Counter-Recruitment Season

The Power of Counter-Recruitment


Counter-recruitment has value on multiple levels. First, it can make a dramatic difference in the lives of individual young people by saving them from being used as pawns in wars driven by elite interests, from being cheated by a government that tends to shirk its responsibilities to soldiers and vets, and—in some cases—save them from killing others or being killed or maimed themselves. At its best, CR can also give them a sense of the human suffering created by war and of the reasons why their government goes to war in the first place, neither of which they get from their high school textbooks or from our corporate-driven consumer culture.

If the power to affect a few individuals’ lives were the only benefit, CR would still be worth the time. But CR is also a potentially-powerful strategy for ending current US wars and limiting the government’s capacity to wage more wars in the future, by depriving the military of its cannon fodder. And, fortunately for the current antiwar movement, CR requires relatively little in the way of further organization. If every current antiwar activist in the country dissuaded just two or three young people from enlisting, the government would lose tens or hundreds of thousands of recruits, crippling its ability to continue unjust wars. But CR campaigns are also a great way of bringing new people into the movement in a way that traditional marches and rallies can’t, because the positive impact of person-to-person contact is much more tangible and rewarding.


The tactic of CR falls into the same category as consumer boycotts or workers’ strikes, in that it allows its participants to wield what sociologist Michael Schwartz calls “structural leverage” [1]. That is, it transfers power to ordinary people who as individuals are relatively powerless, but who possess collective power by virtue of their key position in a structure of domination. By increasing the sheer number of youth who decline to enlist, CR deprives the rich and powerful of the foot soldiers necessary to carry out their imperialist, militarist, profiteering agenda. It thus reduces the movement’s reliance on elite decisionmaking, taking power out of the hands of politicians and their corporate sponsors. In this sense CR functions akin to other antiwar tactics like boycotts, divestment, and organized support for soldiers and veterans who refuse to fight.

One indication of the potential power of CR is the importance that US policymakers, like officials in all militarized states, place on military enlistment and obedience in the ranks. The enormous resources devoted to recruitment, the bipartisan exaltation of military service, and the severe punishment to which disobedient soldiers are subjected confirm this fact for the current-day United States. Even in highly repressive states like El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, verbal protest against regime policies is often tolerated. When that protest begins to threaten military discipline, however, regime tolerance ends. The beloved Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero spent several years publicly speaking out against his government’s brutal military dictatorship in the late 1970s, but when in March 1980 he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to disobey orders, he was assassinated by a (US-backed) death squad within a matter of hours.

A proliferation of well-organized and extensive CR campaigns wouldn’t immediately impair the Pentagon’s war-making ability, but over the medium and long term such campaigns could have a very significant impact. The absence of immediate macro-level success is not an indication of a movement’s failure, particularly with a tactic like CR which can make such a difference in the lives of individual young people and which is also a highly effective means of mass public education. CR and related efforts can help sow the seeds of an anti-militarist culture, promoting critical literacy among a population bombarded daily with government and corporate propaganda. In sum, CR has value on several levels: as individual outreach, as antiwar strategy, and as a means of the public education necessary for building a durable culture of peace and solidarity in the future.

Yet the antiwar movement as a whole (with many exceptions) has not emphasized counter-recruitment. Perhaps some activists are still afraid of being branded as “anti-soldier” or “anti-military.” Whatever the reasons, most antiwar groups have placed relatively little priority on CR efforts. My argument here is not that other strategies of the movement are necessarily ineffective, but that CR has not received enough emphasis—in thought, time, energy, and resources—within the antiwar and anti-militarism movements. If assigned more priority within a movement that also engages in direct action, support for dissident soldiers and veterans, educational campaigns, boycotts, divestment, legislative lobbying, and various other tactics, it could achieve a lot [2]. As a central part of a larger anti-militarist strategy, it could not only hasten the end to current US wars, but also help promote a culture of anti-militarism and human solidarity that could, over the long term, help shift policy and budgetary priorities away from war and corporate enrichment and toward things like education, health care, decent housing, environmental survival, and dignified and meaningful employment.


