Sowing Seeds: An introduction

Sergeiy Sandler -

What are the causes of war? Typical answers to this question feature stories about politicians, national claims, religions, or bit ideologies with an 'ism' in their name. More sophisticated answers would mention economic interests and the exploitation of natural resources. But even the best explanations of this sort do not yet show the full picture; they do not amount to a sufficient cause for war. For a war to be waged, sufficiently many people have to actively wage it and sufficiently many people have to passively accept and condone it. And since war is not a particularly pleasant business, an effort has to be made to educate people to accept war, to prepare for it, and to fight in it, preferably from a young age.

The seeds of militarisation are planted and replanted long in advance to yield the crop of conflict and war and provide a supply of human and material resources to the world’s armies. Emma Sangster, in her article in this book, quotes a frank statement by the former head of recruitment strategy in the British Army, Col. David Allfrey, to this effect:

Our new model is about raising awareness and that takes a ten-year span. It starts with a seven-year-old seeing a parachutist at an air show and thinking, “That looks great.” From then the army is trying to build interest by drip, drip, drip.[1]

Sowing Seeds: The Militarisation of Youth and How to Counter It is a book about these seeds of war, planted in the minds of children, adolescents, and young adults. It is also a book about another kind of seeds—the seeds of resistance to this military drip—which, we hope, it will help disseminate around the world.[2] The book comes out of an international conference—the first of its kind[3], and, we hope, the first in a series—of activists working to counter the militarisation of youth, held in Darmstadt, Germany, in June 2012.

The participants of the conference, and the authors of the articles collected in this book, come from organisations that work against war, and especially against the militarist culture of war, in different countries. Naturally, many of the participants came from the host country, Germany, where there is a recent surge of activism against military presence in schools and universities (to counter the surge in such military presence, following the current transition of the German military from conscription to voluntary recruitment). But a lot of the conference participants came from other countries in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa. Many of the conference's presentations and workshops are documented in this book.

What was immediately striking about the exchange of experiences that happened in Darmstadt was the extent to which our experiences resembled one another. It became apparent that across political and cultural contexts and despite differences in recruitment models (universal conscription, lottery draft, volunteer recruitment), a surprisingly uniform array of tools is being used to militarise young minds. Similarly, although each of the articles in this volume focuses on the situation in a different country and on different forms and aspects of militarism, we find several recurrent themes running through all of them.

War and conflict—historical, recent, and current—is always part of the context, as is the strong link between militarism and nationalism: national symbols, holidays, ceremonies, are often given distinctly military attributes (especially in the more highly militarised countries, which maintain active armed conflicts on or within their borders), focusing on heroism and on the wars of the past, present, and future. Ceremonies, memorials, and other forms of commemoration (for example the naming of schools and streets), whether done by the military itself or by civilian authorities, often have clear military characteristics and are linked to battles, military leaders, and soldiers killed in action. These play an important role in how children and young people are socialised.

In addition, of course, the education system plays a central role in the militarisation of youth, and of society as a whole. As Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu explains in his article:

Schools around the world provide fertile ground for militarism: there is a captive audience, a comprehensive mandate, a hierarchical structure and a clear power differential between students and professionals. Schools can easily be turned into paramilitary institutions.

And indeed, in country after country, we see reports of school children (sometimes even primary and pre-school age) being dressed in military uniforms for one ceremony or another, being given military training - sometimes including training in the handling of weapons - being encouraged to play with or around weapons systems such as tanks, and being subjected to rules of school discipline that closely emulate military ones.

And while in some countries, such as Germany, we find similar measures being introduced (or rather, reintroduced) to promote recruitment to armed forces as they phase out conscription, in others, such as Turkey, Chile, and Israel, militarised education and society works hand in hand with a system of conscription or mandatory recruitment by draft, to create societies that willingly accept war, conflict, and military dominance in government.

This strong sense, which we all experienced when we met at the Darmstadt conference, that in different countries and contexts we are all facing a common problem led to a joint effort to document militarisation of youth practices around the world and available avenues for resisting them. In this book, at the beginning of each chapter, you will find analyses of the relevant parts of a worldwide survey of thirty-two countries (begun at the Darmstadt conference and revised and expanded over the following months) on the militarisation practices affecting young people around the world[4] and relevant extracts from transcripts of interviews (all conducted at Darmstadt) with sixteen activists from around the world on the situation in their countries. The survey coaxes out some of the international and intranational variations in the militarisation of youth – for example, how armed forces' use of social media for recruitment and publicity is less in countries without prevalent internet access, and how Quebec differs from the rest of Canada, respectively. The full results of the survey can be found on the War Resisters' International website, at: Links to additional resources on the subject are gathered in an appendix at the end of this book

Overview of the articles in this book

The militarisation of youth is evident in school settings and occurs explicitly at recruitment fairs, but it also involves a military presence in the physical environment people live in. This militarisation of space is the subject of the articles in the first chapter, 'Overt and Covert Recruitment: The Militarisation of Public and Private Space'.

