Today’s conservatives, to hear them tell it, are deeply concerned with the safety of children in schools. After all, anything from a gender-neutral toilet, which could invite sexual predators, to a Toni Morrison novel, which might cause a reader “discomfort” about their race, could be lurking. One has to be vigilant. So you might assume that if a group of specially-trained adults started hanging around schools, trying to lure minors into dangerous situations under false pretenses, the political Right would be up in arms about it, demanding an influx of police and private security guards to deal with the menace. Unless, of course, these duplicitous strangers are with the military—and then, somehow, the impulse to ‘think of the children’ disappears.
Most people are familiar with the sight of an Army or Navy information booth at a school job fair. But in American high schools, military recruiters are everywhere. Today, over 13,000 schools encourage their students to take Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) tests, and send the results directly to military personnel, where they’re used to single out particular children for recruiting. At the same time, recruiters insinuate themselves into school life at every level, with many districts allowing them to “coach sports, serve as substitute teachers, chaperone school dances, and engage in other activities,” entering the same position of trust as actual school employees. They’re given full access to students’ contact information and home addresses, and may show up on their doorsteps uninvited, or even strike up private conversations through their social media and video game platforms. Both in person and online, their efforts are intrusive and relentless.
Perhaps more disturbingly, the process of recruitment begins long before the age of 18. While the military has long claimed that it only recruits legal adults, the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) enlists children as young as 14, placing them in special uniforms, drilling them in parades and marches, and even training them in rifle marksmanship—a particularly chilling practice, given the wave of school shootings that has darkened the post-Columbine era. Although these programs are careful not to claim recruitment as a goal, their practical effect is to normalize the presence of the military in children’s lives, priming them to be recruited the moment they reach the legal age in a process that researchers published in the American Journal of Public Health have called “disturbingly similar to predatory grooming.” As a result, anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of students enrolled in JROTC eventually go on to enlist. Not only this, but in some districts children have been placed involuntarily in JROTC programs, in place of traditional phys-ed or college readiness courses. If any of America’s rivals was caught doing this sort of thing, our media would leap to condemn them—and, in fact, this is exactly what happens, with the Atlantic Council writing that Russia is barbaric for its “robust militarization of children’s life through public activities and events,” or the Guardian displaying ominous photos of China’s “children’s boot camps.” Not for the first time, Americans have excused domestically what we recognize as insidious abroad—and for this, among other reasons, the U.S. remains the only U.N. member state not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which explicitly outlines safeguards addressing the vulnerability of teenage children to military recruitment and enlistment). The U.S. is now alone among Western countries in allowing military recruitment in schools.
Like salespeople in other industries, recruiters have quotas to meet, and they’re more than willing to use high-pressure tactics to achieve their goals. In particular, they often use education itself as a point of leverage, touting the college tuition assistance the military can provide for its soldiers. At first glance this might appear harmless, or even positive. But in practice, it creates a class divide, where the young people most vulnerable to recruitment are those for whom a higher education would otherwise be out of reach. This is especially true for rural areas and communities of color, where recruiters disproportionately focus their attention. (A study from 2011-2012 found that the Army visited a low-income school in Connecticut more than 40 times, while a high-income school in the same district received only four visits.) In this “poverty draft,” as it’s been termed, the choices available are to A) risk having to wage war and possibly die a violent death, B) be saddled with unbearable levels of student debt, or C) forgo college altogether, and face limited career options as a result.
It’s a no-win situation, and recruiters take full advantage of the extortionate nature of U.S. college financing. In 2014, Staff Sergeant Jacob Williams—who serves as an encouraging example of a U.S. military officer who operates with a functioning conscience—wrote a confessional article about his time in the Air Force’s Recruiter Assistant Program (RAP), and laid bare the extent of the financial blackmail at work as he made phone calls to potential recruits:
When they answer “college,” I was supposed to follow up with “how are you going to pay for it?” Obviously I am trying to segue into talking about how the military pays tuition. […] But remember, no excuse not to join the military is ever good enough! There is always a way to keep pushing it, and in this case, it’s … oh wow, more shaming and guilt-tripping. If the prospect says his parents will pay his way through college, I was supposed to make him feel bad for costing his parents so much money. “You don’t really want to make your parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money, do you?”
Elsewhere, Matt Drennan, a first-year recruit at the Virginia Military Institute, estimates that “about 60% of people wouldn’t join the military if they already had their education paid for,” citing a desire to “not be a burden” to his family among his reasons for enlisting. There’s a Faustian bargain at work here, with the recruiter as Mephistopheles, trading access to knowledge in exchange for flesh and blood—and all with the full complicity of the public school system, an institution designed to make such things freely available to everyone.
