Counter-recruitment and School Demilitarization Activism: From Past Victories to the Challenges Ahead

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Education Not Arms Coalition: In the audience are about 70 students, parents and others showing their support for the policy

Rick Jahnkow -

Counter-recruitment and school demilitarization work in the U.S. has gone through several cycles of expansion and contraction during the last few decades. The first expansion was during the early 1980s when it was supported by a small number of national organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), War Resisters League, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) and National Lawyers Guild. Most grassroots activities at the time were carried out by chapters of these organizations and a number of independent community peace groups (including COMD and, eventually, Project YANO).

Many counter-recruitment organizers in the 1980s came from the Vietnam-era anti-draft movement, so it was common for them to include draft counseling information as they also worked to counter the presence of military recruiters in schools. This dual emphasis was encouraged by the return of Selective Service registration in 1980 and the government’s various efforts to coerce young men into compliance. Frequently, organizers saw no distinction between the issues of recruiting and Selective Service registration, which had both positive and negative consequences. It was positive in the sense that fear of a possible return to the draft fueled more youth-focused organizing and helped increase awareness of recruiting and militarism in schools. But on the negative side, the frequent focus on Selective Service kept many activists from fully comprehending that economics had become the primary factor driving the militarization of young people, and that draft counseling was not an effective approach to the problem. Another negative consequence was that as concern about conscription diminished in the late 1980s, the overall level of counter-recruitment work also fell considerably.

Fortunately, those groups that did continue to organize deepened their analysis and developed more appropriate and effective organizing approaches. For example, they focused on addressing the “poverty draft” by compiling and distributing literature on alternatives to enlistment. At the same time, they sought to either eliminate recruiters from schools or at least secure equal access to give students alternative information. As the tactics evolved and improved, there were a number of important achievements. For example:

  • The principle of equal school access for counter-recruiters was realized in many places, thanks to a combination of effective organizing and a few successful lawsuits decided in the late 1980s. The broadest legal precedent for equal access came in a 1986 ruling won by COMD in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • Solid research produced high-quality tools for grassroots organizing, including a professionally produced slide show that eventually evolved into a powerful educational DVD, “Before You Enlist,” which is used widely today.
  • In many places, school policies were passed that severely curtailed, or completely banned, recruiter access to students.
  • Opportunities for successful cross-community and cross-issue organizing developed that had not been available to the traditional U.S. antiwar movement.

When the U.S. launched military action against Iraq in 1991, a large infusion of new counter-recruitment activists occurred. Once again, many of the individuals were motivated by fear of a returning draft, based on the assumption that the war would last long enough to make conscription necessary (which, of course, it did not). Fortunately, by this time the core of counter-recruitment organizing was embedded with greater awareness of issues like the poverty draft and the broad danger posed by growing militarism in the educational system. This resulted in a more perceptive activist base that could carry on a bit longer when the fear of an impending draft eventually began to fade. This positive cycle of organizing energy held strong until it eventually began to follow a downward curve in the late 1990s.

A surge in organizing after 9/11

Things changed radically, of course, after September 11, 2001. During the following eight years, counter-recruitment and school demilitarization activism steadily increased to an unprecedented intensity, mostly at the local grassroots level. There were national organizing conferences in 2003 and 2004 that drew 150-200 people, and in 2009 a national counter-recruitment and school demilitarization conference in Chicago brought together a crowd of 300 energetic organizers who came from as far away as Hawaii. The conference workshop topics and diverse participants were a compelling demonstration of how recruiting and the militarization of youth formed an intersection for many different issues, communities and generations.

One very important development was the formation in 2004 of the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY), which now offers on its Web site ( an enormous archive of online organizing and educational resources, as well as a directory of more than 140 grassroots groups engaged in counter-recruitment or school demilitarization-related activity. In the last two years, members of this network have been responsible for major successes like the following:

  • In some of the nation’s largest school districts and the entire state of Maryland, the military can no longer recruit using data gathered by giving the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test in high schools.
  • Activists have secured policies that strictly limit recruiting activities in the three largest school districts (New York City, L.A. and Chicago) and a number of smaller ones, despite the mandate for recruiter access in No Child Left Behind.
  • Though JROTC is almost impossible to remove once it is in a school, recent campaigns in places like San Diego have succeeded in weakening it by mobilizing students and parents to protest mandatory JROTC enrollment, in-school rifle ranges, and the lack of school support for other courses critical to student success.

