Revolution #162, April 19, 2009

Inner-city High School Meets the Army

Revolution received the following correspondence from a reader:

The following incident was told to me recently by a teacher at an inner city, all Black high school in a major urban area.

This school recently held a Career Day in which various teachers invited outside people to talk about their careers. The speakers stayed in a certain room all day, and all the different classes (with different teachers) who used that room got to hear that particular presentation. Two army recruiters set up in one room and what follows is a) a description of what they ran out, and b) a discussion between the teacher and some students after they heard the recruiters.

The U.S. Army Pitch to Black Inner-City Youth

Both of the recruiters were Black men—one older and one younger—who had grown up in the surrounding neighborhood.

Their pitch was entirely framed in “we’re here to help you get out of the ghetto—we’re your alternative to the life on the streets which will only get you killed or jailed.” This choice was portrayed very starkly. Then they laid out all the ways they said the Army could help you:

  1. You can join the reserves after your junior year in HS. You need your parents OK and a statement from the school that you are on track to graduate. You will go to training one weekend a month and get $200 a month for that.
  2. When you graduate, you can either continue in the reserves or join active duty. Join the reserves and you do a weekend a month for 6 years and get paid. Go active and you can get a $20K signing bonus. You will be able to pick whatever kind of job interests you and the army will supply the training. You will live in very nice “dorms”—he went on to describe them in detail, stressing that you will have your own bedroom.
  3. The army will set aside money for you to go to college—either while you are in the reserves or after you get out of active duty—$5K a year and a $20K pay down of your dept.
  4. He stressed that once you get out of the military you have a much better chance to get a job because of your background. Employers will know that you don’t steal and will get to work on time—"that’s the army culture." He also pointed out how he got 10 extra points on the Post Office exam for being a vet.
  5. The younger guy was a jock. He didn’t say too much, but his main point was that there are all kinds of sports in the military so the jocks will have lots of opportunity to develop their skills and interests.
  6. There was no mention of combat or war during their entire presentation. To the limited degree it came up, it came from student questions. And here again it was downplayed. The older vet said he did a tour in Iraq, but never saw any combat. He stressed that there are lots of jobs in the army where people do not see combat. Then he asked the class—"how many of you know anyone who was killed in Iraq?" In one class no one raised their hand; in another class one girl did. Then he went on to ask: “How many of you know someone who has been killed on the streets right here?” And most of the class’ hands shot up. Again—taking it right back to the desperate conditions that the Army is preying on to convince these kids to join. However, he did make a point here that if he did get killed, his family would get $500,000 dollars in insurance—and he compared this to what he described as the pitiful funerals and little street memorials that are all dead masses leave behind. “There’ll be no t-shirts with my picture on it and people drinking cheap wine at my funeral, and then a few days later you are forgotten. No, my family will be taken care of.”

    There was no mention of mandatory (and multiple) tours of duty in Iraq/Afghanistan. There was no mention of Stop Loss [involuntary] extensions. There was no mention of any sacrifice at all—with the exception of the older guy saying that it was a big sacrifice to be away from his family when he was overseas.
  7. The presentation oozed with paternalism. The older guy was asked if women could be in combat. He said no—for two reasons. First, the U.S. public will not tolerate seeing pictures of women all bloody and maimed. Second, women need to be preserved to have babies. At other points he stressed that to be a man you have to be a provider—hence the value of the Army and its training. This guy also made it very clear that he is the master of his house. He described how he went to the high school where his son attends in response to some problems the kid was causing. He told the school that if his kid did not shape up, he would come back to the school and beat the shit out of his kid right there. He said the school told him he legally could not hit his kid in a school. He told them “try and stop me.”
  8. There was absolutely no mention of patriotism or any “greater purpose” in appealing to the kids to join the military. It was all framed in terms of narrow self-interest and personal success (i.e., money). The older guy bragged about how he now owns property. He praised a local school administrator as a Black man who had money—he wears a suit every day and even his shirts have his monogram on the sleeve. There was one reference to Obama in this context—as someone who had succeeded even more and therefore should be emulated.

A discussion between the teacher and some students who had heard the recruiters

At the end of the day—which had been pretty much destroyed as a teaching day—the teacher talked with 9-10 students during last period about what they thought of the recruiters’ presentation.

A number of the kids involved in this discussion had a history of being serious discipline problems in the class and the teacher had had some major confrontations with various ones including throwing at least four of them out of class on various occasions. One kid is a big kid who is extremely immature and just wants to wrestle and play all day. A couple of the other boys are into proving themselves by constantly talking shit about anything and anyone at anytime—especially when the teacher is trying to teach. One girl is so hungry for attention that she can’t shut up in class. Another kid is a gang banger who had been locked up and just recently got off of probation. And one of the girls was the teacher’s best student and someone who is thinking about the world and is concerned about where it is going. So it was a real mixed bag of kids.

