January 24, 2007

Why Kids Enlist--Still!

Counter-recruitment continues to be an important part of the over-all struggle against the occupation of Iraq. If this kind of organizing is to be effective, we who are doing it need to understand why kids enlist. In my experience, rhetoric about the “poverty draft” is far too simplistic. So I’d like to share some of the complex and contradictory dynamics that I’ve observed a social worker in a New York City high school--dynamics that lead kids to enlist even though each and every one of them knows there’s a deadly war on.

One big issue is that kids see they need discipline and structure. They know they haven’t internalized a lot of good work habits and they need external controls and incentives. And they’re right about that.

Due to the white domination that pervades the school system--unequal distribution of educational resources, the Eurocentrism of curricula, etc.—working class youth of color often reject, consciously or unconsciously, much of authority exerted over them as racist and hypocritical. Therefore many kids wind up not internalizing some skills and work/study habits that they actually could put to their own ends. By 18 or 19, many of these youth want to make up for this lack of development and they see the military as a way to do this.

A very self-aware and smart young African-American man told me, “I don’t think I’m ready for college. I think I need to go into the Army for a couple of years until I get it together.” This young man had figured out that he was smart enough to get into college but lacked some planning, system-negotiating and time-management skills and might have difficulty passing college courses. He sensed that unlike George Bush, a Black kid from the Bronx wouldn’t be given second chance at college if he screwed up. And he thought the military would drill good work habits into him and help him grow up.

Another aspect of the military’s appeal is controlled violence. Most of my students have experienced a good deal of violence in their communities, and sometimes in their homes. The idea of being paid to be on the trigger-pulling end of the gun with social sanction is a powerful lure. The US military knows this very well—hence the ads with the jeeps and “running a two-million dollar machine.”

The promise of skills training and employment options is another pull. One practice session for the PSAT’s can be all it takes to send an under-prepared young person looking for a way to avoid the whole college admissions process. Here it is helpful to point out that before the military gives you access to any really interesting job training, they make you take a test and you have to score high.

I don’t know if anyone has systematcally studied the enlistment rate of youth who’ve been through the foster care system, but I’ve observed a particular appeal here. For kids who’ve never felt they belong anywhere and are used to bureaucratized collective environments, the military not only levels the playing field—because nobody belongs there any more than you—but it actually gives them up a leg up, because they’re use to coping with regimented environments.

One young man who’d been in group homes and foster homes since the age of 6 spoke longingly of the military as something you could really feel you belong to. After we talked over all the reasons why it appealed to him, and I acknowledged the legitimacy of the needs he was expressing (to belong, challenge himself, serve some cause bigger than himself), he finally concluded that the military could be a good thing if you didn’t have to go to war.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

n-p, i loved this post. please give us more -- do it for the lurkers.