Countering Junior Recruitment

Mar.-Apr. 2003/ Nonviolent Activist Magazine - War Resisters League

Asif ullah -

Ostensibly a training program, JROTC—the U.S. Army’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps—is actually a recruiting device for the Army. Unlike the college ROTC program, which actually trains participating cadets to be officers when they graduate, JROTC “trains” high school students only to be privates, exactly as they would be if they never joined the program at all.

In the winter of 2001/2002, ROOTS (Revolution Out Of Truth & Struggle), the War Resisters League’s youth program, decided to launch a major campaign to counter JROTC. Chosen after many meetings and discussions, the campaign, as members of ROOTS saw it, would serve as one of the most concrete and grassroots forms of doing antiwar work.

To begin with, ROOTS focused on researching the ins and outs of JROTC: the history, the players involved, the demographics of those being targeted, the number of established and prospective units, and the costs. Since then, ROOTS has worked across the country to reduce the effectiveness of JROTC as a recruiting tool in the hope of some day ending the program entirely.
Recruitment Tool

In Chapter 6 of Army Regulation 145-2, “Education and Training,” JROTC is defined as “a course of instruction taught for academic credit in high schools by retired officers and non-commissioned officers. In public schools, students select Junior ROTC as an elective course. In some private schools, such as military schools, enrollment in JROTC may be a mandatory part of the curriculum.”

JROTC is pitched as a positive development program and less widely advertised as a recruitment tool targeting young inner-city people of color; in fact, spokespeople deny its use as a recruitment vehicle. Yet Defense Secretary William Cohen has referred to it as “one of the best recruitment programs we could have,” and an ROTC memorandum (Cadet Command Policy memorandum 50, March 30, 1999) made it clear that JROTC’s primary objective is to “to do everything possible to influence young impressionable people under [JROTC] control to enlist in the Army.”

Recruiter smothering of students is nothing new—and was vastly encouraged by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which gives military recruiters access to contact information for all students—but a JROTC unit in place strengthens the recruiters’ legal framework. Memorandum 50 describes the potential of JROTC “to promote a synergistic effort of all Army assets, maximize recruiting efforts” (section 7) and provide the Army with access not just to those who enroll as JROTC cadets but “to the entire student body” (section 6b), including using “guidance counselors to sell the Army story” (section 7).

A JROTC Unit Is Born

A JROTC unit starts in one of two ways, from which there can be any number of variable methods of implementation: Either a school fills out an application and contract for establishment of a JROTC unit, or the Pentagon, which targets poor school districts, identifies sympathetic bodies or individuals, and a regional or local recruitment director makes contact with a potentially willing administration, school board, teacher, parent or student. In either case, either the school board sells the idea to the administration or the administration sells the idea to the school board; ultimately, the proposal is put before the school board for a vote.

The criteria and costs for establishing a JROTC unit are made clear in the microscopic print of the JROTC application: “To employ qualified instructors authorized and approved by the army to administer the military courses at no expense to the government.” In parentheses is the stipulation that the program must hire at least two officers: “a minimum of one officer and one noncommissioned officer per unit.”

In other words, schools that decide to establish a JROTC unit must hire retired military personnel. Unlike civilian teachers who are evaluated on academic criteria, JROTC instructors are weighed on a highly militaristic scale. Prospective military instructors must “represent the U.S. Army in the classroom and community” (“U.S. Army JROTC Military Instructor Employment Opportunities”). Their approval by the military pre-determines a restrictive, boot-camp mode of teaching that discourages critical thought and promotes blind inculcation.

The Costs

According to “The True Cost of JROTC,” a report written by the American Friends Service Committee, “The cost of the standard JROTC instructor team is $76,000. JROTC’s practice of hiring two or more teachers to do the job of one is a key reason why some studies conclude that it is more expensive than non- military school programs.”

In addition to paying instructors, schools that establish JROTC programs are also responsible for providing facilities. For instance, in section D of the contract to establish a JROTC unit, the school agrees to make available “classrooms, administrative offices, office equipment, instructional supplies, storage space, drill field [and] utilities,” and “to pay the cost and maintenance thereof.”

School districts nationwide spent an estimated $222 million of local taxes on JROTC instructor costs during the 1998-1999 school year, while the Department of Defense contributed an additional $167.8 million. According to a Time magazine article (February 24, 2002), “Pentagon funding [for JROTC] is expected to rise more than 50 percent, from $215 million last year to $326 million by 2004.”


Like military recruitment in general, JROTC targets those most susceptible to the promises of military employment: economically disenfranchised young people. Since JROTC is not just recruiters telling young folk to join the military but a program, it is also a form of social control through military indoctrination. This was made especially clear with Colin Powell’s push for doubling the number of JROTC units in inner cities after the urban uprisings of the early ’90s. JROTC began being pitched as a program to instill respect and discipline and as an alternative to the violence of the streets. “Inner-city kids, many from broken homes, found stability and role models in Junior ROTC. They got a taste of discipline, the work ethic, and they experienced pride of membership in something healthier than a gang” (Colin Powell, My American Journey).

While some parents and community members see JROTC as an opportunity to get their kids on the right track, the targeted population has not always received JROTC with open arms. The role of the military in capturing and executing slaves, in incarceration and death row, genocide and elimination, displacement and forced exile, has made many in marginalized Black, brown and red communities more than a little skeptical of the JROTC lure.

