recruiter was heard on tape coaching a high school kid about how to fake a mandatory drug test.  Recruiters lie: “One of the most common lies told by recruiters,” writes Kathy Dobie (2005), “is that it’s easy to get out of the military if you change your mind.  But once they arrive at training, the recruits are told there’s no exit, period. . . .” Recruiters lie and lie, and still the number of young people signing up is plummeting. 

The Army announced in October that, for fiscal year 2005, the active-duty Army recruited 73,373 new soldiers, 6,627 short of the goal of 80,000 (i.e., 92% of the goal); the Army Reserve accessed 23,859 soldiers, 4,626 short of the goal of 28,485 (i.e., 84%); and the Army National Guard gained 50,219 soldiers, 12,783 short of the goal of 63,002 (i.e., 80%). This has been, according to military statistics, the toughest recruiting year since 1973, the first year of the all-volunteer army. Americans don’t want to fight this war, and high school recruiting is the military’s desperate hope.

The high school itself has become a battlefield for hearts and minds.  On one side, the power of the federal government, claims (often unsubstantiated) of financial benefits, humvees on school grounds, goody bags filled with donuts, key chains, video games and tee-shirts, and, most ominous of all, “No Child Left Behind,” the controversial omnibus education bill passed in 2001. Section 9528 reverses policies in place in many cities banning organizations that discriminate on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation, including the military, and mandating that recruiters have the same access to students as colleges, and requires schools to turn over students’ addresses and home phone numbers to the military unless parents expressly opt out.  On the other side, a mounting death toll in Iraq, a growing sense among the citizenry that politicians lied to us and manipulated us at every turn in order to wage an aggressive war outside any broad popular interest, and something surprising and unprecedented: organized groups of parents mobilizing to oppose high school recruitment. 

A front page story  the New York Times (Cave, 2005) reported a “Growing Problem for Military Recruiters: Parents” (p. 1).  The resistance to recruiters, according to the Times report, is spreading coast to coast, and, “was provoked by the very law that was supposed to make it easier for recruiters to reach students more directly. ‘No Child Left Behind’ . . . is often the spark that ignites parental resistance” (p.B6).

And parents, it turns out, can be a formidable obstacle to a volunteer army.  Unlike the universal draft, which is the essential entry-point of a citizen-army with everyone, at least in theory, equally eligible, signing up requires an affirmative act, and parents can and often do exercise a strong negative drag on their kids’ stepping forward.  A Department of Defense survey from November, 2004 found that “only 25 percent of parents would recommend military service to their children, down from 42 percent in August 2003” (New York Times, p. 1).

In a column called “Uncle Sam Really Wants You,” Bob Herbert (2005) focuses attention on an Army publication called “School Recruiting Program Handbook.” The goal of the program is straightforward: “school ownership that can only lead to a greater number of Army enlistments.” The handbook recommends that recruiters contact athletic coaches and volunteer to lead calisthenics, get involved with the homecoming committee and organize a presence in the parade, donate coffee and donuts to the faculty on a regular basis, eat in the cafeteria, target “influential students” who, while they may not enlist, can refer others who might.

The military injunction — hierarchy, obedience and conformity, aggression — stand in stark opposition to the democratic imperative of respect, cooperation, and equality.

Herbert, himself a combat vet from Viet Nam, is troubled by the deceptive and manipulative tactics of recruiters: “Let the Army be honest and upfront in its recruitment,” he writes. “War is not child’s play, and warriors shouldn’t be assembled through the use of seductive sales pitches to youngsters too immature to make an informed decision on matters that might well result in them having to kill others, or being killed themselves.”  A little truth-telling, then.

* * *

War is catastrophic for human beings, and, indeed, for the continuation of life on earth.  With over 120 military bases around the globe and the largest military force ever assembled, the US government is engaged in a constant state of war, and American society is necessarily distorted and disfigured around the aims of war.  Chris Hedges (2003) provides an annotated catalogue — unadorned, uninflected — to the catastrophe:

  • 108 million people were slaughtered in wars during the 20th century (p.1).

During the last decade of that spectacular century, 2 million children were killed, 20 million displaced, 6 million disabled.

  • From 1900 to 1990, 43 million soldiers died in wars and 62 million civilians were killed.  In the wars of the 1990s the ratio was up: between 75-90% of all war deaths were civilian deaths (p.7).
  • Today, 21.3 million people are under arms — China has the largest military with 2.4 million people in service (from a population of 1.3 billion citizens), followed by the US with 1.4 million (from a population of 300,000,000) (p.1).  About 1.3 million Americans are in Reserve and National Guard units (p.3).
  • Vets suffer long-term health consequences including greater risk of depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, sleep disorders, and more.  About 1/3 of Viet Nam vets suffered full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition occurring after witnessing or participating in a traumatic event such as murder or rape, and another 22% suffered partial post-traumatic stress disorder (Hedges, 2003, p. 115). This is the nature of the beast.  Anyone who’s been there knows.

