Mass national protests didn’t sway the Bush administration, so young organizers have focused their strategy on local counter-recruitment campaigns.
Marciella Guzmn was a politically conservative 21-year-old when she joined the U.S. Navy as an information system technician in 1998. By the time she left in 2002, she said she had become liberal.
Guzmn, now a counter-recruitment activist in Los Angeles, said that she lost respect for the military: "I didn’t trust that we had enough training or manpower to go into Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time."
Despite rare glimpses of growing popular opposition to the war, such as Cindy Sheehan or Medea Benjamin with "Bring Troops Home Now" signs on national television, the mainstream media still does not provide a consistent space for a critique of American foreign policy.
And while soldiers continue to desert the military, and 72 percent think that the United States should exit Iraq within the next year, the Bush administration and Congress cannot seem to come up with a concrete strategy for addressing the growing chaos and deaths in Iraq.
Impatient with the current status quo, students, war veterans, anti-war activists and soldiers and their parents across the country are thinking of new ways to get their message to the government and general public.
Realizing that mass national protests did not sway the Bush administration from staying the course in Iraq, many young organizers focused their strategy on local counter-recruitment campaigns. And their work seems to be making an impact.
The Air National Guard missed its recruiting target by 14 percent last year, and the Army missed its goal by 8 percent, its largest recruitment failure since 1979. Military recruitment costs have risen, totaling $3 billion of taxpayers’ money each year, and will only get higher if the Iraq war continues and the ability to recruit young men and women to enlist decreases. Right now, the Army’s new recruitment tactics increasingly include allowing young men and women with criminal records to enlist, recruiting members of hate groups, easing restrictions on recruiting high school dropouts and raising the maximum recruitment age from 35 to 42.
Spreading the real story of military life
In 1998, Guzmn needed money to go to college and thought the military would be a good way of getting that money. But when she stepped into boot camp, she realized she’d been sold on lies. Paperwork battles ensued until she finally received the higher wages and rank she was initially promised.
Her first command was stationed at Diego Garca, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. "The U.S. military personnel basically lease the island from the British, and the only people who are allowed there are military personnel and the workers there — Filipinos who are brought to the island," said Guzmn. "It was very difficult to see how the American soldiers treated these people. The workers had poor benefits, they were underpaid, and the military didn’t respect them. That reminded me of my family here. I’m Mexican-American, and it reminded me of the struggles my parents went through in this country. And so my ideology started to change."
Guzmn’s perspective finally shifted for good after she left the military in 2002 and went to the VA to receive treatment for the back problems she acquired during her service. She had to fight to get even the most basic treatment.
Now Guzmn spends what little time she has between work and school to educate high school students about the realities of military service.
"I want [young people] to question why it was allowed, and that it’s still happening in the military, especially for women," said Guzmn. "And what they’re going to get into [if they join the military]. I give them the option: ‘If you still want to go to the military, I will go with you to the recruitment office to make sure that they don’t lie to you.’ It takes so long to educate young people about the myths of the military."
And that’s where recent counter-recruitment strategies like the Not Your Soldier initiative and STORY Collaborative come in.
"I do anti-war workshops all the time, and so often I have very intense conversations with youth about the war in Iraq and everyone is like, ‘It’s all about oil, it’s all about money, it’s all about power,’" said Steve Theberge, youth and counter-recruitment program coordinator for the New York-based War Resisters League. "I think young people often feel that there’s not much they can do about it. There’s not a sense of empowerment or that energy or ability to make change. Not Your Soldier is about taking that political analysis that a lot of young folks have and translating that into possible action."
The War Resisters League, along with The National Youth & Student Peace Coalition, the National Network Opposed to Militarization of Youth, the American Friends Service Committee, and the League of Independent Voters have joined forces with the Ruckus Society to produce the Not Your Soldier initiative.
Not Your Soldier was first marketed through MySpace and through word of digital mouth like emails and text messages. "It’s an educating tool that they themselves can use and pass along," said Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director of Ruckus Society, based in Oakland, Calif. (Full disclosure: Brown serves on the WireTap advisory board.) Through Not Your Soldier, youth can participate in the anti-war and counter-recruitment activities by visiting NotYourSoldier.org, watching the Flash movie "Punk Ass Crusade," the "Addicted to Oil" Flash movie, attending Not Your Soldier camps and going to concerts for revolutionary hip-hop band The Coup.
"We’ve recognized the need to go beyond training," said Theberge. "For a long time we’ve hoped that we would be able to provide training and somehow somewhere, somebody else was going to step up and organize on the local level. We have to shift our tactics. A lot has changed, and unfortunately the anti-war movement hasn’t."
