Military recruiters aren’t getting much love these days.
“They’re talking ’bout us lying, but look at this,” complained Army Staff Sergeant Blanco (he declined to give his first name), holding up one of the flyers a group of anarchists was distributing Wednesday outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Brooklyn. “It says we work on commission and get paid more the more recruits we sign up. If that was true, I’d be driving a Lexus. We’d set up a tent and be out here 24-7.”
Billed on NYC Indymedia—as a chance to “strike at the Achilles heal of the war machine!”—the small street demo drew far more cops than anarchists. But for the Army and Marine recruiters milling outside their empty offices on Flatbush Avenue, it was yet another hurdle in a job that’s getting tougher by the day.
From San Francisco, where voters just passed a measure aimed at kicking recruiters out of public schools and off college campuses, to East Harlem, where about 75 people gathered on Monday to protest the opening of a new recruiting office on East 103rd Street, recruiters are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the anti-war movement.
Buoyed by falling enlistment rates, peace activists of all stripes now see draining the supply of new soldiers as a more hands on way to stop the war in Iraq.
“It’s better than marching around in circles,” said Brian, a dumpster-diving squatter from Brooklyn as he pressed leaflets and pamphlets on high school kids and other passersby in hopes of dissuading any potential new GIs.
In the past year, Army enlistment has fallen off target by more than 6,600 soldiers, the biggest shortfall since 1979. Recruiting for the National Guard and Army Reserves has been worse.
Among African Americans, Army enlistment has dropped by 40 percent since 2000, a fact not lost on the recruiters posted in Flatbush. “We don’t have the revolving door any more,” said Army staff sergeant Arrindell, a Brooklyn native who also declined to give his first name. “Before a lot of people were walking in. Now you really have to go out and hustle.”
Arrindell shrugged. “Nobody in New York has anything good to say about the war,” he said.
“If we continue at this pace, guess what’s next: a draft,” an African American sergeant sitting at the desk next to him chimed in. “What are we going to do then as a country—are people going to Canada? Then you’ve actually forced the government to do that, because you’ve stopped the people who want to voluntarily serve by giving them a lot of flak for it. What kind of democracy would we have then?”
Talk of crisis within the ranks only heartened the anarchists demonstrating outside. “Bring it on—I would love a draft,” said Wesley Everett, a 31-year-old from Queens who helped organize the protest. “It would expose how pathetic their war agenda really is.
“People sign up for two years’ service but they can be called up for eight under the stop-loss program—so that already is a draft. Poverty is a draft,” he continued, echoing a complaint by Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, who has advocated reinstating a universal draft as a means to check the Bush Administration’s militarism.
As Rangel and others have argued, the U.S. would be out of Iraq already—or might never have gone in—if children of the middle and privileged classes were forced to serve.
Of course, the thought that the military could be backed into a corner like this has alarmed war supporters, who have echoed President Bush’s charge that the anti-war movement is helping the enemy.
On Tuesday, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly went so far as to suggest that al Qaeda should bomb San Francisco for its relatively mild ballot proposition urging educators at public schools to discourage recruitment and provide students with info on scholarships and alternatives to the military instead.
Counter-recruitment protests have become a flashpoint in the debate over the war in Iraq, and right now the protest crowd has the momentum.
“In the past year, there’s been an explosion in this kind of work across the country,” says Steve Theberge, a youth organizer with the War Resisters League. “A lot of people felt really powerless after the last election. But this is something people can grab on to. You can see concrete results, and there’s real power in not feeding the war machine. For a high school student to say no to the military and speak out against recruiters at their school—or an entire community to say no to recruitment—that’s very empowering.”
On Thursday, students were out picketing and protesting at high schools and colleges across the country as part of a nationwide “Not Your Soldier” day of action called by the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition Actions were slated in more than 30 towns and cities, including Hicksville, Long Island, where high school students staged a lunchtime walkout to demand and end to military recruitment on campus, and Washington, D.C., where area students planned to besiege Pentagon employees at rush-hour with the demand of “Stop the Assault on Youth!”
In New York City, activists worked outside of high schools including Washington Irving in Manhattan and Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. They offered forms explaining how students can opt-out of the recruiting lists compiled from enrollment data that schools are now required to turn over under the Leave No Child Behind Act. And they circulated petitions in support of the Student Privacy Act , which could bar the military from getting names and contact information for students from schools without parental consent.