On and on, 119 densely packed pages, fact sheet upon fact sheet, twenty-four pages of evidentiary footnotes, fifteen pages of bibliography, all of it adding up to an inescapable conclusion: war is the greatest organized misfortune human beings have ever constructed and visited on one another.  Andromache and AstynaxAnd as Andromache, captive widow of Hector, says at the opening of The Trojan Women by Seneca (Slavitt, 1992): “It is not finished yet.  There is always more and worse to fear, beyond imagination” (p. 17).  In the course of the play, her young son will be thrown from a tower and murdered, and the daughter of Hecuba and Priam will also be sacrificed.  Beyond imagination. 

There are now more than 300,000 child soldiers worldwide (Hedges, 2003, p.8).  Why do children join?  Here is Hedges’ entire answer to that question: “They are often forced to.  Some are given alcohol or drugs, or exposed to atrocities, to desensitize them to violence. Some join to help feed or protect their families.  Some are offered up by their parents in exchange for protection.  Children can be fearless because they lack a clear concept of death” (p. 8).

The United States, the only nation which consistently refuses to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreed in 2002 to sign onto the “Optional Protocol” to the Convention, covering the involvement of children in armed conflicts.  In its “Declarations and Reservations,” the US stipulated that signing the Protocol in no way carries any obligations under the Convention, and that “nothing in the Protocol establishes a basis for jurisdiction by any international tribunal, including the International Criminal Court.” It lists several other reservations, including an objection to Article 1 of the Protocol which states that “Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take direct part in hostilities.” The US stipulates that the term “feasible measures” means what is “practical,” taking into account all circumstances “including humanitarian and military considerations,” and that it “does not mean indirect participation in hostilities, such as gathering and transmitting military information, transporting weapons, ammunition, or other supplies, or forward deployment.”

Because the recruiters lie, because the US steps back from international law and standards, and because the price of an education for too many poor and working-class kids is a trip through a minefield and a deal with the devil, teachers should consider Bill Bigelow‘s advice to make a critical examination of the “Enlistment/Reenlistment Document — Armed Forces of the United States” that recruits sign when they join up. There they will find a host of loopholes and disclaimers, like this in section 9b:

Laws and regulations that govern military personnel may change without notice to me.  Such changes may affect my status, pay, allowances, benefits, and responsibilities as a member of the armed forces regardless of the provisions of this enlistment/reenlistment document.

When Bigelow’s students analyzed the entire contract, they concluded that it would be more honest to simply say to kids something like, “Just sign up. . . . Now you belong to us.” They offer sage advice to other students: “Read the contract thoroughly. . . . Don’t sign unless you’re 100 percent sure, 100 percent of the time” (Bigelow, 2005, p. 46)  One of Bigelow’s students who had suffered through the war in Bosnia recommended that students inclined to enlist might “[s]hoot a bird, and then think about whether you can kill a human” (p. 46).

* * *

Jermaine Lewis, the 23-year-old vet from Chicago who spoke about the war being “bogus” in the book Purple Hearts, always wanted to be a teacher, but worried about the low pay.  Now, with both legs gone, he calculates that a teacher’s salary plus disability pay will earn him an adequate income: “So I want to go to college and study education — public school primarily middle school, six to eighth grade.” He went through the minefield to get what more privileged kids have access to without asking.  It’s something.

Berman, N. (2004).  Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq.  New York: Trolley.

Bigelow, B. (2005).  “The Recruitment Minefield.”  Rethinking Schools, 19 (3) pp. 42-48.

Burgess, L. “Army Comes Up Short of Recruiting Goals for Second Consecutive Month.” Stars and Stripes, April 6, 2005

Cave, D. (2005).  “Growing Problem for Military Recruiters: Parents.”  New York Times, June 3, 2005.

Dobie, K. (2005).  “AWOL in America.” Harper’s, March 2005.

Goodman, D. (2002).  “Recruiting the Class of 2005.”  Mother Jones Magazine.  January/February, 2002.

Hedges, C. (2003).  What Every Person Should Know about War.  New York: Free Press.

Herbert, B. (2005).  “Uncle Sam Really Wants You.”  New York Times, June 16, 2005, p. A29.

Reed, C.L. (2005).  “Military Finally Gives Hispanic War Dead Proper Recognition.”  Chicago Sun Times, July 3, 2005, pp. 18A-19A.

Slavitt, D.R., editor (1992).  Seneca: The Tragedies, Volume I.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

U.S. Army. “Army Announces Retention, Recruiting Numbers for FY 2005.” October 11, 2005.

U.S. Department of Defense, “DoD Announces Recruiting and Retention Numbers for September.” News Release No. 1034-05. October 11, 2005.

Wedekind, G.  (2005).  “The Children’s Crusade.”  In These Times, June 20, 2005 (pp. 6-7).


Bill Ayers William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of Teaching Toward Freedom:Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom (Beacon) and Teaching the Personal and the Political (Teachers College Press).


Comments are closed.