Military indoctrination forced on U.S. children


I was in the early days of my second year of high school on 9/11. As I’ve mentioned before, I was pretty involved in political activism at the time, and the general feeling around me was that this event, with this administration, could only lead to war and authoritarianism. That means, of course that when the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 2001 was put forward in December of that year, it caught my attention. I had already gotten the standard counselling given to young Quaker men about how to establish a paper trail to prove a deep-seated opposition to war, in the event of a draft. If memory serves, I wrote “I am a conscientious objector” on my draft card as soon as I got it, and I knew plenty of people who had been of that age during the last draft for the invasion of Vietnam. If memory serves, the carveout for those religiously opposed to war was that we would be exempted from the arms and combat training, but still be required to go through other aspects of basic training, including courses in history, as told by the U.S. armed forces.

Similar laws were proposed and rejected in the coming years, but it was always there as a concern, as The War on Terror ground on. Over the years since, I’ve learned more about how the U.S. does its military propaganda, from Stargate being my favorite science fiction franchise for a long, long time, to hearing about things like Top Gun and military involvement in superhero movies. Despite all that the term “indoctrination” tends to retain more coercive vibes. It conjures images of re-education programs, or government mandated history lessons, like those in the law I mentioned earlier. Sure, there’s some propaganda through shows and movies, but it’s not like anyone is required to watch it, and we do have military programs for children, like JROTC, but those aren’t mandated either, right?

Well…

On her first day of high school, Andreya Thomas looked over her schedule and found that she was enrolled in a class with an unfamiliar name: JROTC.

She and other freshmen at Pershing High School in Detroit soon learned they had been placed into the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a program funded by the U.S. military designed to teach leadership skills, discipline and civic values – and open students’ eyes to the idea of a military career. In the class, students had to wear military uniforms and obey orders from an instructor who was often yelling, Thomas said, but when several of them pleaded to be allowed to drop the class, school administrators refused.

“They told us it was mandatory,” Thomas said.

JROTC programs, taught by military veterans at some 3,500 high schools across the country, are supposed to be elective, and the Pentagon has said requiring students to take them goes against its guidelines. But the New York Times found thousands of public school students were being funneled into the classes without ever having chosen them, either as an explicit requirement or by being automatically enrolled.

A review of JROTC enrollment data collected from more than 200 public records requests showed dozens of schools have made the program mandatory or steered more than 75% of students in a single grade into the classes.

See, the reality is that the U.S. government makes liberal use of coercion within its borders, but it has developed a whole array of tactics to hide its hand. There are some who want more overt coercion, of course, but I think a big part of why so many people in the U.S. believe they live in the most free country in the world, is that the illusion of freedom is carefully maintained. We’re not free, but we’re taught to view the walls that enclose us as natural features of the landscape. We’re lab rats, not fully aware of the fact that the maze in which we find ourselves was made with intent.

The problem of people living without adequate shelter isn’t “just the way things are”, it’s a deliberate policy decision to keep people in line. When workers start getting too much power, the ruling class starts talking about inflation, allegedly caused by the peasantry having too much money, so they say we need to raise interest rates, and cut programs that help people (when they’re not using the debt to do that), and so artificial scarcity is maintained, and if you act out too much, well, nobody’s gonna hire you, so you could end up on the street, which for many is a fate worse than death. More than that, extreme poverty is increasingly being made illegal, so that we’re using the police – armed agents of the government – to attack, rob, and in some cases imprison people for the crime of being unable to afford to pay rent to a landlord. Remember also that New York City is planning to lock people in mental hospitals because cops decided they were mentally ill.

This is the setting in which the U.S. has an “all-volunteer” military, and in which the military is advertised -falsely- as a ticket out of poverty. Activists have pointed to this for a long time, but occasionally you’ll even get politicians admitting that they don’t want to get rid of student debt because it’ll hurt recruitment. With that being so open, I have to wonder about the motivation behind things like the decision to increase child poverty that I talked about earlier today. After all, if we’re relying on poverty to recruit young people, a reduction in child poverty could hurt recruitment just as much as a free college education.

This is where understanding the United States as an empire becomes crucial – throughout its history, the United States has pretty much always been waging war somewhere, and while U.S. soldiers aren’t particularly likely to die in combat (an early death later BECAUSE of combat and service is a different matter), it takes a lot of people to maintain constant warfare and hundreds of military bases all over the world. Add in the fact that the U.S. military tends to treat the people in its care like dirt, and you have to have something to drive recruitment.

And yet, it seems like it’s not enough, so someone somewhere decided to just start requiring children to participate in a military training and indoctrination program. I don’t know if money changed hands, or if it was just the pet project of a few fascist types in charge of schooling, but this seems to be a pretty widespread problem, scattered all around the country. There is, however, a bit of a pattern in the schools where this happened. Can you guess what it is?

