Under Fire

By Monika Downey — September 30, 2005 3 min read

With the Iraq war dragging on and armed forces recruiters scouring schools for would-be soldiers, educators have begun taking a harder look at the military presence in their midst.

Direct recruitment of students, made easier by No Child Left Behind’s requirement that schools release contact information to the military, has been greeted with growing opposition. Stoked by rising public disapproval of the war, adversaries of the on-campus practice have protested, distributed information on how to opt out of the requirement, and even gotten an initiative against military recruiting on November’s San Francisco ballot.

The backlash has also extended in a less visible way to other school-based military incarnations, including the popular Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. With its rifles and martial trappings, JROTC has never been entirely without controversy at high schools, but small bands of increasingly vocal educators see the program as an unwanted avatar of militarism.

“It was from the opt-out [recruitment] campaign that the momentum started to build,” says Arlene Inouye, a language specialist at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles. “It started a wave of activism that’s led to other things.” Inouye is head of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools, a Los Angeles-centered group of 50 educators, some of whom have passed out leaflets and lobbied the city Board of Education about what Inouye calls “the hidden costs of JROTC.”

“We allow the military, which fights, and kills, and uses force, to come in and teach kids to use physical violence to solve problems,” she says. “We’re concerned about militarism in our schools, and JROTC is part of that.”

More than 500,000 students at 3,000 schools nationwide participate in the program, according to the Department of Defense, which partially funds JROTC, an elective and extracurricular activity that teaches leadership, history, physical fitness, and marksmanship. More than 700 additional schools, says a Pentagon spokeswoman, would like to host JROTC units, the number of which multiplied dramatically after then-General Colin Powell promoted the program in 1992 as a way to help inner city youth following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.

“Occasionally, educators are a little uneasy about having a military program on campus,” Powell concedes, but adds, “Junior ROTC is a winner.”

That hasn’t stopped members of CAMS, Bay Area United Against War, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and other organizations from making their disapproval of the program known. While there’s no documented evidence that community or school pressure has ever successfully expelled a JROTC program, the San Francisco school board voted last March to consider developing a nonmilitary program to one day take JROTC’s place.

That wouldn’t go over well with the program’s cadets. Jason Mahaffey, a recent graduate of Westmont High School in Campbell, California, who took four years of Marine Corps JROTC there, scoffs at Inouye’s claims that the program is a de facto recruitment tool that endorses violence. “We are not a war-hungry group. Nor are we trapped in the program like the CAMS group claims,” he says. Mahaffey, who chose college over a military career, reports that misconceptions about the program are prevalent. For example, there is no obligation for participants to join the military. And no one ever tried to rope Mahaffey into serving, he says. “JROTC simply inspires kids to work harder to shape their dreams,” he says.

Nor do all educators share naysayers’ view of JROTC. Barbara Berntsen, a math teacher at Milby High School in Houston, says she appreciates the effect the school’s Army program has on kids. “I find that students involved with JROTC tend to show a great deal of responsibility and respect for their teachers as well as their peers,” she notes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Under Fire