The Web site has information on all of these and other organizing successes.

Diminution of activism in Obama years poses challenges

Unfortunately, just as the antiwar movement has lost energy since Obama’s election, so has the movement to oppose the growing influence of militarism on young people. Since 2010, the number of grassroots counter-recruitment groups has begun to shrink, and several key national organizations have either greatly reduced their support for the work (e.g., National AFSC) or completely disbanded (e.g., CCCO). Some of the organizations that remain are now having discussions about how to draw more attention to the issue and reverse the downward trend in activism. In the meantime, they continue to struggle to raise support and make a difference with diminished resources.

Based on past organizing experiences and some of the recent positive accomplishments, one can see two immediate areas that might boost organizing and produce successful results.

1. ASVAB testing in high schools, which affects 600,000 students a year, raises a number of legal issues because it focuses on legal minors and is conducted without requiring parental approval or notification. Recruiters use the test to obtain highly personal information that includes a student’s race/ethnicity, gender, Social Security number, birth date, contact information, future plans and detailed aptitude profile. So far, prohibitions on using the test for this purpose have been won through intense struggles in individual school districts and, in one case, statewide (in liberal Maryland). A new campaign, the National Coalition to Protect Student Privacy, has been launched to expand these victories, especially through state legislation (see

2. JROTC is considered the most effective in-school recruiting tool for the Pentagon. Half a million high school students are enrolled in approximately 3000 schools. Not only does the program indoctrinate and produce a high enlistment rate, it also siphons off local school funds and displaces other classes that can be crucial to student success. Unfortunately, experience has shown that a JROTC unit is almost impossible to remove once it is introduced at a school. When they are removed, it is almost always because student enrollment has fallen below the required minimum of either 100 students or 10 percent of the student body. Federal law (i.e., Title 10 of the U.S. Code) mandates this minimum, and a few dozen units are removed because of it each year, but in many cases where under-enrollment exists, including where there have been organized student boycotts, the schools and JROTC staff take no action -- they ignore relevant military regulations, the contract with the school district, and the U.S. Code. Currently, the Education Not Arms Coalition (ENAC) in San Diego is consulting with the National Lawyers Guild to see if it could be possible to legally force schools to comply with federal law and remove all JROTC units that are under the mandated minimum enrollment level. In the meantime, ENAC has demonstrated effective grassroots methods for lowering JROTC enrollment, like shutting down firing ranges in schools and protesting the involuntary placement of students in JROTC. These tactics, with a possible legal challenge, could motivate activism and diminish military training and indoctrination in many schools.

What’s at stake

In 2002, an urgent “Dear colleague” letter was circulated to social change and antiwar organizations, progressive media, and liberal foundations. It was signed by representatives of the AFSC, CCCO, Center on Conscience and War, Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, and War Resisters League. The letter included background information and began with the following warning:

We are circulating this packet to call your attention to an important issue that could affect everyone who is working for progressive social change in this country. We are extremely concerned that if it is not given more attention, it will have serious long-term consequences for organizations and foundations that are addressing a wide range of social justice and environmental causes.

The issue we are referring to is the growing effort by the U.S. military to affect the political and social consciousness of the country through its influence on young people, especially through its involvement in the educational system.

The rest of the letter pointed out that successful efforts for social change require the public’s willingness to engage in critical, democratic discourse, yet the growing militarization of young people was moving the country in the opposite direction. It called on groups receiving the packet to help reverse this dangerous trend and listed suggestions for actions.

Today, the need to address the issue of youth militarization is just as compelling, because even though much has been accomplished with organizing in the last three decades, the issue has not been given the attention it deserves. If the Pentagon continues to expand its involvement in the socialization process and more children are taught the values of militarism when they go to school, there will be much less that we can do in the future to affect the political climate.  If we’re going to reverse this trend, now is when it must be done.