Obstacles and Opportunities


The biggest obstacles for counter-recruiters are poverty and unemployment. As Pentagon officials have publicly admitted, military recruiters thrive on economic crisis: the unpublicized everyday crisis faced by the poor and working class long prior to 2008, and the more generalized economic downturn and rising unemployment since then. The rebound in enlistment rates has coincided with the US economic decline of the past few years, putting the Pentagon “in a very favorable position” [3]. Personal reasons for enlistment vary, of course—some recruits join out of a misguided sense of patriotism, for example. But without economic coercion (or a military draft), the US government probably would have been physically incapable of engaging in any major military intervention since World War II, with the world and the US population far better off as a result. A generalized economic crisis, on the other hand, means not only higher enlistment rates but also reduces the alternative career and educational options available to potential recruits [4].

Secondary obstacles for counter-recruiters might include 1) hostility from school administrators and law enforcement who often go well beyond the boundaries of the law in trying to intimidate and harass counter-recruiters; 2) the geographic dispersion of would-be recruits, many of whom come from isolated small towns across the US heartland; 3) the inclusion of recruitment mechanisms in relatively-progressive legislation like the DREAM Act (which in its current form would offer citizenship in return for military service); and 4) the still-hegemonic idea that serving in the US military is inherently noble, an idea around which there is a very strong bipartisan consensus among the nation’s political elite, who share a bipartisan commitment to war, US global dominance, and a militarized economy at home [5].

But these obstacles to counter-recruitment pale in comparison to the opportunities. Antiwar and anti-militarist sentiment among the US public have been very high for the last several years, with majorities favoring an end to the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, diplomatic engagement over military intervention, and a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget [6]. These sentiments are particularly apparent among some of the communities most accustomed to discrimination and oppression. From 2000 to 2007, the enlistment rate of black youth declined by 58 percent—a stunning reflection of antiwar and anti-military sentiment, particularly given the fact that most black communities in the US face a perpetual economic crisis, with unemployment rates of 30, 40, or even 50 percent. Enlistment rates among youth in Puerto Rico are also far below the national average, probably due to both anticolonial consciousness and the extensive counter-recruitment efforts of Puerto Rican activists [7].

The goal, then, must be to promote this same critical awareness among the general population—among people of color who are often targeted by recruiters, but also crucially among white youth who are increasingly being recruited to make up for the decline in enlistment among youth of color and who tend to buy into nationalist fervor to a greater extent. Anti-militarist sentiment is extremely dangerous from the perspective of war-lovers, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed recently when he angrily attacked the European publics for being “averse to military force,” leading to a “demilitarization of Europe” and constituting an “impediment” to the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan [8].

Materials and Tips

There is by now a wealth of materials available online for use in counter-recruiting. I have tried to compile much of this information at my website, which features leaflets and other resources about the effects of war on soldiers and civilians and also provides ideas about alternatives to enlistment.

Plenty of additional materials are available on the websites of Brooklyn For Peace, the War Resisters League, the National Network Opposing the Militarization of YouthProject Great Futures, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, United for Peace and Justice, and others that can be located via internet searches.

A number of very informative documentary films, some quite short, are also available. Here is a recent clip about the military’s targeting of Latino youth. Other great documentaries include Military Myths, The New Patriots, Sir! No Sir!, and the recent film The Good Soldier—the latter three of which encourage youth to develop alternative moral rubrics by dissociating heroism from obedience to power.

