When he got home from Iraq, Hart Viges began sorting through his boyhood toys, looking for some he could pass on to his new baby nephew. He found a stash of G.I. Joes - his old favorites - and the memories came flooding back.
"I thought about giving them to him," he said. But the pressures of a year in a war zone had strengthened Viges' Christian faith, and he told the Army that "if I loved my enemy I couldn't see killing them, for any reason." He left as a conscientious objector. As for the G.I. Joes, "I threw them away instead." Viges had grown up playing dress-up with his father's, grandfather's and uncles' old military uniforms. "What we tell small kids has such a huge effect," he told Truthout. "I didn't want to be the one telling him to dream about the military."
As the mother of a 6-year-old, I know what he means. My partner and I, as longtime antiwar activists, work hard to talk to our daughter about war, violence and peace in age-appropriate ways.
That's why we were shocked this November when, shortly after Veterans Day, our daughter came home from kindergarten with a worksheet that asked the children to decide which branch of the military they would like to join. The class had been working on charts in math class, taking polls and graphing the results, which usually fell more along the lines of what flavors of pie they preferred.
Unsure what to do, I posted a photo of the worksheet on Facebook, with a simple caption: "I am not happy about this." This kicked off a huge all-day debate on Thanksgiving, with many commenters (especially those abroad) expressing horror and others wondering what the big deal was. Several identified the worksheet's content as "grooming" children for later military recruitment.
The US war machine is so ubiquitous that few people even think twice about its role in our children's lives.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about this grooming is that it wasn't even deliberate. The worksheet did not come from military recruiters. It didn't have to. Search online for "military kindergarten printables" and you'll find a wealth of free materials for teachers - a welcome resource in cash-strapped public schools, where teachers often pay significant sums out of pocket for classroom materials.
My child's teacher wasn't deliberately distributing propaganda. When we talked with her about it, she was surprised and very responsive. She's a fantastic teacher. It's just that our country's $598.5 billion war machine is so ubiquitous that few people even think twice about its role in our children's lives.
But we should. It isn't just that the current wars are less about "democracy" than about oil and empire. It isn't just the body count, though that is staggering: Researchers at the Costs of War Project at Brown University estimate 92,000 deaths in Afghanistan, 26,000 of them civilians, with more than two-thirds of Afghans now experiencing mental health problems. At least 165,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the Iraq war since 2003. US drone strikes have also killed about 3,800 people in Pakistan, most of them civilians. That's in addition to the estimated 6,800 US soldiers and 7,000 contractors who have died, not to mention that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed nearly 1 million disability claims with the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Jennifer Smith, a mother of two teenage boys from Prospect Park, Pennsylvania, responded to the worksheet by asking:
How is this teaching about Veterans Day? There's no history on this worksheet. What there IS however, is grooming. Having kindergartners consider what branch they would be in? How is a 5 or 6 yr old supposed to make that decision? What criteria is a kindergartner using?
Smith's question is crucial. The most visible aspects of military life are the things that make good toys: ships, planes and tanks. But there's no warning on toy boxes that a decade of constant war on multiple fronts has left the US military stretched beyond its capabilities, which means soldiers can be involuntarily recalled: Active-duty personnel routinely serve multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least 16 percent of returning veterans experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). US Defense Department and RAND Corporation data show that at least 5 percent of military women reported being raped or sexually assaulted, and that 62 percent of those who reported a rape experienced retribution or retaliation. And as for those great jobs recruiters claim to offer? A 2014 investigation by NBC found that fully one-quarter of active-duty military families struggle with hunger and rely on food stamps, food banks and other food aid to survive.
While we can and should insist that recruiters be required to present young people with stark realities like these, it's important to understand that children's images of and attitudes toward the military are shaped long before they're old enough to be considered legitimate targets for recruiters. Recruiters are the tip of an enormous ideological iceberg. Recruitment efforts run a lot deeper than their visible presence in schools and shopping malls. To see just how deep, you have to start at the beginning.
The all-volunteer army is a recent phenomenon in the United States. From the Civil War until 1973, all young men were required to register for the draft. The Conscription Act, passed during World War I, punished those who refused with prison sentences, labor camps and even the death penalty, according to historian Gerald Shenk. But even before the US military needed to attract soldiers, it was concerned with preparing children for military service. The armed forces needed literate, technically skilled recruits who could perform increasingly complicated tasks. In his book War Play, Corey Mead points out that this need shaped the formation of the US public school system - particularly its emphasis on standardized testing. (Indeed, he points out that "the first Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), given in 1926, was a modified version of the army's Alpha exam.... Many of the original test's questions made the military connection explicit.")
The promise of an education, a steady job and veterans' benefits lure young people who don't have many other options.
