A Movement to End Militarism: Reflections from Project YANO

The Project on Youth and Non-military Opportunities (Project YANO) has been doing counter-recruitment for over two decades in the San Diego community. [see http://www.projectyano.org ] Rick Jahnkow, one of the organization’s founders, first became active organizing draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. Jorge Mariscal, a Vietnam veteran and professor at UCSD, got involved with Project YANO during the first Gulf War.

War Times/Tiempo de Guerras talked with Rick and Jorge about the military’s recruitment effort in public schools and in the Latino community, and about how we might organize resistance to it. [For this interview in Spanish, as well as related interviews and other antiwar articles, go to http://www.war-times.org  ]

War Times: How did YANO get started?

Rick: During the 1980s we were organizing around draft registration. When we saw that the government was forcing compliance with the draft registration law primarily through economics – by denying federal aid for college and jobs training to people who didn’t register with the draft – it became crystal clear that we needed organizing that focused on how war disproportionately affects the economically disadvantaged.

We came up with the concept that eventually became Project YANO. It was founded in 1984 by a small group of activists to address the economic facets of war.

War Times: Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine, recently commented, “The future of our military is at risk. Our military and our families are stretched thin. Many say the Army is broken.” He blamed this on the War on Iraq. He’s also stated on national television that he would not enlist today. What’s the significance of this for the counter-recruitment movement?

Rick: Murtha’s statement is a result of diminished resources for waging the kinds of conflicts launched by the Bush Administration. It’s a natural outcome: after eliminating the draft, the institutions that wage war have finally realized there’s a limit to what they can do. If they don’t have the people – and eventually they’re going to have problems with money as well – they have to change the policy. The generals told Murtha about their concern if not panic about the military establishment’s future. If the war in Iraq continues to erode the image of the military then they see long-term loss. Murtha is communicating the generals’ anxiety about this.

For we who want to end the war quickly, it means anything we can do to increase the pressure on the military speeds up the process. Anything counter-recruitment can do to nudge the enlistment rate a little bit lower adds to the pressure. It gives us an opportunity to influence foreign policy that we don’t have when we emphasize primarily symbolic protests, writing legislators. And if we go further and oppose militarism in our schools and militarization of our youth, we affect the capability of future presidents to wage war as well.

War Times: Part of the response to this crisis in the military has been to increase the focus on Latino recruitment. What does that look like?

Jorge: The focus on the Latino community actually started at the end of the Clinton administration, because they realized the largest demographic of military aged youth for the next few decades is Latino. They also realized that group doesn’t have a lot of the opportunities other groups have. They have very low college attendance rates and they have high school drop out rates – around 40 percent. Latinos were also underrepresented in the military. All these factors led to new Latino-focused recruiting programs, and the Iraq war only exacerbated that. When they found that they were short on their quotas, they began to dump more money into special programs for Latinos and Spanish language programming.

They have several traveling programs. One is called the Medal of Honor tour, with the 37 Latino Congressional Medal of Honor winners.  They take this exhibit around to conventions and high schools in areas where they’re focusing on recruiting. They usually take Latino veterans who talk about how wonderful the military is. They have the H2 Hummer tour where they take out a Humvee playing Spanish language music or hip-hop.  And in San Diego there’s actually a military recruiter who has his own radio program in Spanish every Saturday.

War Times: The Latino community is very diverse. There are new immigrants, first-generation youth, and communities that have been here for generations. Does the military target these groups differently?

Jorge: I don’t think they’ve really been successful in tailoring their Spanish language pitch. The one obvious program is the proviso passed in 2002 by Bush that gives people in the military an accelerated path towards citizenship. But there’s no guarantee they’re going to get citizenship, and we’ve met people who have been denied citizenship after serving in Iraq. 

War Times: Are there different perceptions of military service across these communities?

Jorge: With first generation immigrants you often get what we call the whole notion of gratitude. Young people often say, “I want to serve in the military to show my gratitude to the country for letting my family come here, because the situation was so bad in our country of origin.” That’s a classic immigrant motive for enlisting. The other reasons have to do with really low college attendance rates and a lack of job opportunities for these same immigrant kids.

As you move into more settled Latino communities, you get different motives. You get, “Well, my dad, or my brother, or my cousin were in the military and this is a family tradition. This is how you prove your manhood.” And here there’s also the same lack of job and educational opportunities for the vast majority of Latino kids. [Editor’s note: for more on economic pressures facing Latino youth, read War Times’ interview with Inner City Struggle: Students Not Soldiers at http://www.war-times.org ]

War Times: In addition to the focus on Latino recruitment, over the past decade we’ve seen an increasing militarization of the school system. What does that look like in San Diego?