Not Your Soldier also connects young people on an emotional level by connecting them with men and women who have served in the war in Iraq. Theberge said, "I can throw as many stats out there as much as I want. I can talk as much as I want about the war. But I think that, for many people, hearing veterans speak is about as close as you can get." To that end, the group has put on three regional camps this summer and plan to host several more in the coming year.
"I think if you look at the anti-war movement, it’s a lot of really good people, but it’s not a lot of young people," Brown said. "A major belief of Ruckus is the impacted community has to be at the forefront of your work. We have to find ways for soldiers and students to be active components of their own liberation and guaranteeing their own rights."
Boots Riley, leader of the socially conscious hip-hop group The Coup, is currently on tour and talks about the Not Your Soldier initiative in the middle of every concert.
"I sometimes see people from the military coming to my shows and saying that they’re fans. And not just someone who is i
n the Army, but someone deep in the military," Riley said. "There have also been military recruiters. And after the show they’re like, ‘I really agree with what you say, but being a military recruiter is just my job.’ And I’m like, ‘I guess.’"
Riley added that he’s always found people against the war in his audience. "I’m talking about Old Smith, Montana. I’m talking about El Paso, Texas. I’m talking about Alabama. I’m talking about Ohio," said Riley. "Everywhere people were and are against the war. And these weren’t just people who were coming to see a revolutionary hip-hop show."
Providing another option to enlisting
Riley can relate to the military option so many young people feel they have to take. Although he’s been a progressive organizer since he was 14, when he thought he was going to be a father at age 17, he considered joining the military.
Riley’s dilemma is one of the greatest challenges of the anti-war movement, according to Doyle Canning of smartMeme, a nonprofit collective of long-term organizers, strategists, trainers and communications professionals based in Burlington, Vt.
Canning said, "The U.S. military-industrial complex, for better and for worse, is selling young people on the idea of economic opportunity. And how does the progressive community offer that opportunity? And how can we actually do counter-recruitment — like actually not just say, ‘Hey, the recruiters are lying. Don’t join the military’?"
In response, smartMeme has come up with a different strategy. They are working to build a network of organizations — nonprofits, for-profits, institutions, businesses, farms and more — that are willing to provide another option to young people who feel that they have no choice but to enlist. Canning said, "We have to ask [these young people], ‘Why don’t you come and become an intern at this progressive organization?’" And he said smartMeme is asking organizations, "Would you be interested in giving an opportunity to someone who is thinking about joining the military?"
Early in July, smartMeme gathered young Iraq veterans, students, counter-recruiters and peace activists, all under the age of 30, for an intimate retreat to discuss the anti-war movement at the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee. The project, the STORY Collaborative to End the War in Iraq, is online and soon will be publishing its findings. While no concrete answers came out of the Collaborative, Canning views the stories as the keys to gaining connection and momentum throughout the movement.
"The stories are at the center of our strategy," he said. "Recentering ourselves with our stories and realizing that we have such different stories, and that we have different relationships with the war in Iraq … people of Arab-American backgrounds, people who live on the border and who see the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border, and people from the South, people from Oakland, people from all over, saying, ‘Yeah, we have different experiences, and we have different stories, and we have different relationships with this war. But we were able to come together and find some common ground.’"
Echoing the Ruckus Society’s beliefs, Canning is clear that the anti-war movement needs new leadership: Those most impacted by the military’s recruitment and the poverty draft need to be empowered to work against the struggle that most affects them.
"When we’re talking about counter-recruitment, we’re talking about the U.S. military targeting low-income people and youth of color, and that’s for real. And so the role of traditionally white-led peace and justice organizations is to work in solidarity with those communities in resisting U.S. militarism. And that needs to be a collaborative relationship in order to really support the leadership of young people of color in those communities," said Canning.
Canning feels the anti-war movement should take notice of another important fact: Young people listen to young people. "That’s the whole lesson of MySpace," he said. "That’s the whole lesson of all this huge spiral roll marketing stuff. It’s about peer-to-peer networks. It’s about who we listen to are people who we can relate with, people like us. And so how do we incorporate that learning into our counter-recruitment work?"
Ruckus Society founder John Sellers is hopeful that the new direction his organization is taking to contribute to the counter-recruitment movement is going to produce results.
"Basically, in a year or two, it’s very likely that [the anti-war movement] will be as dynamic as college campus activism during the anti-apartheid movement. It’s definitely spreading down to high schools, which is critical because that’s where most recruitment comes from — high school-age young folks from rural and urban backgrounds." He also likened the present day to the last time this country had a vibrant anti-war movement. "During Vietnam, we had the draft. Now we have the poverty draft. But we think that, by making all of the military recruiters miss their quotas, that’s going to impact how Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney are going to view this war — if they have less cannon fodder at their disposal."
Celina R. De Leon is a contributing writer for WireTap.