Finally, a few tips on how to prepare for leafleting outside schools, shopping malls, or other such places:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the basic facts, tactics, and terminology of military recruitment. For a concise briefing go here. Also be sure to read carefully through all the material you’ll be distributing.
  1. Get in touch with a nearby chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or National Lawyers Guild, just in case you have questions or in case you encounter harassment from police or school officials.
  1. Know the basic laws regarding freedom of speech and access to schools. Anyone is legally allowed to stand on public grounds (on sidewalks, in parks, etc.) and distribute information as long as they do not block pedestrian or vehicle traffic; if school administrators or police officers say otherwise, ask for their names and contact information and say that they’ll be getting a call from your lawyer and facing a law suit if they continue to harass you. Show them a copy of the New York City court ruling guaranteeing the right to distribute literature on sidewalks outside schools. Our right to enter “semi-public” events held on school property without prior permission (e.g., parent-teacher conferences) is more debatable—courts have not yet ruled on this question. However, schools are legally obligated to provide “equal access” to non-military employers and college representatives at events such as career fairs; contact school officials (guidance counselors are usually a good bet) well in advance to request permission for such events. Leafleting outside events attended by parents is particularly effective, since students themselves are often more apathetic. Announcing that you have information about “students’ privacy rights” is a good way to get parents’ attention when distributing the opt-out forms.
  1. Approach students/parents not as an “activist” but as a person, sharing your personal reasons for wanting to provide them with this information. Listen to what they have to say, too—don’t just talk at them. Most people will simply walk past you and take the leaflets, though.
  1. Be prepared to encounter hostile parents or students. Try role-playing with a friend beforehand to prepare yourself for difficult questions or hostile remarks. (Appreciative parents/students are always more common than hostile ones, though of course the response varies by school).

The apparently mundane task of handing out leaflets and talking to young people, if done on a large scale, could have an enormous impact. Counter-recruitment was one of the tactics that the late Howard Zinn had in mind when he offered the following advice:

“Everything we do is important. Every little thing we do, every picket line we walk on, every letter we write, every act of civil disobedience we engage in, any recruiter that we talk to, any parent that we talk to, any GI that we talk to, any young person that we talk to, anything we do in class, outside of class, everything we do in the direction of a different world is important, even though at the moment they seem futile, because that’s how change comes about. Change comes about when millions of people do little things, which at certain points in history come together, and then something good and something important happens.” [9]

End Notes

[1] Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers’ Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880-1890 (New York: Academic Press, 1976).

[2] For some of the tactics outlined by July’s national antiwar conference in Albany, NY, see David Swanson, “Peace Movement Adopts New Comprehensive Strategy,”, 29 July 2010.

[3] Quote from Pentagon official Bill Carr, reported on Democracy Now! 15 October 2009 (headlines).

[4] Conversely, economic decline can potentially help reinforce the argument that national resources should not be wasted on war and the military.

[5] The fallacy of this notion, however, does not negate the fact that most soldiers exhibit enormous bravery and personal sacrifice, albeit in the service (often unconsciously) of an imperialist and corporate agenda.

[6] Some of these attitudes are expressed in poll results summarized here. For a recent poll reflecting widespread disagreement with the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations see the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll reported in Jennifer Agiesta, “Public Supportive of Iraq, Afghanistan Drawdowns,” Washington Post (blog), 16 July 2010; the poll nonetheless exhibits two of the severe flaws of most corporate-sponsored polls, in that it does not ask respondents to evaluate the morality of the wars and does not attempt to account for the highly-misleading political rhetoric and news coverage surrounding the occupations and particularly the alleged “withdrawal” from Iraq.

[7] Joseph Williams and Kevin Baron, “Military Sees Big Decline in Black Enlistees: Iraq War Cited in 58% Drop since 2000,” Boston Globe, 7 October 2007; Paul Lewis, “Recruiting For Iraq War Undercut in Puerto Rico,” Washington Post, 18 August 2007.

[8] Brian Knowlton, “Gates Calls European Mood a Danger to Peace,” New York Times, 24 February 2010.

[9] “Howard Zinn on the Uses of History and the War on Terrorism,” Democracy Now! 24 November 2006.



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