A report from ROTC’s Cadet Command illustrates some of the challenges JROTC faces in meeting Colin Powell’s vision: “Penetrating the inner-city schools of the Northeast has also presented difficulties. Why it has been so difficult is not entirely clear, but it appears that tradition and political culture in this region do not foster in the population an affinity for military service. To counteract the pervasive negative market forces at work in the region, Cadet Command developed an awareness campaign designed to explain to targeted school systems the advantages of JROTC.”

ROOTS’ Accountability

The flagrancy with which JROTC aimed at its target population raised the question of accountability for the ROOTS campaign: To whom would the campaign be responsible? So as not to make this campaign yet another heroic effort of an exclusive group of activists, ROOTS determined, after its research phase, that its primary first goal would be involving and placing in leadership those most targeted by military recruitment. This is an obvious and basic tenet of any genuine social change organizing effort: to take direction from, and facilitate leadership in, those from the communities actually facing the issue, as well as to foster a safe space to prevent the usual power dynamics from taking over valuable time and energy.

Like activists in other areas, those of us doing counter-recruitment work often face the problem of not having significant relationships with those most affected by the issue. ROOTS has sought to put systems in place that ensure accountability. Although this empowering effort has taken time, ROOTS has worked feverishly on putting the word out there about the campaign.

Goals of the Campaign

Developing clear, tangible and achievable goals as well as the tactics needed to accomplish those goals was a key part of our strategic development. The goals and tactics of the ROOTS campaign have served as the blueprint from which we have been operating and plugging people into the campaign.

Long-Term Goals:

* To prevent JROTC units that don’t yet exist from coming into existence in schools targeted by the Pentagon.
* To dismantle existing JROTC units.

Mid-Term Goal:

* To create or facilitate alternative programs through which young people can gain the benefits the recruiters claim for JROTC—at lower cost to their schools and without military training.

Short-Term Goals:

* To gain “equal access” for counter-recruitment materials—literature, video, etc.—at schools where JROTC units and military recruitment are fixtures.
* To have school boards make transparent to students, parents and teachers the monies required to maintain or create new JROTC units.
* To establish a G.I. rights hotline for young people signed up for the Army’s Delayed Entry Program. (A counter- recruitment coalition that includes WRL has a hotline geared toward people already in the military).
* Reduction in the number of people applying for JROTC in schools with existing JROTC units, with the hope of putting existing JROTC programs on probation, which will create room for their eventual expulsion.

The Grassroots
The ROOTS counter-JROTC campaign is beginning to take off. ROOTS has done presentations and workshops on countering JROTC in several regions. Through workshops, trainings, meetings, strategizing sessions and on-the-ground one-on-ones in various parts of the country, we have begun developing a base of promising young counter-recruiters.

In Belle Glade and Lake Worth, FL, people who have participated in the ROOTS counter-recruitment/JROTC workshop are working on gaining equal access and creating an alternative-to- militarism curriculum. The principle of Lake Worth High School agreed to allow outside facilitators to do presentations on subjects ranging from Iraq to Chicano history. In the one high school in Belle Glade (where there are 30 churches, 10 prisons and one high school), ROOTS task force member Jermaine Weld offers alternative study groups outside of school to critique and examine U.S. imperialism. Jermaine is also working to set up internships with students interested in picking up marketable skills as an alternative to the military.

In other areas ROOTS is focusing on building a base of counter-recruiters. In several high schools in Philadelphia, through the efforts of ROOTS task force members in the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, students targeted by military recruiters are also getting literature like the WRL’s “It’s Not Just a Job, It’s Eight Years of Your Life” pamphlet.

In New York City, ROOTS, along with the Ya Ya Network of high school activists, is working on countering recruitment efforts in high schools through out the city. NBC has shown interest in the counter-recruitment effort and has even made an appearance at one of our biweekly meetings to interview some of the high school participants.

Through classroom discussions and one-on-one meetings, ROOTS is working toward bringing more young people in affected communities to the forefront of this struggle. ROOTS has so far done workshops in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, Nashville, Oakland and Berkeley. One of the ideas we are currently crystallizing is an alternatives survey project to get young people involved. One side of a flyer would show how much a JROTC unit is costing or can cost their school, and the other side would be a survey asking how this money could otherwise be used.

After ROOTS did a campaign development training for the global justice group Students Transforming And Resisting Corporations, known as STARC, STARC decided to play an ally/support role in taking on the ROOTS counter-JROTC campaign. STARC is a group of college activists who, recognizing their privilege and the way in which privilege and power work, are looking to provide support for communities most under the gun. ROOTS has been leading strategizing sessions and providing a framework for STARC to support and incorporate the ROOTS counter-JROTC campaign into its larger organizational work. Currently STARC and ROOTS are working to establish the campaign at STARC chapters on the following campuses, where members are already working on the issue: Portland State University and Portland Community College in Oregon, Hampshire and Holyoke Community Colleges in Massachusetts, the University of Las Vegas, San Francisco State College, George Mason University in Virginia, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Colby College in Maine and Tulsa and Oklahoma State Universities in Oklahoma. ROOTS and STARC have had four strategizing sessions and the STARC representatives have biweekly conference calls.

Finally, ROOTS is working with other counter-recruitment organizations on a national counter-recruitment conference with workshops on military recruitment, JROTC and the No Child Left Behind Act and strategizing sessions on how to counter them most effectively. The goal of the conference is to draw young people from socioseconomically disenfranchised communities into the counter-recruitment efforts and counter-JROTC campaign. To make the conference accessible, ROOTS is hoping to provide scholarships for young people from affected communities to get to the conference. Its date and location are to be determined.

For more information about ROOTS , e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call (212)228-0450.

Asif ullah is the coordinator of WRL’s ROOTS youth program.


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