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America’s Child Soldiers

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Posted on Dec 16, 2013
JeffreyTurner (CC BY 2.0)

By Ann Jones, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Civic groups have raised a number of other objections to JROTC, ranging from discriminatory practices—against gays, immigrants, and Muslims, for example—to dangerous ones, such as bringing guns into schools (of all places).  Some units even set up shooting ranges where automatic rifles and live ammunition are used.  JROTC embellishes the dangerous mystique of such weapons, making them objects to covet, embrace, and jump at the chance to use.

In its own defense, the program publicizes a selling point widely accepted across the United States: that it provides “structure,” keeps kids from dropping out of school, and turns boys (and now girls) of “troubled” background into “men” who, without JROTC to save them (and the rest of us from them), would become junkies or criminals or worse. Colin Powell, the first ROTC grad ever to rise to the military’s top job, peddled just this line in his memoir My American Journey. “Inner-city kids,” he wrote, “many from broken homes, [find] stability and role models in Junior ROTC.”

No evidence exists to prove these claims, however, apart from student testimonials like that offered by the 14-year-old who told me he joined up for “structure.”  That kids (and their parents) fall for this sales pitch is a measure of their own limited options. The great majority of students find better, more life-affirming “structure” in school itself through academic courses, sports, choirs, bands, science or language clubs, internships—you name it—in schools where such opportunities exist.  Yet it is precisely in schools with such programs that administrators, teachers, parents, and kids working together are most likely to succeed in keeping JROTC out.  It is left to the “economically and educationally deprived” school systems targeted by the Pentagon to cut such “frills” and blow their budgets on a colonel or two who can offer students in need of “stability and role models” a promising, though perhaps very short, future as soldiers.

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In one such Boston inner city school, predominantly black, I sat in on JROTC classes where kids watched endless films of soldiers on parade, then had a go at it themselves in the school gym, rifles in hand.  (I have to admit that they could march far better than squads of the Afghan National Army, which I’ve also observed, but is that something to be proud of?) Since those classes often seemed to consist of hanging out, students had lots of time to chat with the Army recruiter whose desk was conveniently located in the JROTC classroom.

They chatted with me, too.  A 16-year-old African American girl, who was first in her class and had already signed up for the Army, told me she would make the military her career.  Her instructor—a white colonel she regarded as the father she never had at home—had led the class to believe that “our war” would go on for a very long time, or as he put it, “until we’ve killed every last Muslim on Earth.” She wanted to help save America by devoting her life to that “big job ahead.”

Stunned, I blurted out, “But what about Malcolm X?”  He grew up in Boston and a boulevard not far from the school was named in his honor. “Wasn’t he a Muslim?” I asked.

“Oh no, ma’am,” she said.  “Malcolm X was an American.”

A senior boy, who had also signed up with the recruiter, wanted to escape the violence of city streets.  He joined up shortly after one of his best friends, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight, was killed in a convenience store just down the block from the school.  He told me, “I’ve got no future here.  I might as well be in Afghanistan.”  He thought his chances of survival would be better there, but he worried about the fact that he had to finish high school before reporting for “duty.”  He said, “I just hope I can make it to the war.”

What kind of school system gives boys and girls such “choices”?  What kind of country?

What goes on in schools in your town?  Isn’t it time you found out?

TomDispatch regular Ann Jones is the author of a new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. (Jeremy Scahill just chose it as his favorite book of 2013.)  Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over. Her website is annjonesonline.com.

Copyright 2013 Ann Jones


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