A vast majority of the schools with those high enrollment numbers were attended by a large proportion of nonwhite students and those from low-income households, the Times found.

[…]

In analyzing data released by the Army, the Times found that among schools where at least three-quarters of freshmen were enrolled in JROTC, more than 80% of them had a student body composed primarily of Black or Hispanic students. That was a higher rate than other JROTC schools (more than 50%of them had such a makeup) and U.S. high schools without JROTC programs (about 30%).

In some districts examined by the Times, it was difficult to discern whether a school required JROTC or if some other reason had led a large percentage of its freshmen to enroll in the program.

In Detroit, the district said in a statement that administrators did not require students to take JROTC, although they “do encourage students in ninth grade to take the course to spark their interest.”

But two recent students at Pershing, in addition to Thomas, said in interviews that they had been required to take the class. District data showed 90% of freshmen were enrolled in JROTC during the 2021-22 school year.

Three other Detroit high schools also enrolled more than 75% of their freshmen in the class, according to district data.

Schools that have faced questions over mandatory or automatic enrollments have often responded by backing away from the requirements, as Chicago did last year.

In that case, which came to light after an article from the education news website Chalkbeat, an investigation by the school district’s inspector general found that nearly 100% of freshmen had been enrolled at four high schools that served primarily low-income students on the city’s South and West sides.

It was “a clear sign the program was not voluntary,” the report said.

The U.S. has long had a narrative that the only problem facing black people is their own “mysterious” lack of discipline, work ethic, responsibility, and so on. From what I can tell this narrative has existed virtually un-changed since the early justifications for race-based chattel slavery. It’s hard for me not to think of that when I see who was told that they’re required to go through this military program that’s supposed to teach “discipline” and “service”. It’s doubly infuriating when coupled with the federal government’s decision to increase child poverty. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing this at the same time as a rise in fascism, and I think we should be on the lookout for more stuff like this to come.


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Comments

  1. JM says

    What I find funny about this is that it’s ultimately counter productive. If you want to recruit more officers forcing them into the low level program isn’t a good way to encourage them.

    This program was probably put together by some junior officer who had a target number of people in JROTC programs he had to hit. The only way he could hit that number was cutting a deal with the schools to have them stick some people in JROTC. The schools are probably getting some funding out of this but may have been sold on patriotism and teaching discipline.

  2. antaresrichard says

    It was the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) with the support of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) that helped me obtain my 1-O classification during Vietnam. My father, my pacifistic role model, was himself a conscientious objector during WW2 but served in the USAAF because of the 1-A-O status assigned to him.

  3. beholder says

    I was in the early days of my second year of high school on 9/11. As I’ve mentioned before, I was pretty involved in political activism at the time

    I envy your political awareness. I would say I developed a strong antiwar philosophy shortly after 9/11 and our shameful invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (where did the USA antiwar movement go these days, anyway?), but 9/11 came and went when I was 13 years old, and I didn’t really have well-formulated political opinions at the time.

    , and the general feeling around me was that this event, with this administration, could only lead to war and authoritarianism.

    The general feeling around me was “Why do they hate us?” and “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” My revulsion at seeing the reaction of the people around me probably helped shape my antiwar leanings.

  4. Dunc says

    It’s increasingly looking like somebody watched Paul Verhoeven’s version of Starship Troopers and thought “That looks like a good idea”…

    Service guarantees citizenship! Would you like to know more?

  5. Katydid says

    Okay, I’m confused; the last drafts were in 1973. You knew people who were drafted? Were they in your parents’ generation?

    As for JROTC; that’s not offered in any of the schools my kids went to. They were both in Civil Air Patrol (think the Air Force running the Boy Scouts), where they both logged air time flying small airplanes and were shipped off to help with cleanup after Hurricane Sandy. JROTC doesn’t mandate military service. I researched the topic and agree that the coerced cases were in majority-minority schools and that’s troubling because JROTC should never be mandatory. I’m wondering if it’s mandatory in the same way it was mandatory for girls in my high school to take typing–so if our husbands divorced us, we could always go to work as a secretary.

    In my family, I am second-generation American and third-generation military retired. My spouse is also military retired and the family has had military involvement since the War of Independence. In his small rust-belt town, about the only option for employment is to join the military.

  6. says

    Random thought on Starship Troopers:
    The theory, as explained in class, is that citizenship should only go to those who serve, because they’ve shown willingness to put the needs of the society ahead of their own personal desires. So far, so good, but then in the shower scene, it becomes clear that everybody is there because they personally want something out of it, not from any true calling to serve.
    The system doesn’t produce selfless heroes; it produces people who have gone through hell, feel entitled to their reward, and have no interest in sharing power with mere civilians.