Rick: When the draft ended, the military had to find other ways to fill their personnel slots. They began to look at ways to influence the opinion of young people, and a couple of decades ago the Pentagon started to become involved in public education. That meant recruiters inside schools, but also curricular programs: school programs that attempt to teach the military’s version of history, civics, and values. The result today is hundreds of militarized after-school programs like the Young Marines. These programs involve recruiting students to wear uniforms, do drills, and learn military values; it basically becomes a cult.  At the high school level there’s JROTC, which has expanded over the last couple decades from just over 1000 programs to over 3000 with over half a million students enrolled as cadets. With younger students, military units, bases, and recruiting offices establish formal partnerships throughout the K-12 system. Uniformed personnel appear in elementary school classrooms to talk about their job and to do tutoring. It’s basically a cover to talk about the military and give it a positive image.

In San Diego, we have schools where many teachers take their students to military bases, or the Marine Corps Graduation ceremony, or to the military ships. And even if they don’t visit bases, often soldiers come into the classroom with posters to talk about what it’s like being a soldier.

At one elementary school a Santa Claus appeared with a big bag of gifts; when the children brought the gifts home their parents learned that they were military posters, erasers, and stickers, all with military logos. The Santa Claus was a recruiter.

WT: Why are the schools so willing to let this happen? Do they see this as beneficial?

RJ: One, they are suffering from funding shortages and reaching out for any help they can find. The military is there with volunteers and resources.  But they have to give up something in exchange.  They have to allow the militarization of their schools. The economic incentive, though, may seem more important than opposing the militarization of their classrooms.

The other factor is the stature of the military. It is really difficult for educators to say no to this kind of activity. They don’t want to seem like they are turning their backs on the military, which probably includes the parents of some of their students.

WT: When you approach youth who are facing all these pressures, whether through the school system or from their community or because of lack of economic opportunities, what do you say to them?

Jorge: The first thing we say is we’re not going to tell them what to do. Our approach is to say, “Here’s what we know about the military. Here’s what we know about promises they make to you that they may not keep. And here’s what we know as veterans about what you may experience with combat. But decide based on your own research and discussions with your family.”

We’ll say, for instance, to a non-citizen, “You want to show your gratitude but there’s lots of ways to do that. By getting an education and becoming  a skilled plumber or mechanic in your neighborhood you’re making a contribution to the country. You can show your gratitude without risking your life.”
We try to teach others about financial aid programs they might not know about. A lot of kids fall for the “money for college” promise, and there are thousands if not millions of dollars in unused financial aid each year. We’ve been working with other C-R groups to develop alternative career booklets. We say, “If you decide the military’s not for you, here’s other ways you can achieve what you want.” For those that really want to go into the military as a vocation, we tell them, “Find out everything you can, and then go ahead. That’s up to you.”

Some kids talk about wanting to be officers, and we tell them you need a college degree. Many of the highly skilled and high-ranking military jobs require a certain level of education. We’ll meet Latino kids who are excited to be special ops or green beret or SEAL. We ask them how much college they have, because you cannot be in special ops without extremely high scores on the military’s exams.

So it’s a long process of education and offering information.

WT: How can the counter-recruitment (C-R) movement grow?

Jorge: A lot of organizations would have to combine their resources. That would mean trying to really build the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY). Right now it’s almost a paper network without its own resources. A real attempt to build that would help.

The volunteer base for C-R would have to grow, and the only way for that to happen is for anti-war people to get serious about C-R work. People who want to use C-R to stop the war in Iraq would have to start realizing that C-R goes beyond the war. It’s about demilitarizing schools and challenging militarism at every level.

A lot of the folks that jumped on the C-R bandwagon had good intentions, but I don’t think they were committed to the long term. That would mean devoting time, energy, and money to existing organizations. I think Bush is going to withdraw some troops this year, and that’s going to quiet a lot of people down.  That will be a danger. For the C-R movement to really come back to life, folks in the anti-war movement would have to investigate and participate in existing counter-recruitment organizations.

War Times: Any other thoughts on the movement?

Rick: It’s a challenge for non-youth to be involved without thinking that it’s your mission to solve this problem, to take a missionary position.  That’s not effective. The key is to generate more activism from younger people and not try to solve their problem as outsiders. We need to make contact with students, find ways to reach out with information that might provoke them to think critically, and help them with what they want to do, whether providing resources for publishing leaflets or supporting them when dealing with hostile school officials.

We also need to focus on the concept of careers in peace-making and social change. Everyone tells students you need to go to college to get training and make a lot of money. Few people say that besides making money you should look at your career as an opportunity to make your community and the world a better place. 

In Project YANO we encourage students to think about their career choices differently. Many problems need to be solved, and we encourage young people to think about how they can affect those problems. If we do that we are helping to create a different kind of culture, instead of one that emphasizes individualism and immediate gratification. These things work against us and for militarization.

-Interview by Lynn Koh.

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