Revolution Online, December 12, 2008

On the “We’re Not Your Soldiers” Tour

Dear Revolution,

The “We’re Not Your Soldiers” Tour, which is being sponsored by the World Can’t Wait and which was recently announced in the pages of Revolution, is happening at a really important time—it’s a key opportunity to both learn more about the thinking of students about the War on Terror and military recruitment after Obama’s victory, and to shape and influence that thinking as well as how young people are going to act as world events unfold. I really think it’s important not to underestimate the effect this tour can have in helping to shape a moving political terrain including as more young people may be enlisting to “fight for Obama” (as one recent letter to Revolution put it), and I had the opportunity to attend one of the events in Chicago as the tour kicked off here, and wanted to share just some of the initial but rich experience and lessons there.

I was at the after-school presentation with WCW organizer Emma Kaplan and Iraq Veteran Phil Aliff, at Morton West High School, in Berwyn which as I understand it, is mainly a Latino and white, working class suburb just west of the city. It’s not necessary to get into all the details, but I do think it’s important that there are teachers and school clubs which have been welcoming the tour into schools and I think a key part of the draw for the tour is because there are actual soldiers who are back from Iraq speaking about their experiences there, and contrasting that to what students are told by the military recruiters.

The event at Morton West didn’t gain as big an audience as it could have, I think, if more of the students knew what was going to be happening and were challenged that it mattered if they knew the truth about these things. People distributing Revolution could help in getting the word out and challenging students at these schools before the tour happens, and I really recommend that anyone who has contacts at high schools to really try to get the school or a class to open their doors for this tour to come in (and to help raise funds to get out more promotional materials, as well as covering costs for travel, etc.) At a lot of these schools, the recruiters are there all the time and this is a unique chance to hear the real story. (As an aside, I heard that at another, mainly Black school, one student said after the presentation, in response to how the recruiters are always stalking around his school and neighborhood, that he was going to put a sign up in his apartment window that said something along the lines of, “U.S. Military Out of the Middle East...and Stay Away from My Crib!”)

What’s Appealing About Joining the U.S. Military?

At the event at Morton West, in attendance were half a dozen students and a handful of parents and peace activists from the community and they wanted to get into why kids are joining the military and the methods and deceitful tactics of the recruiters—they were anxious to give exposure to this and felt like there were some different reasons people get drawn to the military that are difficult to deal with.

People talked about how the military increasingly have access to the private information, like age and address, for students at public schools—so they can send things home or even stop by peoples’ homes (one of the speakers noted that this was a change with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act under the Bush Administration). Students and parents talked about the flashy packaging to pamphlets about the Army which make it look like they’re selling iPods, and one student talked about a video game that the military has released which people can play for free and which makes joining the military seem like a game. And the recruiters have basically open-access to some schools, where for example at Morton West they hang out fairly often near or inside the school cafeteria and set up a table and get to know and “buddy up” to some of the students. They make a game out of how many push ups people can do and it becomes a sort of macho scene where the recruiters beef up the confidence of some of the students and tell them how far they could get if they joined up. And Phil Aliff had talked about how he had received official emails that essentially said, “now that Obama’s won the Presidency and going to end the war in Iraq, this is the time to get back into active duty!”

Mainly the parents were emphasizing that kids join because there are no good jobs (and given the current open-ended financial crisis, no jobs at all) and because college is not a viable economic option for most of the students at that kind of school. One parent asked the speakers a question along the lines of, “What are they supposed to do when there are no jobs?”

One young Latina woman who was anxious to do something to protest the recruiters said that wanting to do this was a significant change in her thinking, where she wasn’t sure ahead of time that she even wanted to come to the event.

And when I interviewed a young white student who had participated in the protest last year, she talked about how for some of the immigrant students, in particular some of those who are undocumented, that for them, joining the military is a way of becoming an American and helps give their family a sense of pride. And then we talked about how this is also a way that people are supposedly going to be granted citizenship (although different groups have done exposure on how this is a lot of times a false promise, and how for example when a soldier is killed overseas, all of a sudden the naturalization process for their family members are stopped in their tracks.)

The speakers for the tour came at this from some different angles, and one of the points Emma Kaplan drew on was from the tour materials about what does it say about the society you’re in when the only options for the youth are “poverty, prison or the military”? And she challenged people, that signing up to torture is not an acceptable option for your future! And she talked about when you look back at Germany and the rise of fascism there, the first concentration camp was built right next to a college campus and there are reports that you could smell the scent of burning flesh in the air but nobody on that campus stood up to resist this. What kind of a difference could it have made if students there had stood up in protest and rebellion against that? And what difference did it make that they didn’t?

People were also very engaged when Phil Aliff recounted his experience in Iraq—how he had been on patrols and had experienced roadside bombs going off a full seven times, how there is a different legal system and different set of rights for you when you join the military (he told a story about a fellow soldier who got a tattoo and then faced punishment for destruction of public property as his body became “public property”), and how in training there was a systematic dehumanization of the Iraqi people and people in the Middle East in general. He had been stationed in the city of Abu Ghraib (the city for which the infamous Abu Ghraib prison is named) and he asked the students if they had heard of Abu Ghraib—basically none of them had, and he talked about the torture that went on there. (The organizers of the tour would also like to have more visuals and other materials to be able to bring the truth of what the war means for people to high school students, as the youth have both been lied to and blindfolded to this—this is definitely the case, even among those who might have the strongest desire to act against the war and other crimes of the government—and this is part of the importance of people donating funds for the tour.)

