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6 December 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Rich kids go to college, poor ones to Baghdad

By Tom Woodward

You’re a 14-year-old high school student in the United States, and it’s time to choose your electives for the next academic year. What catches your eye? History, music, physical education- or how about the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC)? The programme, partly funded by the US military, and taught by retired armed forces personnel, is styled as an improving educational experience, and couched in the jargon of personal development. Its purported aim is to “motivate young people to be better citizens”, and on the curriculum are communication skills, leadership, physical fitness, history and citizenship, as well as drug abuse prevention. It also involves military drills with real and dummy firearms, and marksmanship training. (Funding for some of these programmes comes from an obvious source: in late 2003, the JROTC at Channelview High School, near Houston, Texas, received a $14,000 grant from the Friends of the National Rifle Association.)

JROTC, which has a membership of 470,000 high school students, is widely seen as a thinly disguised recruitment programme for the military. More serious concerns, however, are about the way JROTC, and similar schemes such as the National Guard Leadership Education programme, target children at public (state) schools in poor areas. In early 2003, the chief executive of the School District of Philadelphia, Paul Vallas, announced plans for a free-standing military high school and an increase in the number of JROTC programmes in schools across the city from eight to 22. John Grant, president of the Philadelphia chapter of Veterans for Peace, led the protest against the plan: “The idea of moving military education down the schools gets pretty spooky to me. It’s not literally a tool of recruitment. But it is a tool of indoctrination. I would like these kids to have more options, like college.”

As in Philadelphia, public schools in Chicago are filled overwhelmingly with poor, non-white students. Of the latter’s 93 high schools, 44 run a JROTC programme. And even the 11-14 age group gets military influence: 20 of Chicago’s middle schools offer Cadet Corps, a modified version of JROTC. This is not to mention the seven military academies that operate as “schools within schools” in Chicago. Before 2002, there was a cap of 3,500 on JROTC programmes; in 2002, this cap was removed by the Defence Authorisation Act.

In April this year, residents of Ayer, Massachusetts, a working-class town, expressed their displeasure at Ayer School’s adoption of the National Guard programme. As one Ayer resident, James Nehrin, put it: “It is unfair to the kids in my town that they need to risk their lives to get ahead. It is as if the rich kids go to college and the poor kids go to Baghdad.”

The Bush administration signed the No Child Left Behind Act in January 2002 – which it hailed as an important social initiative. In the small print is a provision that threatens the withdrawal of federal funding from any high school which refuses to provide students’ details to military recruiters. Section 9528, Armed Forces Recruiter Access to Students and Student Recruiting Information, enables the military to make unsolicited contact with children as young as 11.

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Outside school, any internet-savvy teenager can download “America’s Army”, the official computer game of the US army, which has more than four million registered users online. The answers to FAQs on the accompanying website are penned by Colonel E Casey Wardynski, of West Point Academy, and make instructive reading. Asked: “Is this a recruitment tool?”, he responds: “The army’s success in attracting high-potential young adults is essential to building the world’s premier land force . . . the game is designed to substitute virtual experiences for vicarious insights.” The colonel also advocates exposing children as young as 13 to “America’s Army”, on the grounds that it is educational: “They [‘kids’] need to know that the army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms.”

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Between September 2002 and September 2003, 11,309 17-year-olds signed enlistment contracts with the army. In January 2003, the army pledged to “not assign or deploy soldiers less than 18 years of age, outside the continental US, Puerto Rico or territories or possessions of the United States”. Despite the amendment, 62 Americans aged 17 served in Afghanistan and Iraq during 2003 and 2004. There were 15 fatalities among 18-year-olds, all in Iraq, all from the army and the marines.