Unfriendly Fire

April 01, 1992 4 min read

Last year, as Americans celebrated their military victory in the Persian Gulf, a group of peace activists were planning a comprehensive, and apparently unprecedented, assault of their own. The goal of this new coalition: to eliminate the influence of the U.S. military in the nation’s public and private schools.

The broad-based coalition, encompassing more than two dozen organizations, is encouraging and coordinating the efforts of grassroots peace-education and anti-military activists across the country. Working in concert, they hope to increase pressure on school boards, administrators, and counselors to halt recruitment and other practices on high school campuses, acknowledged by the military to be ``desired’’ turf.

The coalition, known as the National Campaign to Demilitarize Our Schools, emerged as a formal entity in October. It brings together longstanding national anti-war groups, such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and the War Resisters League, with newer and smaller regional and local organizations.

“Our basic contention is that the military’s presence gives credence to the notion that war and killing is a viable career option,’' says Leonard McNeil, the coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Youth and Militarism Program in Oakland. “Our educational system should not be helping the Department of Defense.’'

The coalition is targeting its efforts at such things as oncampus recruitment and the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. Nearly 1,400 schools nationwide have Junior ROTC programs. It also opposes the administration of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery tests in nearly 15,000 high schools.

What its members object to, in part, is the cost schools incur in providing Junior ROTC programs and the alleged fraud practiced by military recruiters; they claim the recruiters overstate the benefits of military service. The activists also see a contradiction between the critical-thinking and conflict-resolution lessons taught in school and the military’s emphasis on unquestioned obedience to authority and the waging of war.

In addition to working to reduce the influence of the military in schools, the coalition hopes its local affiliates will lobby for on-campus access to students equal to that enjoyed by military recruiters. On that front, the coalition’s members will be building on earlier successes of the peace movement, such as a 1988 federal court decision in Atlanta granting activists the right to enter the city’s public schools to express their views on military service.

In January, coalition-affiliated activists in Portland, Ore., succeeded in forcing the school board to weigh a ban on all military recruitment in the city’s 11 high schools. The proposal was defeated by a vote of 4-2 before a large, predominantly pro-ban audience, but the board did limit on-campus visits by military recruiters to no more than once a week per school. In addition, the board required school principals to meet with parent-advisory groups to discuss military recruitment.

John Grueschow of Portland’s Northwest Military and Draft Counseling Center, who lobbied for the ban, says he and other activists do not consider the board’s action “any kind of real victory.’' But, he adds, “We did raise the issue with the school board in a serious way’’ for the first time.

Michael Marsh, a counterrecruitment counselor at the War Resisters League in New York, describes the new effort as “a very, very ambitious plan to let people in the education community know that they don’t have to sit back and let recruiters run programs in their schools.’'

Marsh and others believe the grassroots groups will benefit from the experience of larger, more established organizations like his. In 1990, pressure from the league helped keep an Air Force Junior ROTC program out of New York City’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School. “That struggle could serve as a very good example,’' Marsh says. “But unless others hear about it, it’s never going to serve as an example.’'

The coalition will also try “to do things together that would be hard for individual groups to do separately,’' says Harold Jordan, the coordinator of the Youth and Militarism Program of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, which serves as the home of the coalition. Last winter, the coalition launched a fundraising campaign, soliciting grants from about two dozen progressive foundations. Organizers say they plan to produce a counter-recruitment video, which they hope to distribute sometime in the fall.

Despite these efforts, neither military recruiters nor representatives of education groups expect the campaign to have much impact on recruiting practices or students. Young Americans want “to see the United States as a strong, influential country in the world,’' says Maj. Thomas Leahy, a spokesperson at U.S. Army Recruitment Command in Fort Sheridan, Ill. As a result, he says, there will be “sufficient numbers’’ of youngsters “standing up to serve their country once they have been provided information [on] what the Army has to offer.’'

Thomas Shannon, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, believes policymakers are unlikely to heed the pacifists’ call to ban recruiters. “The question is,’' he asks, “does this comport with the general beliefs of school boards around the country? I dare say it does not.’'

While Nancy Perry, the president of the American School Counselor Association, welcomes balancing the military’s messages with those of peace activists, she does not believe on-campus recruitment or ASVAB testing should be eliminated. “We neither push the military, nor advise against it,’' she says.
--Millicent Lawton

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Unfriendly Fire