David Gee, in '“Catch them young before the army loses them”', looks at recruitment, especially in countries without conscription. Focusing particularly on the situation in the UK, Gee pays special attention to how the military targets young people from the most disadvantaged groups in society for recruitment, and notes the higher price members of these groups pay for the 'favour', compared to other members of the armed forces.

'The militarisation of everyday lives in Venezuela' is the topic of Rafael Uzcategui’s article. Uzcategui focuses particularly on the ways in which military practices have become part of civilian life in his country: the military attributes of civilian ceremonies, military presence in schools, but also increased military control over universities and the formation of military-like structures in colleges and workplaces.

In 'Publicity campaigns: The German Armed Forces’ struggle for the hearts and minds of the population' – the first of his two contributions – Michael Schulze von Glaßer looks at recruitment efforts through the military's presence in public spaces and the media (ceremonies, adverts), focusing on the changes in this presence brought about by the transition of the German armed forces from conscription to voluntary recruitment.

The military's presence in public space is also the subject of the next article, 'Invisible militarism in Israel', by Ruti Kantor and Diana Dolev. Kantor and Dolev note the ubiquitous military presence in this very highly militarised society, by no means limited to events and adverts initiated by the military itself, which often becomes all but invisible to the population exposed to it.

Boro Kitanoski’s 'Monuments and memory in Former Yugoslavia' focuses on a highly potent and broadly used instrument of militarisation: the physical features and social contextualisation of war monuments. The example of Former Yugoslav countries in the Balkans is especially instructive in showing how monuments of past wars can be used to perpetuate conflicts in the present and into the future.

'On-screen warfare', Michael Schulze von Glaßer's second article, focuses on one rarely-addressed but very significant aspect of the militarisation of youth: the glorification of war in video games. The video game industry has many formal and informal ties to the world’s amed forces and it appeals to a huge number of young people (especially adolescent males—a favourite target of military recruiters) with simplistic pro-war messages. Schulze von Glaßer also discusses some attempts to create video games with alternative messages as one possible avenue for countering the gaming industry's militarisation of youth.

Finally, Jorge Veléz, in 'The impact of war and the para-state in Colombia', examines the militarisation of young people’s environments from another angle. The price of increased violence in highly militarised and war-torn societies—as Veléz reminds us—is borne disproportionately by the youth, both as perpetrators and as victims.

The second part of the book, 'Shaping the Debate: Militarising Public Discourse and Education', shifts from examining the militarisation of young people’s physical and social environment to the militarisation of minds and values. The arguments and values used by the armed forces and the state to convince the public of the necessity of war and to fool young people into joining the military are examined by Jonna Schürkes in ‘”Die for your country”: Turning to bravery, loyalty and honour in order to legitimise war and recruit soldiers in Germany.' Although she focuses on the current situation in Germany, many details will no doubt sound familiar to readers from any country.

A detailed examination of the history and current practices of militarisation – especially within the school system – in Turkey, can be found in Serdar Değirmenciolu’s article, 'Young people in Turkey besieged by militarism: Past and present.' Değirmenciolu offers a very telling panorama of how the militarisation of youth works in a highly militarised society. Again, despite the specific historical context being that of Turkey, the practices described are part of the experience of children around the world.

While several of the articles by German authors in this book note the resurgence of military presence in German public space and education system following the shift from mandatory to voluntary recruitment in the country, Dan Contreras, in 'Violence, military service, and the education system in Chile', draws attention to the fact that a mandatory recruitment system, as in Chile, can also actively use propaganda to attract recruits and to legitimise the ongoing armed conflict that the state maintains (in this case, with an indigenous group in the south of Chile).

Finally, Emma Sangster, in 'The military’s influence in UK education', documents the recent surge in military presence in young people’s lives in the UK, and especially in schools, as part of a concentrated effort by recent British governments (regardless of the identity of the ruling party). Sangster stresses that the armed forces are generally presented as an uncontroversial actor in education, and how military discipline is marketed as a positive alternative to the perceived failure of regular schools, especially in poorer areas.

