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Poverty is the recruiter for our “volunteer” army

Lesson plans from the Pentagon

Oh, the children!

Filling the ranks is more complicated than it used to be, thanks to a change that occurred back in 1973, a year of startling historical significance. 1973 was the year of the Roe v. Wade decision and the Watergate hearings (remember those?).

But there was more: the United States was tangled militarily in Vietnam and torn apart by protests on the home front. Leaders were on the brink of conceding defeat in ‘Nam and getting the hell out of the ravaged country.

But first they ended the draft

The idea was to shut up the protesters by taking away their personal stake in America’s militarism. The term then emerging was “Vietnam syndrome”—people were sick of war. Big problem for the defense industry and the acquiescent politicians indebted to it.

Patriotism itself had become poisoned. People began calling for profound national change, including an end to war. Was the antiwar movement becoming the new patriotism?

Ending the draft turned out to be the right move

PR-wise, the military could laud its dependence on an “all-volunteer” army. Patriotism lives! But quietly, secretly, the military had to make some changes in its recruitment procedures to ensure it could still get enough boys (and girls) “to keep the country safe.”

Marketing and grooming

Their new approach to recruitment had two main thrusts. One was to make full use of the poverty draft — marketing enlistment to poor and disadvantaged young people as the entryway to middle-class financial .

Second was to capture the minds of potential recruits while they were still children: introducing them to real-world militarism via videogames and high school gun fun, officially known as Junior ROTC. US Department of Defense (DOD) invites children as young as fifth grade into “Starbase,” a program that exposes children to “positive civilian and military role models found on Active, Guard, and Reserve military bases…”

We need indebted students

The nature of the poverty “draft” burst into the news recently when 19 Republican House members signed a letter to President Biden, expressing alarm at his decision to partially cancel student debt. They warned him:

“By forgiving such a wide swath of loans for borrowers, you are removing any leverage the Department of Defense maintained as one of the fastest and easiest ways of paying for higher education.”

Careful! Giving everyone equal financial opportunities may sound nice, but it can screw up the system.

As Thomas Gokey, an organizer with the Debt Collective, which works for debt cancellation, put it, according to Vice:

“Debt is a form of social control. You can force people to do all kinds of things if you put them in debt first, including waging unjust wars, killing and hurting other people, and risking (their) own life and limbs.”

Debt as a means of leverage, a form of social control—how come kids don’t say those words when they recite the Pledge of Allegiance?

State-sponsored enticements

The Pentagon knows that student debt, or even poverty in general, is not sufficient to keep the recruits flowing. Having been a boy who was totally gonzo about playing war—pretending to die, pretending to kill—I can understand how kids (well, boys) of all economic strata constitute a susceptible market for recruiters.

For 20 years, the Army ran a video game website called America’s Army, which apparently was wildly successful at attracting the attention of young people. It began in 2002 and although it was discontinued earlier this year, the Army and other military branches are still involved in video games and competitive electronic sports.

The “war is cool” crowd

It doesn’t stop there and it isn’t just a game. Gokey, again quoted in Vice, pointed out that “colleges often benefit immensely from the GI Bill financially, giving them incentive to support recruitment on campus.” Recruiters are on college campuses (and in our high schools)—especially the ones desperate for funding. JROTC is where the poverty draft meets the war-looks-cool crowd.

Sylvia McGauley, a teacher in an impoverished school district outside Portland, Oregon, described her school as the “perfect prey for military recruiters who win points for filling the coffers of the poverty draft.” Her words are from an essay, written in 2014 and published by Rethinking Schools, called “The Military Invasion of My High School.”

Military propaganda in the public school curriculum

She writes about the JROTC program at her school, which she describes as “a school within a school.”

“JROTC is not about education. But by housing recruiters and JROTC in public schools and offering them carte blanche privileges, we provide them a cloak of legitimacy. Militarism was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘giant triplets’ of societal destruction (along with racism and extreme materialism). Today it appears as a legitimate component of the educational system—most often at underfunded schools.”

JROTC gave students access to weapons training, and even, in partnership with the National Rifle Association, sponsored marksmanship matches. This was in direct contradiction with the school’s embrace of nonviolent conflict resolution, including its commitment to Restorative Justice and peer mediation.

It also made its way into classrooms. Via classes called “Leadership Education Training” JROTC instructors taught a Pentagon-scripted version “history,” which, McGauley notes, maintains that “the sole cause of the Vietnam War was containment of communism” and the United States “went to war in Iraq as part of its global war on terrorism.” Period.

Propaganda, in other words. Not in any way true history.

The US military needs more than just money (a trillion dollars or so) in its annual budget. It needs access to America’s young people—their wallets, their bodies and their minds.

Robert Koehler (, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago journalist and the author of Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.

Check out “Starbase”, a Defense Dept. grooming program

Our mission: To expose our nation’s youth to the technological environments and positive civilian and military role models found on Active, Guard, and Reserve military bases and installations. To nurture a winning network of collaborators and build mutual loyalty within our communities, by providing 25 hours of exemplary hands-on instruction and activities that meet or exceed the National Standards.

from the Department’s introduction to Starbase at youth.GOV

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