In turn, the military’s reliance on tuition costs as a motivator has become a justification for those who oppose student debt cancellation. One recent letter writer to the Wall Street Journal argued that President Biden should avoid implementing any meaningful student-debt relief, in order to ensure that people still sign up for military service in “adequate numbers.” (What “adequate” means, they didn’t say.) Meanwhile, the Washington Times has made a pitch straight out of Starship Troopers, arguing that those who “help America” through military and other public service should receive a “prioritized” fast-track to financial assistance, while others are left to wait in limbo. Clearly, these forms of financial coercion are a vital element of the military recruitment system, without which the constant stream of new soldiers would be seriously diminished.
This is bad enough, but at the very least, military tuition benefits are real. In other areas, recruiters outright lie about the nature of military service, the dangers involved, and the possible rewards, painting the rosiest possible picture to sway impressionable young people. They exaggerate the likelihood that the recruit will receive a “safe” posting on a base within the U.S., hype up financial benefits that really come with hundreds of pages of terms and conditions attached, and gloss over the very real possibility of physical and mental trauma; in 2006, army recruiters were caught telling high school students that the Iraq War had ended. (It had not.) In other cases, like that of student journalist David McSwane, recruiters have encouraged their prospects to lie, providing instructions on how to fake drug-test results and conceal underlying medical conditions that would otherwise prevent them from enlisting. In his article, Staff Sgt. Williams calls himself and his fellow recruiters “unethical liars and manipulators by trade,” and while defenders of the institution would doubtless say that these incidents represent only a handful of “bad apples,” the fact that they’ve been permitted to occur at all should raise deep concerns.
So how, one might ask, did we ever allow things to get to this point? Of course, military recruitment is as old as the United States itself, and we’re all familiar with the stories of child soldiers being pressed into service for the Revolutionary and Civil wars—but surely those should be artifacts of a distant past, long since outmoded? In one sense, they were. After the end of the military draft in 1973, and the parallel end of the Vietnam War, recruiting activities carried on, but recruiters did not have unlimited access to the school population. Rather, recruitment varied by region, and some cities, like Portland, Oregon, banned the military from operating in their schools altogether. (Here, for once, was federalism when we needed it!) It was 9/11, and the ensuing War on Terror, that propelled recruitment to previously unthinkable levels—and, here, we have former President and perennial war criminal George W. Bush to thank.
It was Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that triggered the military’s demand for new blood, and Bush’s legislation that sent its agents into every school in America. In the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January of 2002, a key passage requires schools to provide military recruiters with “the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers,” including “access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings,” and conditions access to federal funding on compliance with the military’s demands. The language used is deliberately vague, creating a model where even the most modest restriction can be penalized with dramatic budget cuts. This leaves schools in an impossible dilemma—either allow recruiters free rein to operate as they see fit, or suffer the financial consequences when the federal government pulls the plug.
It’s worth noting that these invasions, and the legislative push that accompanied them, were controversial at the time, and there was a real opportunity for resistance. Largely forgotten today, the protests against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were some of the largest in recent history, bringing tens of thousands of people into the street to voice their opposition, and they were reflected in a deep distrust of recruitment. Even the Detroit rapper Eminem, not exactly the most progressive cultural figure at the time, threw harsh criticism at the Bush administration on his 2002 track “Square Dance:”
All this terror, America demands action
Next thing you know, you’ve got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’
To join the army or what you’ll do for their Navy
You’re just a baby gettin’ recruited at 18
You’re on a plane now, eatin’ they food and their baked beans
I’m 28, they’re gon’ take you ‘fore they take me!
Clearly, the energy was there—but with characteristic cowardice, the Democratic Party abandoned the last vestiges of the anti-war principles that had animated its base during the Vietnam era, and capitulated to Bush’s war effort at every turn. In the space of two years, party leaders like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton voted for the invasion of Iraq (a sovereign nation!), something they would dearly love us to forget today; at the 2004 party convention, John Kerry saluted the camera and declared himself “reporting for duty”—and the recruiting provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act sailed through both houses of Congress, without a serious challenge ever being leveled against them.
The consequences of these actions—and inactions—were grotesque, and they hit young people particularly hard. According to CBS statistics, nearly one-third of the American troops who died in Iraq were between the ages of 18 and 21, and “well over half were in the lowest enlisted ranks,” not having lived long enough to be promoted even a single time after their initial recruitment. That’s over 1,400 unique, irreplaceable human lives, snuffed out before they truly had a chance to begin—and that figure doesn’t begin to account for the estimated 45 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who had filed claims for permanent disabilities by 2012, the 15.7 percent who tested positive for PTSD in a 2014 study, or the thousands more who were exposed to chemical burn pits or depleted uranium during their service. None of these nightmare scenarios, we can be sure, were advertised in recruiters’ brochures. Instead, they represent a huge swathe of undisclosed risks, whose omission amounts to little more than deliberate fraud—and even if every detail were laid out honestly, the stakes are too horrifying to ask any child to contemplate. And yet, this is precisely what recruiters do every day, glibly promoting warfare as just another in a range of possible careers.
