The Battle for America’s Youth

Counter-recruitment has become a key battleground in the effort to stop the war in Iraq and prevent future military adventures by President Bush and a compliant Congress. The U.S. Army admits that it expects to miss its recruiting goals this month and next and is working on a revised sales pitch appealing to the patriotism of parents. Last week, nationwide demonstrations kicked off in Washington, D.C., including an event at an Army recruitment center, and in many cities, demonstrations were held outside of recruitment offices.

The Army keeps saying it is planning no return of the draft, but more and more commentators are sensing that the choice for the U.S. government might become withdraw from Iraq or enact a military draft. The Army has already increased the "backdoor draft," announcing that more people in the Individual Ready Reserves – those no longer in uniform and not obligated to train – are going to be called up for duty.

Last month, the Army missed its recruiting goal by 27 percent, the first time it had missed a monthly goal since May 2000. As of Feb. 28, the regular Army was 6 percent below the number of recruits it had expected to sign up at that point in the recruiting year, the Army Reserve was 10 percent off, and the Army National Guard was 25 percent off.

The Army is forecasting that all three elements – the active duty military, the Guard, and the Reserve – will fall short of their targets for March and April. Summer will become the key season for the military to reach its goal and for antiwar activists to increase anti-recruitment efforts. The Army has increased recruiters by 33 percent and antiwar activists are gearing up to respond.

The Army announced it plans some new approaches. One is designed to persuade more parents to steer their children to the Army by appealing to their patriotism. This may include an advertising campaign. In addition, members of Congress are being drafted into assisting with recruitment. In my county, Montgomery County, Maryland, liberal Congressman Chris Van Hollen has already announced that he will be holding a session on April 18 for 9th to 11th graders to introduce them to military colleges. We plan to be there providing students with information about the truth of military service.

The Army is going to face some serious problems in its recruiting drive. The most obvious is that the war is not going well. A majority of Americans now oppose the war, and it is unclear why we are occupying Iraq. Second, the corporate war profiteering – some of it directly related to Bush family members – is becoming more evident to the public. Many believe, with good reason, that the Iraq occupation is being conducted for U.S. corporate interests. If the corporate interests are using the war for unfair profits, and overbilling U.S. taxpayers – then why should anyone else put their lives on the line?

Finally, information about the dishonesty of recruiters is becoming widely known. There are numerous Web sites available to the public that provide the facts to people of recruitment age. Here are a few challenges to recruitment myths:

  • Despite the stated length of enlistment (usually four years), recruits can be kept in the military indefinitely or called back from the reserves many years later, as is being seen with the current back door draft.

  • Recruiters promise training that will lead to better jobs in civilian life. But several careful studies show that veterans typically earn 12 to 15 percent less than those workers who do not go into the military.

  • College benefits are a great exaggeration; because of all the small print requirements, only 35 percent receive GI bill funds for college and only 15 percent ever receive a college degree. Indeed, the average participant actually receives less money than a student who simply gets a Pell Grant and a Stafford Loan.

On top of all this, some truths are often not discussed:

  • Women in the military face a very high incidence of harassment and rape.

  • Military life is very hard on families, with the incidence of family abuse and violence three to five times higher than in the civilian population.

  • The hazards of military service include more than just getting killed or wounded. For instance, less than 300 U.S. soldiers were killed in the first Gulf War of 1991. But tens of thousands of Gulf War vets have reported chronic, debilitating physical and psychological disorders since serving in the Gulf.

Finally, the fine print on the back of the recruitment contract makes it clear that no promise made has to be kept. The Military Enlistment/Reenlistment contract states: "The following statements are not promises or guarantees of any kind. They explain some of the present laws affecting the Armed Forces which I cannot change but which Congress can change at any time." Indeed, as veterans well know, benefits promised have been repeatedly cut, with more reductions on the way.

Rather than PR campaigns with calls to patriotism, the military needs to reevaluate its programs, and the United States needs to reconsider its war-based approach to foreign relations. The public is getting wise to their racket and may soon refuse to be fooled by their efforts.