For Friday, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance has put out a call for “non-violent resistance” outside recruiting stations. So far demos have been announced in 15 cities, including New York, where the War Resisters League is holding a funeral march from Washington Square Park to the U.S. Navy Recruiting station at 207 West 24th St Street at 7th Avenue.
While the New York event is intended as a solemn procession with mock coffins, in Eugene, Oregon, and Madison, Wisconsin, and Lakewood, Colorado, there are plans for sit-ins and blockades outside recruiting centers. In Pittsburgh, anarchists and other anti-war activists plan a noisy picket outside the same recruiting station where police responded with tasers, pepper spray and police dogs at a protest-turned-melee in August.
Dubbed “National Stand Down Day,” Friday’s protest takes its name from the “stand down” day called by Army brass in May. That’s when recruiters were ordered to halt their outreach and review legal and ethical guidelines after a rash of reports of overly aggressive and abusive recruiting practices. Among the troubling incidents, recruiters in Golden, Colorado, were caught advising a 17-year-old to lie about his high school diploma and fake a drug test in order to enlist.
As public support for the war withers (63 percent of Americans now disapprove of the situation in Iraq, according to the latest CNN/ Gallup/ USA Today poll) the Pentagon is upping the ante with boosted sign-up bonuses, video games, and slick ads to woo parents. Recruiters are also aggressively going after poor rural and minority youth.
Counter-recruiters say the government is closing off choices for underprivileged kids. “People see the money that would be going to education and CUNY schools for funding and scholarships so they could go to college is just going to the war,” says Gloria Quinones, a mom who helped organize the demo in East Harlem. “It’s like they’re being backed up against the wall so they have no other options.”
The House of Representatives just voted to slash student loans by more than $14 billion; if the language stays in the final budget bill, that would be the biggest cut in the history of the federal loan program. Yet the Pentagon is spending $7 billion a month to maintain the Iraq occupation.
And still recruiters are scrambling to meet their quotas. The increased pressure on young people is only provoking more resistance, anti-war activists say. “These days it’s pretty hard to find anyone who supports what the military is doing,” says David Tykulsker of Brooklyn Parents for Peace, which has been hosting tables outside Brooklyn high schools to inform students of their right to opt out of the Pentagon’s recruitment lists.
Under the Leave No Child Behind Act, schools are required to turn over the names, phone numbers, and addresses of all students–though students can remove their names if they request that.
Tykulsker claims that a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy recently told him as many as half of New York City students have chosen to remove their names from the lists–a number that if true would top the 19 percent opt-out rate recently reported in Boston.
A spokesperson with New York’s Department of Education said no overall figures exist because the city is not required to keep such data.
Yet even as some students opt out of the lists that schools are mandated
to provide, the Pentagon has hired a direct marketing firm to amass data on young people aged 16 to 25–including birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, ethnicity, religious affiliation, grade-point averages, school interests, and other info pulled from motor vehicle records, commercial data vendors, Armed Services aptitude tests, and scholarship survey forms–possibly even medical lists.
Unlike the student lists compiled by schools, there is no opt-out form for the Pentagon’s Joint Advertising and Market Research Studies (JAMRS) Recruiting Database. Last month a coalition of parents, anti-war, and privacy groups wrote to the Department of Defense demanding that the $343 million program be dismantled.
“Initially I think people were shocked at the privacy issues involved
with turning over student records. Now I think people are more shocked at what the military is actually doing,” Tykulsker says. “This is a military that’s engaged in serious illegal acts, ranging from torture and illegal detentions to the use of chemical warfare,” he adds, referring to reports that the Army used white phosphorus in the siege of Falluja. “The idea that we would be subjecting our children to this is ludicrous.”
The recruiters whose job is to enlist new troops hear the dissent–and
argue they’re part of protecting it. “We’re so quick to voice our opinions, but why do you have the right to do that? Because of the men and women in uniform who protect our freedom,” says the African American Army sergeant working the desk in Flatbush. “You might not support the reason for the war, but all of us are Americans. I’ve been in the Army for 18 years–for me, this is a livelihood. This is my career.”