The history of the War on Terror is instructive for another reason, too: it illuminates the links between juvenile recruitment and American imperialism. It’s not just any military that’s being assembled here, after all, but a sprawling, gargantuan one that intrudes itself into dozens of countries around the world, from Germany to Djibouti. That’s why it needs so many young people in the first place: to staff all those bases with troops, who can strike virtually anywhere within a few hour’s notice. In recent recruitment materials, this world hegemony is promoted with peppy, jingoistic slogans like “A Global Force for Good” or “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of All Who Threaten It,” asserting that America’s self-appointed status as the world’s police is somehow necessary to its safety. Taken in by these narratives, young people enlist for more or less altruistic reasons, with the idea of protecting their country, their loved ones, and the abstract notion of “freedom”—only to be dispatched to invade and occupy someone else’s country instead, looting its resources along the way. It’s just another way the young proletarians of one nation are pitted against those of another, all for the benefit of a powerful military-industrial elite that sees them as little more than cannon fodder. If “war is a racket,” as Brigadier General Smedley Butler used to say, then recruiters are among the primary racketeers.
But one needn’t be a socialist, anti-imperialist, or even anti-war to oppose the recruitment of children. Basic ethics will do. There is an obvious power imbalance between a specially-trained agent of the state, who comes armed with sophisticated methods of persuasion and propaganda, and a high school kid. In that context, no decision the latter makes can really be said to be a free one. Even the manuals used to train Army recruiters embrace this skewed dynamic:
The wording of the question should be direct enough to ensure there is no question in the prospect’s mind that you are expecting a decision to be made. “John, which of these alternatives do you feel will best support your goals?” At this point you are asking the prospect to decide on the best COA [Course of Action – ed.], which will always be the Army. […] Remember your prospect does not have your leadership experience or training. Therefore, you must lead them.
This isn’t a case of someone being offered an opportunity, to accept or reject as they see fit, but someone being “led” to make the decision the recruiter prefers, regardless of whether it aligns with their own interests. It’s the stuff cults, MLMs, and Ponzi schemes are made of—and if this is what the military is willing to admit to in official documents, how much worse is the situation off the record?
It’s not that minors are incapable of making complex choices, of course—there’s a solid empirical case for lowering the voting age, and their personal autonomy should be a given. But at the same time, modern neuroscience tells us that the teenage brain is very much a work in progress, with full rational faculties not developing until as late as 25 years, and warns that young minds are “uniquely susceptible to persuasion.” It’s this last category that presents the greatest dangers, as teenagers are seldom given a realistic picture of the horrors war entails. For many, their concept of armed conflict comes mainly from movies and video games, many of which are actively funded by the military, and from a news media which carefully sanitizes its coverage, never showing the gruesome realities of death and injury. Even the average adult, in America, has likely never seen the shattered, bloody mess left behind by an artillery shell or IED, or spoken to one of the many PTSD survivors who deal with “night terrors at sundown” and “daily anxiety attacks” years after their tours of service. And the younger the target of recruitment is, the more this becomes true—to the extent that the Military Times recently argued for lowering the legal recruitment age to 16, noting that “16-year-olds show a greater propensity toward military service than 18-year-olds—23 percent versus just 12 percent.” In other words, the likelihood of a successful recruitment depends directly on the degree to which the target doesn’t know what they’re getting into.
There have, thankfully, been efforts to put an end to this madness. In 2020, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez introduced a groundbreaking pair of amendments to that year’s House Defense Appropriations bill, one of which would have removed federal funding for military recruiting operations on Twitch and other streaming platforms, and a second which would have defunded recruitment in schools altogether. Predictably enough, these were voted down by AOC’s more myopic colleagues in both parties—but they form an intriguing blueprint for what a future government, genuinely dedicated to the safety and well-being of its children, might undertake. At the same time, a robust “counter-recruitment” movement has been growing. Composed of groups as diverse as the Quakers, Mennonites, and other pacifist churches, local parents organizations, veterans, women’s groups, and students themselves, these grassroots efforts aim to “limit the influence of military recruiters” and provide students with “information on jobs in peacemaking and nonviolent ways to afford college” instead, among other resources. Despite the pervasiveness and vast budget of the recruiting apparatus, there is reason to hope.
The question of how and when to assemble a military is a difficult one, and it’s unclear if anyone has a satisfying answer. Some scholars, including Noam Chomsky, have argued that a compulsory draft is actually better than voluntary recruitment, since it gives everyone a deeply personal stake in opposing unjust wars, and eliminates the class divide that creates a “mercenary army of the disadvantaged.” There are also compelling counter-arguments to this view. But one thing everyone should be able to agree on, is that the militarization of childhood and education is unacceptable as an option. Institutions like the ASVAB test and JROTC make a grim joke of America’s claims of moral authority, and they form a direct, material threat to the safety of young students, far more than any bogeyman-of-the-week dreamed up by the Right. If we’re going to have a society worth defending in the first place, the abolition of recruitment in schools is the bare minimum.