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?
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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