Military conscription - that is, the draft - ended in 1973, the result of a strong, militant antiwar movement that spread not only across the United States, but among soldiers in Vietnam. Rick Jahnkow of Project YANO (the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities) in San Diego, California, an organization that addresses the economic effects of militarism on communities, was part of the Vietnam-era draft resistance movement. He points out that the abolition of the draft - a major blow to the military - marked the beginning of recruitment by any means necessary. "The Pentagon took a different tack," Jahnkow said, "because they had to. They had to market soldiering in a whole different way."
When the stick failed - when the armed forces were prevented from using the threat of prison, withholding financial aid and other punishments to force young people into the ranks - they turned to the carrot. Promises of scholarships, marketable skills, bonus money and a chance to "see the world" or help the victims of global conflicts became inducements to sign up.
The promise of an education, a steady job and veterans' benefits lure young people who don't have many other options. It's often called the "economic draft." Kids who can't afford college or who face grim job prospects in a declining economy are far more likely to join the military; that's why recruiters are far more active in low-income areas. Veteran and activist Tomas Young told biographer Mark Wilkerson, "There was no other way that I could go to college without having to pay back monstrous student loans.... My plan was to serve my time, take my GI Bill money and go to school in Oregon or someplace." Young never got the chance to go to school. As the forthcoming book Tomas Young's War documents, he was paralyzed by a bullet in Sadr City on his fifth day in Iraq. He spent the rest of his short life campaigning with Iraq Veterans Against the War to the extent his excruciatingly painful injuries allowed. He died in 2014.
The promise of education and jobs is a powerful lure. But to get that message across to potential soldiers, military recruiters had to reach them. They couldn't afford to hang around in recruitment offices waiting; they had to go where the kids were, and that meant getting inside the schools.
Shifts in legislation over the past decade and a half have opened schools up to the military more than ever before.
In the 1970s and 1980s, this was often accomplished on a school-by-school basis. Recruiters asked for permission to set up tables in high school cafeterias and signed up for career fairs. Their access was regularly challenged by parents and community groups like Project YANO. But the first Gulf War shifted the terms of the debate. The military's role in schools wasn't just about open recruiting anymore; it was about "supporting the troops" with exercises like yellow-ribbon campaigns, assemblies and postcard-writing competitions. Since these weren't explicit recruitment activities, restrictions about students' ages and grade levels didn't apply; even the youngest children could participate.
In the 1990s, these strategies were applied more widely, according to Jahnkow. As schools began to initiate "partnerships" with local businesses and nonprofit organizations, military recruiters applied to participate in such programs, arguing that they were simply one more organization and deserved equal consideration. Often, however, such partnerships served as a guise for open recruitment of young children.
Jahnkow provided me with a copy of a memo Project YANO sent the school board of the San Diego Unified School District on March 6, 1992. A school in the district, Horton Elementary, had embarked on a partnership with a local US Navy unit. "Early in December  a man appeared at Horton Elementary dressed as Santa Claus," the memo recounted.
Apparently, he was a representative of the Navy. According to children who were there that day, this "Santa Claus" distributed bags of material to many, if not all, of the children at the school (K-6).
What horrified some parents was that "Santa" distributed military recruiting propaganda in the bags given to their children. We have a copy of one of the items, a Navy folder that is clearly designed as a recruiting tool ...
The Horton principal has also admitted that military tanks have been brought to career events at the school and children have been allowed to crawl through them! After telling this to one parent, he reassured her that the children are not allowed to bring toy guns to school. Wonderful logic, isn't it?
Showing off military equipment is a favorite tactic. Hart Viges, who is now an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Sustainable Options for Youth, recalls a military helicopter being displayed at his elementary school in the 1990s. "We thought it was so cool," he said. "Of course, they didn't tell us it was a killing machine."
Defense Department-sponsored after-school programs like STARBASE reach children as young as grade 5, offering tutoring (by uniformed soldiers) and "increased career awareness," with an explicitly stated mission to "expose our nation's youth to the technological environments and positive civilian and military role models found on Active, Guard, and Reserve military bases and installations."
The Junior ROTC program targets middle school and high school students with military drills and training. In Chicago, the public school system is even experimenting with publicly funded JROTC military academies. Each academy focuses on a specific military branch and is partially staffed by retired military personnel. The Chicago program's website claims that "although students wear uniforms and operate in a structured environment, these schools are not intended to prepare students for the military."
Shifts in legislation over the past decade and a half have opened schools up to the military more than ever before. Just after 9/11, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001. The act, which has since been renewed by President Obama, took drastic measures to implement standardized curricula and testing in the nation's public schools. It also gives recruiters unprecedented leeway, according to a report by the Constitutional Litigation Clinic at the Rutgers School of Law: "schools receiving federal funds must give military recruiters the same access to students as they give employers and college recruiters," including the names of all junior and senior students.