There is a close and deep connection between gender and militarism. An analysis of militarisation and recruitment from a feminist and queer perspective is the focus of the third part of the book. In their articles, Andreas Speck ('Queer and gender critiques of military recruitment and militarisation') and Sahar M. Vardi ('“One of the boys”: The conscription of young women to the Israeli military') both examine the military and military recruitment from a gender perspective. They point out the inherently patriarchal and heterosexist nature of military systems and the prevalence of sexual harassment, assault, and hazing in all militaries. They also consider the purposes served by Western armed forces’ efforts to exhibit a façade of openness and recruit women and queers. 'This illusion of equality has two purposes', explains Vardi. One is simply to expand the military’s ranks. The other has to do with framing these armies’ 'enemies' as intolerant and hostile to liberal values, or as Speck puts it: 'It forms part of the anti-Muslim propaganda, rather than being a reflection of a genuinely open military that is friendly to women and queers.' Nor can a military be friendly to women and queers. The two articles remind us that the feminist and queer struggles are about changing society, not about finding a place for women and queers within the current patriarchal order and the military (its purest manifestation).

The seeds of war are sown in abundance, but so are the seeds of resistance. The last section of this book looks at ways to counter the militarisation of youth. Kelly Dougherty, in 'The role of military veterans and current service members', tells about the work of Iraq Veterans against the War, the organisation she co-founded and continues to be involved with in the United States. A central part of this work involves war veterans visiting schools and colleges to share their experiences from their own military service, countering the myths, lies, and half-truths being sold to school and college students by military recruiters.

As Dougherty explains:

'The simple act of telling the story of your military experience, your experience in a war zone, and the difficulties you face when you come home and leave the military, can have a profound effect on young people who have never heard anyone talk about their military service outside of the patriotic, black and white lens of the military establishment.'

She also devotes attention to the challenges of involving war veterans—most of whom are not, to begin with, familiar with activist culture, and many of whom suffer from trauma that needs to be recognised and allowed to heal—in antimilitarist activism.

In the next article, 'Resisting the militarisation of education', Kai-Uwe Dosch, Sarah Roßa and Lena Sachs focus on examples of (at least partly) successful intervention by students, teachers, and activists against the military presence in German schools – approaches which could be used in other countries too. The armed forces, at least in Germany, fear controversy: 'The armed forces are not at all immune to protests; they can be made to retreat'.

Ralph Willinger, in 'Child rights: Using international law and the UN', explains about the main international legal instruments and procedures (especially under the Convention on the Rights of the Child) that can be used to counteract the militarisation of youth. Willinger illustrates the potential benefits of using these legal mechanisms as tools for building up political pressure and facilitating campaigns with the example of the shadow reports submitted by German organisations to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child whenever Germany comes under review at this committee.

Cecil Arndt’s article, 'Direct action against militarism', explores the use of nonviolent direct action to counter war and militarism more generally, emphasising the need to challenge militarism as a whole, not just the militarisation of young people, although some of the ideas and tactics Arndt mentions can also be used to confront youth-focused practices of militarisation such as the military presence in schools.

Finally, Cattis Laska and Hanns Molander, in 'The need for a queer perspective', present the work their group Ofog (Sweden) does to counter the militarisation of youth. Their actions include both educational activities, such as workshops for school students, and more direct (and creative) actions that disrupt military recruitment efforts, including ad-busting and street theatre at recruitment stalls. All these actions—Laska and Molander explain—reflect a gender analysis from a queer perspective, of militarism in general, and of the militarisation of youth in particular.

Sharing information about how the militarisation of youth operates and sharing tactics for countering it is an important early step in the struggle for peace, not just as a transient break between wars, but as a condition naturally attained by a society that does not militarise its young minds - a society which could be aptly described by this famous line from the bible: 'neither shall they learn war any more'. That goal is probably still very far away. For now we are just sowing seeds.


[1] Cited in Stephen Armstrong, 'Britain's Child Army', New Statesman, 5 February 2007. (accessed 24 May 2013).

[2] The title of the book was inspired by Hilal Demir's cover design.

[3] As a precursor, one may note the more academic Militarism in Education: A Critical View conference held in Israel in May 2001.

[4] For each country we almost always had at least two different respondents. All of the respondents are well-informed about the situation in their country, and researched their answers carefully, but some of the questions are subjective: we do not claim that the survey is a scientific study.


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