Uncovering School Militarism

Each year, the U.S. Army needs to enlist 100,000 new recruits to replenish its ranks. What is the primary source of Army applicants? The answer may surprise you: high school students and by extension, access to public high schools. As the Army’s official Recruiter Handbook states, “No other segment of the community network has as much impact on recruiting as schools.”

While doing research for our book, Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools, we discovered an interesting paradox: the most important element in the recruiting apparatus, military recruiters’ access to high schools, remains largely hidden to most Americans. State education commissioners, superintendents of some of the biggest school districts in the country, and other policy makers appear unaware of the military presence in local schools. Even a seasoned congressman, confronted about the issue ten years after he voted for the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, was surprised by the free reign the Pentagon has within educational space. He admitted to local activists he had no idea that the law required high schools receiving federal funding to give the military as much access to campuses and student information as other types of recruiters.

These gaps in public knowledge should not have surprised us. After all, scholars have long ignored the way military recruiters operate in schools. Two authors have gone as far as calling the issue a “black box,” intentionally obscured from public view. Cynthia Enloe, in an article published last year in the new journal Critical Military Studies, noted that

Militaries are a lot more fragile and contingent than elites will admit. Hiding that fragility – e.g. keeping secret all the calculating efforts that go into enlisting soldiers and keeping them in the ranks – helps to legitimate many militaries in the eyes of their citizens, and helps to make those militaries look more potent than they are in the eyes of both their allies and potential adversaries.

One of the most obvious signs of the U.S. military’s fragility is its reliance on recruiting teenagers. As the commander of Navy recruiting put it earlier this year, “We all know that the talent we seek does not just come knocking at our door.” Indeed, despite widespread advertising the military option simply isn’t that attractive to most people. Thus, the Navy commander added, the need for “hard work, knowing your market,” and for recruiters to spend “lots of time in schools.”

Research by educational anthropologist Brian Lagotte shows that school administrators, confused as to how to interpret the No Child Left Behind Act and pressured by overly aggressive recruiters, all too often give the military free rein on campus. The result, described in recruiter trade journals and documents we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, is that American schools now have an alarming number of military recruiters on campus. But rather than spending all their time officially recruiting, many of them also coach sports, serve as substitute teachers, chaperone school dances, and engage in other activities normally reserved for trained educators. Some schools are visited more than 100 times a year by military recruiters. This direct, constant access to teenagers is essential to enlisting new recruits.

If the widespread presence of recruiters in schools has received little attention, even less is known about sustainable anti-militarization efforts in educational settings. Our new book shines a spotlight on the grassroots “counter-recruitment” movement: parents, students, military veterans, and average citizens who are uncovering, critiquing, and at times thwarting the military’s “invasion” of local schools.

In the absence of effective oversight in local schools, some counter-recruiters make a goal of closely monitoring the actions of military personnel. These activists are publicizing an issue the military would rather keep hidden. To take one example, an organizer in rural Oregon has made photographs and video recordings of questionable recruiter conduct at her son’s high school. She then used this documentation to generate extensive local media coverage of the issue and to lobby her school board for better policies governing recruitment activities on school grounds.

While not all “counter-recruiters” monitor military recruiters and record their activities, another aspect of counter-recruitment—by far the most commonplace—is to serve as “counter-presences and counter-visibilities” to the military in schools. Typically, this takes the form of a literature table, staffed by activists using brochures produced by peace groups like the War Resisters League. It may involve time in a classroom, when teachers allow counter-recruiters to lead discussions on military service by showing students videos which help them think critically about the enlistment process.

But it is difficult to serve as a consistent “counter-presence,” when the military has far more resources and can afford to be in schools on a regular basis. Counter-recruiters, almost all of whom are volunteers, have to juggle activism with their other commitments and usually can visit a given school only once a semester. Which is why a growing number are focused on pursuing policy change. In just the past year-and-a-half, activists—Iraq War veterans, teenagers, parents and Quakers—have successfully run campaigns to restrict military recruiter access to students (in Santa Barbara, California); and to regulate the use of military aptitude tests in schools (as happened with the passage of a state law in New Hampshire).

It is this legislative approach to counter-recruitment that seems to cause the most fear and trembling at the Pentagon. When the issue of school military recruitment is raised in the public arena, often as a precursor to policy changes that control what recruiters can and cannot do on school grounds, the military feels threatened. Thus in a series of reports over the past decade, military analysts have closely examined the counter-recruitment movement, judging it to be the “military recruiter’s greatest obstacle,” characterizing counter-recruiters themselves as “adversaries” and—in an interesting coinage—“civilian organizational inhibitors.”

All of which suggests that those challenging the militarization of educational space are having an outsize impact for a loosely connected movement of a few dozen groups of volunteers.

As counter-recruiters help to make the invisible visible, they contribute to our understanding of how the most important element of military recruitment works. They remind us, through their policy campaigns, school outreach, and via publications like Draft NOtices, that to cite Cynthia Enloe, “militaries are not automatically raised or sustained, not easily mobilized or deployed.” As our research shows, this means that militaries can be effectively challenged, particularly if activists target their weakest link.

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