But I also think all of this underscores the importance of getting out there and counter-posing that look, this is not a “good war gone bad”—this is a war for empire! And to bring a lot of substance (even as we have to break that down in very basic ways) to back that up. (Another student I interviewed, who was generally more cynical but had a good ability to articulate his thinking, said basically that he thinks Iraq was a wrong turn for the War on Terror and now Obama is going to get things back on track, and of course this is sort of the official narrative to understand this right now.) And more than that, this also points to the importance of getting on the ideological offensive around, “Stop Thinking Like Americans! Start Thinking About Humanity!” as the whole “thinking like Americans” is so foundational to much of the political terrain, and something that too many people who know better are getting tripped up around.

And as I’ve thought about this more, another thing that strikes me is that these people were grappling with the fact that this system really has no future for the youth. This is strikingly the case now—look, the jobs that did exist are not coming back. And I think that is part of what people have to be challenged on: look, things are really going to extremes right now, and you can look around and see all these different things going on—the financial crisis as well as the way the Bush regime has been consciously building up the debt and undermining the basis for social welfare type programs, the open-ended war on the planet, and the attacks on immigrants here. These choices that the youth are making for their own futures have everything to do with these larger circumstances that are not under their control, and the future that they’re facing is potentially extremely bleak right now as things are going to extremes on an international scale. But on the other hand, there is another way that’s possible—a future that actually is worth living and dying for—and it makes a big difference when even a handful changes their mind and comes to understand things more deeply, and steps out put a stop to these outrages and in the process, works to galvanize and challenge others.

Resistance and Repression...Some Lessons from Morton West

People may recall having heard about Morton West High School; this was a school where just last year a number of students were suspended (and some faced threats of expulsion) for holding a peaceful protest in their school cafeteria against military recruiters. And because the punishments were so outrageous, and because the actions of even a small minority of high school students in this country acting against the war and against the recruiters happened to hit a nerve and inspire people as far away as the United Kingdom, these youth suddenly found themselves in the national and even to some degree, international spotlight as they were being interviewed about all this in the media—from the Chicago Tribune to the BBC. So part of what the speakers were interested to hear about is how the students and community members were summing up what happened and what lessons could be drawn from this.

And while it would go beyond this letter (as well as what was able to be accomplished with the presentation and discussion for this tour) to fully analyze all of that, a couple of key lessons did come out. First of all, one of the students who did participate in the protest talked about how the school principal was absent on the actual day of the protest and how he was frustrated because he’d received letters from people all over the world complaining about the treatment of the students. And when one of the tour organizers asked her why she thought the school came down so hard on them, she said they had been worried because they didn’t want a “riot” to break out. In fact, she went on, there had been a gun found on school grounds just weeks before and the school administration had been criticized because they didn’t lock the school down as soon as this was found and they didn’t want to come under scrutiny again for not cracking down on a potentially “dangerous” situation.

First of all, and one of the parents made this point, the protest at that school was very peaceful and for anyone to make the argument that they had to crack down on it lest a “riot” break out is completely outrageous. Just to give a picture: these youth were on the side of the cafeteria, at times singing “Kumbaya”!! Secondly, it goes beyond the scope of this letter to try to make an analysis of what happened with that alleged gun incident—but I will say, to make some supposed “link” between these two incidents is actually, effectively, a way of criminalizing the whole school. Because all of a sudden anyone who steps up to say anything is then supposedly causing a security threat to the school.

And , as the speakers at the tour pointed out, what the students at Morton West did was right—and I would add, could have and needs to go much further. Another thing one of the students pointed out was that some of the kids who protested, who don’t do very well academically or maybe are known as “troublemakers”, both had a harder time arguing with other students who were giving them shit about it (saying things like “man, you’re holding up a sign saying ‘Don’t Attack Iran’ but what the fuck do you know about Iran?”) and faced heavier punishments from the administration. This is another illustration of the importance of this tour and of Revolution newspaper, connecting up with these streams of protest and rebellion and helping to give analysis, resolve and backbone to those who start to step out. And struggling ferociously with those who are not stepping out—look, you’re claiming these other youth are ignorant but meanwhile you’re lining up against them when they took a righteous stand against horrible crimes going on in our names.

Finally, Emma Kaplan made a point early on in her presentation about how we have to be real—if we’re going to stop this war and get the recruiters off the campuses, it’s going to take more than just writing congresspeople and signing petitions (even as those can play an important role at different points as part of a larger mix). And the crack-down that came down on these youth is hardly uncommon—it’s actually an expression of how for all the professions of democracy and rights of the people, the people do not fundamentally have the right to rule society or make major decisions about the direction society should go under this system. But the national and international support that came forward for these students said something about how older people in this country, and people around the world, really are looking particularly to the youth of this country to step up and out against what this country is doing around the world and to take the future in a different direction.

The end of the current Call from World Can’t Wait really continues to ring true:

“This will not be easy. If we speak the truth, they will try to silence us. If we act, they will try to stop us. But we speak for the majority, here and around the world, and as we get this going we are going to reach out to the people who have been so badly fooled by Bush and we are NOT going to stop.

“The point is this: history is full of examples where people who had right on their side fought against tremendous odds and were victorious. And it is also full of examples of people passively hoping to wait it out, only to get swallowed up by a horror beyond what they ever imagined. The future is unwritten. WHICH ONE WE GET IS UP TO US.

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