  7. says

    @Katydid – yes, in my parents’ generation. I don’t know whether I knew anyone who was drafted, but I probably did? But I certainly knew people who managed to avoid it one way or another, both in the Quaker community, and among my teachers. Same as how I knew someone – my grandfather – who was involved in the Korean war.

    And it doesn’t “mandate” military service, but it absolutely advocates for it. I don’t think it should exist at all, but making it mandatory is way out of line.

    @LykeX – yeah, I think that’s a solid read. You’ll be shocked to hear that I like Renegade Cut’s video on it:

    https://youtu.be/ngOchfbbgz0

    Edit: And yeah, I was looking for a good place to include a starship troopers reference, but for some reason I couldn’t find it.

  8. Katydid says

    @Abe: as most things, it depends. I went into the military with a bachelor’s degree in computer science when nobody was going to hire a “girl” because OBVIOUSLY girls didn’t understand computers. I used my skills in the military, and they paid for a master’s degree in comp sci and another master’s in a different area. I lived all over the world and had no-cost home, utilities, and health insurance. I retired with up-to-the-minute skills that landed me a great retirement job. Had I not joined the military, I might have been someone’s secretary until secretarial jobs went away, or possibly worked my way up to manage a fast food restaurant.

    The military’s not for everyone, but it absolutely can offer opportunities that aren’t otherwise available. I also don’t believe high school JROTC should be mandatory….but I also believe high school gym shouldn’t be mandatory because I’ve never had a gym class that wasn’t a huge waste of time. Also wasn’t a fan of the mandatory pep rallies where the entire student body was required to fawn over the sportzballz junkies.

  9. says

    I want to be clear – My problem is with the institution, not the soldiers. I’m glad that it worked out well for you, but that doesn’t change what the goals of the U.S. military are.

    It also doesn’t change the fact that there is no good reason at all why the military should be the only option like that. If there was a civilian service corps that did needed work around the country – building homes, dealing with disasters, cleaning up trash and pollution, and so on.

    I’m largely in favor of child liberation, and a far more self-led, lifelong education system.

    But there are VERY clear differences between gym class or pep rallies, and JROTC, I know you’re aware of that.

  10. Katydid says

    Abe, you really got me thinking about school and the military and JROTC. High school as done in the USA is pretty much a waste. I hated gym class even though I was active and physically fit. Gym was a daily grind usually taught by a coach, as a recruitment tool for whatever team the school valued. Students were compelled to pretend they cared about what they were being forced to do or forced to stand around and watch while the coach’s favorites got to do, which was always pointless and boring. Everyone else was worthless (and that included all girls, unless they were cheerleaders for the boys). Periodically the entire student body was roped into the auditorium where we were forced to perform mindless, forced adulation of a hand-picked group of nobodies.

    JROTC classes include history and leadership, usually have a component of community service, and physical fitness with a goal of building strength and flexibility. Only 20% of JROTC students end up joining the military, but if they do, they’re promoted up ahead of those without the experience and can skip basic training.

    Both my kids (one boy, one girl) were in Civil Air Patrol, which is an outside-school activity that was similar. They were given uniforms and met once a week, and had the option of going to various 100% free summer camps, where they learned to drive, fly an airplane, camp in the woods.

    I think you’re starting out from the position that military=bad. Wars are bad. Sometimes they’re necessary. What if Ukraine had no soldiers when Russia invaded?

  11. says

    I’m not taking the position that military=bad, I’m taking the position that empire=bad. The U.S. has been at war for most of its history, and the vast majority of that has been invading and/or destabilizing countries that posed no real threat to it, primarily out of ideological opposition to how those countries wanted to govern.

    I had an army officer tell me to my face that none of the atrocities tied to the SOA/WHINSEC even happened, and you want me to trust history taught by that institution? You want me to believe that having children taught by that institution is benign? I’m not questioning that there can be benefits from being involved, and as I’ve said before, my problem is not with soldiers, as a group (or airmen, seamen, whatever). When I talked about the US military treating is people like dirt, I linked to an article about sexual abuse of girls in JROTC. We could also talk about the military families in Hawaii who were told their water was fine when it was full of jet fuel. We could talk about the struggles veterans have to go through to get care for stuff like burn pit exposure. We could talk about the lies told to justify sending people into battle, or the lies told by recruiters. The U.S. military, as it exists, is not a force for good in the world.

    It does some good things – it’d be almost impossible for an organization that well-funded to not do good things, but overall it has destabilized countries, caused a vast amount of war and suffering, undermined democracy or outright overthrown it, tortured people, killed countless civilians, and the list goes on.

    Once again – the soldiers involved are not responsible for those decisions, just as U.S. citizens are not responsible for the wars their rulers are constantly waging, especially since 9/11.

