Counter-recruitment in the United States

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With a seemingly endless war on terrorism gnawing away at the possibility for a lasting peace many activists in the United Sates are finding that they are drawn to a form of activism that deals with the relationship that young people have to militarism. The work is called, counter military recruitment or counter-recruitment for short, and it primary focus is to demilitarise a nation by attempting to first demilitarise the minds of its youth.

Often maligned and misunderstood by those outside of the peace & justice movement counter-recruitment has a roughly thirty year history which began shortly after the end of the US involvement in Vietnam which led to the suspension of the military draft. The ending of the draft meant that the military needed to adapt in order to recruit people into the “all volunteer” service and this heralded in the wide variety of incentives and recruitment tactics used to entice people to enlist. Many of these are still in use to this day and the primary concern with military recruitment is that young people aren’t getting all the information they need from military recruiters to make an informed decision about enlisting. While it may seem difficult to comprehend that young people in the US are able to be deceived by military recruiters, the reality is that militarism is that which can cloud the minds of masses. In this respect, many young people never question the sales pitch the men and women in uniform use to recruit them.

Knowing that militarism is the leverage used to sell the military, counter military recruitment is a direct response which counters the perceptions of the military as a sacred cow, or a pillar of our society, and that which keeps us free. Counter recruitment activists often work behind the scenes to change school policies on military recruiter access to young people rather than holding high profile campaigns and demonstrations. The core message associated with counter-recruitment is that one should be able to make an informed decision especially if it is a life altering decision that they are bound to for eight years of their life. Thousands of people and hundreds of groups are now engaged in this work, but a quick look at the past reveals that this was not the case thirty years ago.

Early beginnings

Most of the groups and individuals working directly with youth during the Vietnam War Era were working as draft counselors and were assisting young men who were drafted. Their main task was to help these draftees figure out what options they had available to them if they felt that serving in the military or participating in a war was in contradiction with their principles. When the draft ended many of these anti-war activists melted back into their normal lives or took up other forms of activism, but very few paid attention to the militarization of young people. Those who did worked with TFORM (Taskforce on Recruitment and Militarism) which was an early anti-draft/counter-recruitment organising body that started in 1976 and was made up of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League and the National Inter-religious Board for Conscientious Objectors.

In the early 1980’s the US Federal Government dusted off the Selective Service Registration System which it had used to collect the data on millions of men in order to implement the draft lottery. While there was no “major” war being waged the United States reinstated the Selective Service System to serve as a Cold War threat against the Soviet Union. Naturally, anti-war activists quickly restarted draft counseling services, but ultimately it was realised that the way young people were lured into enlisting in the all volunteer military was a much bigger problem than the possibility of a draft.

By the mid 80’s local counter-recruitment work was popping up across the country with activists studying the way military recruitment occurs, and how young people were being taught militarism. The current context in which we now understand counter-recruitment was also formulated at this time.

One of the most important footnotes in this line of activism came when the Committee Against Registration and the Draft, a San Diego, California based group, was prevented from purchasing an advertisement in a local high school newspaper. CARD merely wanted to do what the military was allowed to do in order to reach young people and filed suit. They lost their case in the lower courts, but appealed to the Federal court which ruled in their favor setting the precedent that military recruiting is a controversial activity in schools and if a school allows military recruiters in the school they are then setting up a “limited public forum” and cannot censor one side of that controversial conversation. This Federal decision allowed counter-recruiters access relatively on par with the access given to military recruiters in order to share information in the high schools about they types of things military recruiters would be loathe to share for fear of losing potential recruits. While this decision was most relevant to those who operated in the Federal court jurisdiction where the decision was rendered, it is often cited by activists around the country when negotiating policy changes in public school districts.

The 1990s: the First Gulf War

In the mid 1990’s the focus shifted to the First Gulf war, which in turn sparked a lot of work against the Junior Reserve Officer Training Program in the high schools. Many counter-recruitment activists, fearing a draft, also began working on contingency plans for how to counsel young people if the draft returned. Though the draft was never implemented, there were many military service members who, for reasons of conscience, felt that their participation in the military was no longer inline with their core values and activists struggled with how to help this new group of conscientious objectors and war resisters. This period of time gave birth to two organising bodies: The GI Rights Hotline and the National Coalition to Demilitarize our Schools.

From the end of the Gulf War to the very beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 counter-recruitment activism had waned significantly. The anti-war/peace movement hadn’t sufficiently latched onto the concept that building peace and preventing war could be accomplished via counter recruitment work and so there were only a few national and grassroots groups tirelessly doing the work. Then the invasion of Iraq occurred.

A new wave of activism

The millions of people who had rallied to the oppose the invasion could not prevent it from happening, but the invasion served as unfortunate catalyst to boost attention to what has come to be known as the poverty draft which is a term used to define how the least privileged of US society are forced to serve in the military because there are few other options for them to earn a paycheck, acquire health benefits, or obtain other fringe benefits such as money for higher education.

Now there are thousands of people waging peace by doing counter-recruitment. Some are working on getting school policies changed to allow students the opportunity to hear everything they need to in order to make educated decisions. Others are attempting to show young people what alternatives they really do have. Still others are mounting campaigns to get military sponsored programs out of their classrooms and it is this array of activism that many see as one of the most important ways to alter the nation’s trajectory when it comes to war. Will this activism be the catalyst to end the current wars? Maybe… maybe not, but many believe it has the potential to transform a nation and we expect to be doing this until the need no longer exists.

Oskar Castro

Oskar Castro works with the AFSC’s Youth and Militarism programme. See

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