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Counter-Recruitment Season


“Counter-recruitment,” alternatively known as “truth-in-recruiting” or CR for brevity’s sake, involves providing young people and their parents with information about alternatives to military enlistment (college, vocational training, job opportunities, scholarships, etc.). At the same time, CR campaigns can provide a sense of the terrible realities of war by exposing students and parents to the words of soldiers, veterans, and foreign war victims. Since most military recruits enlist 1) because they see no other option, and/or 2) because they have a deluded and romantic view of war, the military, and US foreign policy, CR efforts can fill two important gaps in young people’s knowledge.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>One of the lesser-known aspects of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 is a provision requiring all public high schools to provide military recruiters with students’ private contact information. The only way to avoid the release of this information is to submit a signed “opt-out” form to school administrators every year by a district-specific deadline, usually sometime between mid-September and mid-October. School administrators are legally obliged to send the opt-out form home with students, but many do not, and often the forms get overlooked within the massive information packets sent home at the start of the school year. The months of August, September, and October are thus particularly crucial for CR efforts.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>What follows is an analysis of the importance of counter-recruitment and a brief starters’ guide for those who might be inclined to engage in it this fall, with links to sample leaflets and educational information.

"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The Power of Counter-Recruitment

11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Counter-recruitment has value on multiple levels. First, it can make a dramatic difference in the lives of individual young people by saving them from being used as pawns in wars driven by elite interests, from being cheated by a government that tends to shirk its responsibilities to soldiers and vets, and—in some cases—save them from killing others or being killed or maimed themselves. At its best, CR can also give them a sense of the human suffering created by war and of the reasons why their government goes to war in the first place, neither of which they get from their high school textbooks or from our corporate-driven consumer culture.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>If the power to affect a few individuals’ lives were the only benefit, CR would still be worth the time. But CR is also a potentially-powerful strategy for ending current US wars and limiting the government’s capacity to wage more wars in the future, by depriving the military of its cannon fodder. And, fortunately for the current antiwar movement, CR requires relatively little in the way of further organization. If every current antiwar activist in the country dissuaded just two or three young people from enlisting, the government would lose hundreds of thousands of recruits, crippling its ability to continue unjust wars. But CR campaigns are also a great way of bringing new people into the movement in a way that traditional marches and rallies can’t, because the positive impact of person-to-person contact is much more tangible and rewarding.

 

11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The tactic of CR falls into the same category as consumer boycotts or workers’ strikes, in that it allows its participants to wield what sociologist Michael Schwartz calls “structural leverage” [1]. That is, it transfers power to ordinary people who as individuals are relatively powerless, but who possess collective power by virtue of their key position in a structure of exploitation. By increasing the sheer number of youth who decline to enlist, CR deprives the rich and powerful of the foot soldiers necessary to carry out their imperialist, militarist, profiteering agenda. It thus reduces the movement’s reliance on elite decisionmaking, taking power out of the hands of politicians and their corporate sponsors. In this sense CR functions akin to other antiwar tactics like boycotts, divestment, and organized support for soldiers and veterans who refuse to fight.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>One indication of the potential power of CR is the importance that US policymakers, like officials in all militarized states, place on military enlistment and obedience in the ranks. The enormous resources devoted to recruitment, the bipartisan exaltation of military service, and the severe punishment to which disobedient soldiers are subjected confirm this fact for the current-day United States. Even in highly repressive states like El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, a certain amount of verbal protest against regime policies is often tolerated. When that protest begins to threaten military discipline, however, regime tolerance ends. The beloved Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero spent several years publicly speaking out against his government’s brutal military dictatorship in the late 1970s, but when in March 1980 he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to disobey orders, he was assassinated by a (US-backed) death squad within a matter of hours.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>A proliferation of well-organized and extensive CR campaigns wouldn’t immediately impair the Pentagon’s war-making ability, but over the medium and long term such campaigns could have a very significant impact. The absence of immediate macro-level success is not an indication of a movement’s failure, particularly with a tactic like CR which can make such a difference in the lives of individual people and which is also a highly effective means of mass public education. CR and related efforts can help sow the seeds of an anti-militarist culture, promoting critical literacy among a population bombarded daily with government and corporate propaganda. In sum, CR has value on several levels: as individual outreach, as antiwar strategy, and as a means of the public education necessary for building a durable culture of peace and solidarity in the future.

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Yet the antiwar movement as a whole (with many exceptions) has not emphasized counter-recruitment. Perhaps some activists are still afraid of being branded as “anti-soldier” or “anti-military.” Whatever the reasons, most antiwar groups have placed relatively little priority on CR efforts. My argument here is "Verdana","sans-serif"”> 

"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Obstacles and Opportunities

11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The biggest obstacles for counter-recruiters are poverty and unemployment. As Pentagon officials have publicly admitted, military recruiters thrive on economic crisis: the unpublicized everyday crisis faced by the poor and working class long prior to 2008, and the more generalized economic downturn and rising unemployment since then. The rebound in enlistment rates has coincided with the US economic decline of the past few years, putting the Pentagon “in a very favorable position” [3]. Personal reasons for enlistment vary, of course—a small percentage of recruits join out of a misguided sense of patriotism, for example. But without economic coercion (or a military draft), the US government probably would have been physically incapable of engaging in any major military intervention since World War II, with the world and the US population far better off as a result [4].

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Secondary obstacles for counter-recruiters might include 1) hostility from school administrators and law enforcement who often go well beyond the boundaries of the law in trying to intimidate and harass counter-recruiters; 2) the geographic dispersion of would-be recruits, many of whom come from isolated small towns across the US heartland; 3) the inclusion of recruitment mechanisms in otherwise relatively-progressive legislation like the DREAM Act (which in its current form would offer citizenship in return for military service); and 4) the still-hegemonic idea that serving in the US military is inherently noble, an idea around which there is a very strong bipartisan consensus among the nation’s political elite, who share a bipartisan commitment to war, US global dominance, and a militarized economy at home [5].

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>But these obstacles to counter-recruitment pale in comparison to the opportunities. Antiwar and anti-militarist sentiment among the US public have been very high for the last several years, with majorities favoring an end to the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic engagement over military intervention, and a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget [6]. These sentiments are particularly apparent among some of the communities most accustomed to discrimination and oppression. From 2000 to 2007, the enlistment rate of black youth declined by 58 percent—a stunning reflection of antiwar and anti-military sentiment, particularly given the fact that most black communities in the US face a perpetual economic crisis, with unemployment rates of 30, 40, or even 50 percent. Enlistment rates among youth in Puerto Rico are also far below the national average, probably due to both anticolonial consciousness and the extensive counter-recruitment efforts of Puerto Rican activists [7].

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>The trick, then, is to promote this same critical awareness among the general population—among people of color who are often targeted by recruiters, but also crucially among revealed recently when he angrily attacked the European publics for being “averse to military force,” leading to a “demilitarization of Europe” and constituting an “impediment” to the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan [8].

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"Verdana","sans-serif"”>Materials and Tips "Verdana","sans-serif"”>

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11.0pt;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>There is by now a wealth of materials available online for use in counter-recruiting:

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  • Generic opt-out forms in Microsoft Word format are available here, with a Spanish version here.

 

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