    That’s the context in which I say gym class and JROTC are different things. You cannot pretend that JROTC doesn’t try to paint a positive picture of the military, and you cannot pretend that a history class taught by that institution is going to be unbiased.

  12. Katydid says

    So, I did some thinking about what you said. You make some excellent points. I can’t refute them.

    What I can refute is the idiocy, gaslighting, and outright abuse that happens in gym classes. I went through basic training and found it to be far less abusive and arbitrary and stupid than mandatory high school gym classes. Maybe gym teachers washed out of military basic training? Not once in any American schools did I ever do anything in a gym class that I would do voluntarily on my own…and I am a competitive triathlete who also loves to surf, roller skate, and play volleyball. Most of my American gym class experience involved standing around feigning interest while the boys got to play whatever sport the school valued.

    Oh, except for the time we had to climb ropes in gym and I got in screamed at for…climbing the rope when told to do so. Because “girls can’t climb ropes.”

  13. says

    Yeah, I’ve encountered nothing about the typical USian gym class that seems good. One of my other high school pursuits was taking part in a circus that would go around and do performances at schools to raise funds for them to start their own circus programs as an alternative to normal PE/gym class.

    Personally, I think kids should have a lot more control over their own education, rather than being trained to sit still and follow orders all day. I think that becomes more feasible once education is considered both a right, and a lifelong pursuit. Anyone should be able to take a class on anything that takes their interest, with tuition covered by taxes.

  14. Katydid says

    I like your idea of student-led learning with the caveat that there should be a core of knowledge that people should have. For example, I was reading an article about title loans and how so very many people have absolutely no idea what interest is or how it compounds. To be fair, a lot of schools do present this information but students simply do not pay attention. So there’s that.

    I think all students should have to learn the civics of the country and state they’re living in. All students should learn about voting and it would be great if the school had a yearly voter registration day for their students who turn 18 while still in high school.

    And circling back to gym, I think if schools are going to make gym mandatory, they should give credit for athletic activities kids participate in outside of school; for example, swim team or bowling league or rec leagues for soccer, basketball, tennis, for martial arts, yoga, swing dance, etc. But the point of gym is not to create humans who enjoy being active and see the value in it. What is the point of gym? I suspect it’s to give a bigger paycheck to sportzballz coaches, who use the classes to recruit players for their favorite sportzballz. It’s a tool for bullying and sexism and other archaic attitudes that need to go.

  15. says

    The loan thing is part of why I think we need societal change as a part of the educational change. This would be part of a less predatory society, and student loans wouldn’t be a thing.

    When it comes to students who “simply do not pay attention”, that’s part of the problem – they’re probably not able to pay attention in the conditions that have been forced upon them.

    My go-to example for self-taught math is from my days playing World of Warcraft. At the higher levels, every little bit makes a difference between success, and having a group of 20 people spend several hours working together for no reward. Some of that is just making sure people know their jobs, but some of it was a huge amount of mathematical work – some of it done on forums by literal children – to figure out exactly how character stats mix with the effects applied by other characters, and how that can compound over time with poison effects and the like.

    My point is that people will learn math, reading, and so on, based on its relevance to their lives. We elders would certainly make the case that kids should learn this stuff, but simply plunking them down in a seat and demanding they focus until told otherwise just… doesn’t work.

    The schools I went to did give credit for that sort of thing. If memory serves, one option for PE at my high school was gardening. I got most of my own credits from my participation in the naturalist program, if memory serves, but I also did sports from time to time.

    But yeah – as with math and literacy, I think it should be more self-led. I also agree with your assessment that a lot of sports culture right now is focused on extracting money.

  16. Katydid says

    As a military brat who attended school all over the world, there were several things that stood out to me about school in the USA when we moved back to the USA for my father’s last tour before retiring. Primarily the gulag-like environment: my high school had 4500 students, in a brick 4-story building where the only windows were occasional arrow-slits dotted around the top floor. You could go an entire school day without once seeing daylight–unless you smoked, and then you were allowed to go to the patio outside the room that housed the cafeteria. I got in trouble my very first day of school for going out to the smoking patio with a new friend, who was a smoker…because I wasn’t smoking. Then there was the sadistic gym teacher who went postal on me for…climbing the rope he ordered me to climb. Because obviously girls can’t climb?

    Another thing that was a real shock to me was the apathy and actual distaste for learning anything that many of the students had.These were students with the resources but not the desire to learn. As one yelled at me, “Education is for losers!”

  17. says

    I think the environment, plus the authoritarian setting, make a degree of apathy kind of inevitable, especially combined with any awareness of the larger world. I think a lot of it also has to do with how their life is going outside of school, which gets back to the systemic stuff.

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