Parents can sign a form to "opt out" of giving recruiters access to their child's time and information, and "the NCLB and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) require that parents be told that they have the right to keep recruiters away from their children." However, according to the Rutgers report, "high schools throughout the State [of New Jersey] do not notify parents of this right adequately, or at all." In addition, the report found that "schools throughout the State give recruiters much greater access to students than is required by law" and that "lack of oversight allows recruiters to present students with unrealistic and false portrayals of military service." A report from the US Army War College arguing in favor of unfettered recruiting notes that "access to the high school population remains critical to DoD [Defense Department] efforts to man the force as propensity for military service drops dramatically for most groups after the age of 18."
Toys, video games, sports, TV shows and movies all normalize not only the military but combat itself.
The Department of Defense also maintains contracts with private corporations that broker data about children: Journalist David Goodman told Democracy Now! in 2009 that this information includes everything from "when you buy a yearbook, when you buy a student ring ... any number of ... commercial purchases." Data brokers' information, he writes, is combined with data from the Selective Service, state DMVs, the ASVAB standardized test and information children voluntarily provide to "career planning" websites openly or not-so-openly run by recruiters, such as myfuture.com and march2success.com. The result is a remarkably detailed picture that allows recruiters to screen out kids who don't qualify (due to physical fitness, criminal records or other factors) and target the ones who do.
Access to schools isn't the only route into children's lives, however. The Department of Defense spends billions each year on video game development, as Mead's book documents. The Army has even developed its own realistic simulation game, "America's Army," and recruiters give kids access to trailers full of video game consoles where they can play it.
There's also the $10.4 million the military has spent on marketing displays at pro football, baseball, hockey, basketball and soccer games since 2012 - not to mention that "the National Guard spent more than $56 million each year on sports marketing with NASCAR and IndyCar," according to The Washington Post.
Then there's sponsoring and consulting on Hollywood films (a partnership that goes back to the dawn of the film industry). Journalist Nick Turse, in his book The Complex, quotes Transformers (2007) producer Ian Bryce enthusing about the movie's Pentagon ties: "We want to cooperate with the Pentagon to show them off in the most positive light, and the Pentagon likewise wants to give us the resources to be able to do that."
These efforts reach kids as young as preschool, priming them to think of war and soldiering as cool and exciting, without any discussion of the trauma and death they are designed to bring. Hart Viges vividly remembers playing with soldier toys while watching "G.I. Joe," a cartoon show that ran from 1983 to 1986. "I actually went back and watched a bunch of episodes on Netflix, just to see what was put into my head," he said. "It was weirdly specific - like, there were at least three episodes where they talked about how they couldn't fight Cobra [the villains' organization] because the G.I. Joe budget was coming under attack."
Toys, video games, sports, TV shows and movies all normalize not only the military but combat itself. Though there's intense debate over the topic, studies have shown that first-person shooter games do desensitize heavy players to images of violence - unsurprisingly, it's easier to imagine shooting someone when you spend all day simulating shooting someone. Allowing children to play in tanks and imagine themselves at the controls likewise lowers their inhibitions, especially since this exposure to big, exciting machines is not accompanied by any way of envisioning the killing and devastation the machines are designed to deal out. Likewise, classroom discussions of military careers that don't inform children about the realities of war have the effect of inviting children to fantasize about war - priming them to welcome the advances of recruiters whose goal is to lure them into a war machine that is likely to leave them to poverty, pain, PTSD and an early grave.
So what can students, parents and others do to stop military grooming? Dr. Terrence Webster-Doyle, a Vietnam veteran, Veterans for Peace member and founder of the Youth Peace Literacy program, writes free books for children and adults about ending the cycle of violence. He also advocates martial arts training as a way to allow youth to channel their aggression in a safe, controlled environment.
The most effective solution, Viges says, is counter-recruitment. Viges mans a Sustainable Options for Youth table in Austin, Texas, high school cafeterias, where he offers stark statistics about sexual assault, PTSD, veteran homelessness and other less attractive aspects of military life and gives out information about a range of alternative job opportunities, from firefighting to AmeriCorps. Project YANO sends veterans to speak to schoolchildren and youth groups about the realities of war, as well as alternatives for jobs and college funding, and educates school administrators about recruiters' tactics. Viges has also been known to slap warning stickers on the boxes of games like "America's Army" at Walmart.
As parents, we should question what our kids are told about war and the military in school, on TV and even through the toys we give them. We should also present them - and their teachers - with all of the facts, even the ugly ones. They might still choose to sign up as teenagers, but we can at least make sure they make fully informed decisions.
Afghanistan veteran and war resister Rory Fanning, author of Worth Fighting For, spent nine months walking on foot across the United States to raise money for the Pat Tillman Foundation, a scholarship fund for veterans and their families named for the former NFL star turned Army Ranger, whose death by friendly fire resulted in a scandal for the Pentagon. Fanning's journey became one of counter-recruitment when he spoke to students in Roby, Texas. "Which branch of the military should I join?" one boy asked - and Fanning surprised himself by responding, "I don't think you should join any of them."
That wasn't an option on my daughter's worksheet. Let's make sure children of all age groups know that they have the right to say no to war, to violence and to military recruiters.