Military recruiters today have unprecedented access to students and other young people, particularly in poor neighborhoods. There are generally more Army recruiters at high schools than there are college counselors, says Elmer Roldan, fundraising director at Community Coalition in South Central Los Angeles, and there is “a more aggressive strategy to militarize them than to prepare them for college.” He notes that military recruiters target the best and brightest students, particularly young women.
So when high school senior Stephanie Hoang started working with the Oakland, California–based organization BAY-Peace, educating her peers about the potential risks of joining the military and helping to build alternative education and employment opportunities, her truth-in-recruitment work was more than just an internship: “It’s my peers being affected,” she says. “[Recruiters] are looking at me and thinking that I’m the person they want in the military.”
In 2008, nearly 185,000 men and women signed up for military service—the highest number since 2003. Many of the new recruits came from the groups hardest hit by the economic crisis. The National Priorities Project report on FY2008 Army recruiting reveals that with unemployment climbing above 7 percent last year, the steepest climb in recruiting came from lower-middle-class neighborhoods with median incomes in the $40,000-per-household range. Black and Native American women were recruited at high rates: Around a quarter of these recruits were women, compared to only about 14 percent of white recruits.
“Jobs with stability are rarities,” says Ann Lennon of the Carolina American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). “Options are narrowing and we have people who may have been in the workforce who are now thinking about going into the military.”
Amid ongoing economic instability, community and peace groups are working to build alternative opportunities. The Carolina AFSC, in alliance with green-economy groups, is developing sustainable training and employment opportunities. “People need to know what all of their options are,” Lennon says. “We have examples of people who have created their own jobs and economies.”
AFSC put together a series of questions potential recruits can ask to help them separate myth from fact in areas such as job training, funds for education, and posttraumatic stress disorder and other potential consequences of combat. “The military sometimes makes promises that it can’t keep,” Lennon says. “It’s important to know which ones they can.”
South Los Angeles’ Community Coalition works with students in the New World Foundation’s Civic Opportunities Initiative Network (COIN) pilot program. Through COIN, youth leaders receive leadership training and complete paid internships with social justice organizations, with the aim of keeping talented students in their communities.
Suzanne Smith, former research director at the National Priorities Project, notes that carrying on two wars is “draining resources from other areas.” The economic crisis provides the perfect moment to start redirecting funds away from unsustainable military solutions and into other areas: education, health support for veterans, community-based solutions to violence and militarism, and economic development to create jobs outside the military.
Excerpted from Dollars & Sense (July-Aug. 2009), an indispensable journal of economics and economic justice. Nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. www.dollarsandsense.org