The teacher started by asking if, after hearing the presentation, did anyone want to join the army. Most of the kids said “no way.” They smelled a rat, but they felt what was being hidden was that the army was just like boot camp the whole time—which they wanted no part of. The teacher asked them “what does an army do—what is its reason for existence?” This kind of stumped them—they hadn’t really thought about it that way. The teacher said that their job is to kill people—that is the whole point, to kill people in the interest of the government.

The teacher (who had also heard the presentation) pointed out that the recruiters never mentioned that this was what the army was about nor the wars that the U.S. is fighting today in Iraq (except slightly in passing) and Afghanistan (not at all) and the repeated tours of duty that almost all soldiers have to do there—including the reserves.

The big immature kid had been sort of listening around the edges of the group and it turned out that he had a U.S. Army sticker on his shirt. He said—"What are you talking about? The U.S. is not fighting any wars!" Huh? This was a serious self-exposure of how far this kids head had been up his ass. The teacher told him that he had better wake up and know what was going on in the world. The kid said, “how do you know about any of this—have you been in the Army?” The teacher responded that she had not been in the Army—but she had paid a lot of attention to what is going on in the world -- she had read and studied and talked to people who did know. And then she went on to make the point that is how people learn most of what they need to know. “No one person’s experience can encompass anything but a small slice of reality—you have to work at learning things. And if you don’t do this and take it seriously—you will get used. Just like the army is using you with that whole presentation that just played on your ignorance and got you wearing their sticker around and saying that you wanted to join.” This not only shut this kid’s mouth, but the look on his face suggested that he had actually run into something pretty big that he needed to think about.

The focus then shifted back to the Iraq war. The teacher asked the kids if they knew why the U.S. had attacked Iraq. A lot of the kids had no idea. A couple of them thought it had something to do with OBL [Osama Bin Laden]. The teacher said that this was one claim—which was not true—and the other was WMDs [“Weapons of Mass Destruction”]—which a couple of students then remembered. Here the gang banger kid jumped in and said: “It was about the oil—we’re gangsters and when we want something we just take it.” It was somewhat unclear who this kid meant by “we” in his statement—but at least to some extent, the kid was upholding this approach. So the teacher said that although Bush would never cop to it, it was about oil to a large degree. Then he asked the kid: “so this is the gangster way, right?” And the kid, feeling a little proud, said yeah! So the teacher said that if you want to embrace this gangster approach, here’s a little something else you will need to wrap your arms around. And then she told them the story that is portrayed in the film “Redacted” about how these GIs—in true gangster form—watched this 14-year-old Iraqi girl each day come home from school and decided to rape her. And on the day, they took their black PJs to their checkpoint, changed into them, ate some chicken wings and then followed her home. They walked into her house shot to death her entire family, raped the young girl and then brutally murdered her. “You want to be a gangster—that is what you will be!” The rest of the kids went crazy—pointing at the gang banger kid and yelling things like “she nailed your shit!” The teacher went on and asked the kid if he knew that 1/4 of all returning Iraqi vets need psychological care or that more Vietnam vets came home and killed themselves than were killed in Vietnam. They could not live with themselves and the horrors they had seen and participated in. “That is also part of your “’gangster way.’”

Now two of the girls were asking the teacher, “What was the name of that movie? How do you spell it? Why can’t we see that movie in class?” One of these was the girl who is aware of things, but the other was a girl who actually does pretty good work (some interesting writing), but never says a word in class, usually has her iPod in her ear and is always extremely well accessorized.

There was a moment at the end of this discussion when the teacher and the kids were all kind of looking at each other with different eyes. The teacher said to the kids, “do you know how tired I am of having all these stupid fights over dumb ass stuff. Let’s spend the last 10 weeks of school focusing on things that make a difference. I’ll bring in the movie Redacted, we’ll learn about the ’60s and the Black Panthers and stuff like that.” They all said yeah—and with some real conviction (at least for that day).

Before leaving, the teacher talked for a second with the gang banger kid. She asked the kid if he really identified with what the U.S. is doing with these wars all over the world. He said no, he wasn’t that kind of gang banger. But then he added “plus, we don’t have enough guns.” The teacher also took a moment to talk with the big immature kid and tell him that the reason that she has been so hard on him about growing up was because she did see the potential the kid has—if he will just deal with the world and not run away from it. The next day this kid was really cool in class.

A final thought of mine—none of this will last forever and nothing is permanently different. But I do think this episode does reveal in a small way that revolutionary work is never wasted. And that sharp political and ideological struggle can transform conditions—again understood within very real limits. And most importantly it shows that many of these kids do, deep in their hearts, really want something far better than the world they live in—including in their relationships with each other—something with more importance and dignity and justice than what this society has dumped on them.

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