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Beyond Opt-Out

by RICK JAHNKOW

It is encouraging to observe the contemporary anti-war movement’s recent shift toward giving greater attention to military recruiting. This means that a growing number of individuals and organizations now understand that there is an organizing strategy that can be employed with much more effectiveness than the symbolic protest that has characterized most anti-war activism since September 11, 2001. People are finally looking deeper into the issues and understanding that no matter how frightening and uncontrollable the Bush administration may seem, it has a very reachable Achilles heel when it comes to needing human resources to wage its wars.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautious in our optimism about the shift toward counter-recruitment work. In the organizing choices we now see, there is evidence that many activists still do not perceive the larger picture that surrounds the issue of recruitment. They are not understanding why the problem deserves much more than a tactical treatment, and as a result, counter-recruitment organizers are sometimes emphasizing very limited goals that look at the problem merely at the individual level, and not at the equally important community and societal levels. The phenomenon parallels the pattern we experienced during the anti-Vietnam War movement when, for many, the predominant tactical focus was on saving individuals from the draft. That approach benefited a limited number of potential draftees, but it also missed many others who were still drafted. More importantly, it did not affect the larger institutional issues that made Vietnam possible, even though the war was eventually halted. The consequence was 30 years of gradual remilitarization that has led us to where we are now.

How is this mistake being repeated today? First, a substantial amount of concern about military recruiting is focusing solely on schools giving recruiters students’ names, addresses and phone numbers. Often, people do not realize that this practice has existed for many years. Though the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 made providing recruiters access to student lists mandatory, the vast majority of secondary schools had already been giving recruiters this contact information for decades, under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Before NCLB, release of the information was discretionary, and if schools elected to do it, they had to notify parents of the right to opt out. When NCLB was implemented in 2002, some of this changed: the opt-out right is still in effect, but schools can no longer choose to withhold names, addresses and phone numbers from recruiters without risking losing their federal funds.

When this change in the law occurred, news coverage brought more people’s attention to the fact that schools were sharing the information, and in the context of growing concern about the Iraq war and occupation, this triggered campaigns to educate students and parents about opting out. Though Iraq has been the critical subtext for these campaigns, the tactical choice has been to give the issue of privacy an equal, or even greater, emphasis in opt-out organizing, while little attention is being given to other factors — like militarism in education — that led schools to give recruiters access to student information long before Iraq. As a result, activists frequently focus all of their energy on getting students and parents to sign and submit opt-out requests to their schools, while most schools (there are some exceptions) drag their feet when it comes to facilitating the opt-out process and only do the minimum required to publicize that the opt-out right exists. Maximizing the opt-out rate is then dependent on activists renewing their opt-out organizing efforts every year as new students enter secondary schools. This can become a serious resource problem.

And while all of this energy is being devoted to opt-out organizing, over 14,000 schools per year are allowing the military to get around the opt-out barrier by giving its aptitude test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), to students. With very few exceptions, the ASVAB results in student contact information and much more personal data being released to recruiters, even if the student has opted out from the separate, general release of student lists to recruiters.

Recruiters get around the opt-out barrier in a number of other ways as well. For example, they purchase information on students who take college entrance examinations, such as SAT. At high school career and college fairs, they entice students into surrendering their names and addresses in exchange for military-logoed trinkets, like water bottles and lanyards. Some National Guard units have developed ruses like a “study skills seminar” that students are excused from regular class to attend. Once at the seminar, they are required to fill out contact cards that are then used for recruiting.

Further, there are ongoing classroom programs such as Jr. ROTC, which now affects approximately half a million secondary students. JROTC is basically a daily indoctrination program, disguised as “education,” that has been recognized by the U.S. Congress as one of the best recruiting tools for the military. But before students even get to the secondary school level, they are, increasingly, being taught military values and groomed for recruitment through a network of partnerships the military has with primary schools and, via programs like the Young Marines, in middle schools.

The lesson here is that while opting out is worth pursuing as a tactical issue, an approach to countering recruitment that focuses mostly on saving individual students is an energy-intensive one that will perpetually miss most young people because the involvement of the military in schools is too widespread and is not being adequately challenged institutionally. Also open to question is whether or not parents and others will end their involvement in the cause once their own kids graduate, or the U.S. withdraws from Iraq. This is what happened with many activists after Vietnam.

Thus, opt-out campaigns have very limited significance without addressing the other ways by which the military reaches and influences students, and that requires us to address the general militarization of schools. If, as a movement, we fail to recognize this reality and do not use this specific historical moment to adopt a long-term commitment to confronting militarism in education, we will be wasting a critical opportunity to not only prevent future wars, but more importantly, to reverse the 30-year trend toward militarization that is making the political climate in this country increasingly reactionary.

Counter-recruitment, then, becomes far more than a tactical issue concerning Iraq. It is an integral part of a larger strategy for defeating militarism that is absolutely necessary to cultivate a political and social climate that embraces critical thinking and democratic discourse. Counter-recruitment work is really an effort to ensure our future ability to work for progressive social change in the U.S. It’s very crucial that this larger context not escape us.

RICK JAHNKOW works for two San Diego-based antimilitarist organizations, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities and the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft. He can be reached at: RJahnkow@aol.com

This article first appeared in the July-August 2005 issue of COMD’s Draft NOtices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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