message printed beneath the image of the stern drill sergeant on the
US Marine Corps recruitment poster reads, "Just Think of Me as Your
New Guidance Counselor." The poster is displayed in the administrative area
of my neighborhood high school on the office door of the two police
officers assigned to the school. The police officer who put it there says
that it is not a recruitment poster and that, because he is a Marine, he
uses it as motivational for himself. Just down the hall are the school's
actual guidance counselors, and one of them expresses another view about the
poster. Studying the image, she says quietly, "He doesn't look like a
guidance counselor. His eyes are steely. He doesn't look like someone who
Drill instructors are looking
toward ever-younger audiences. Among those marching in Austin's recent
Veterans Day parade, I noticed a group of Junior ROTC students who appeared
to be child soldiers. I spoke later with one of them, a 6th grader who is
enrolled in the program at his public middle school. I asked him what he
learns in his JROTC class. "We learn how to march, and, well, we learn
everything," he said. "Everything?" I asked. "We learn how to be in the
army," he replied. Like the strange, contrary slogan, "An Army of One," the
guidance being given to this youngster pretends to offer a world of
possibility, but it boils down to one direction.
The week after Veterans Day, I had an opportunity to speak with US
Army Staff Sergeant, Booker T. Newton during a demonstration at his
recruiting station on National Stand Down Day. Joined by other activists,
parents and veterans, several CodePink women and I, dressed in pink police
uniforms, issued citations to the recruiters for morality violations related
to their use of deceptive recruitment practices and their roles as
accomplices to an immoral war.
When Sergeant Newton learned that I was involved with Nonmilitary
Options for Youth, he wanted to know what kinds of options we suggest. He
was asking, he said, because more young people than usual are failing the
academic tests required for enlistment, and he wonders what is happening
or not happening in Texas schools to prepare students for the future.
Like another Booker T. of a century ago, he was genuinely concerned about
the state of public education, and although we disagreed about the best
course of action, we discovered some common ground. He had guided one young
person to a local AmeriCorps program that we promote. "After that, he'll
join the Army," he said. "Or use his education award to go directly to
college," I countered, and he did not object to that possibility.
Another recruiter at the station stressed to the assembled media that he
was glad we were there, because we were exercising the freedoms that he
believed he was defending through his role in the military. This is the
standard and puzzling response often given by spokespersons of the military,
an institution that suppresses the individual freedoms of its members.
We tried to demonstrate that education - guiding one another to think
critically -- is a foundation upon which freedom depends.
Last week, the Texas Supreme Court sidestepped an important opportunity to
guide the Texas legislature toward improving a public education system that,
by some standards, ranks lowest in the country. A friend, writer
and educator, Greg Moses has been analyzing the situation in recent
He quotes some straightforward language from the Texas constitution of 1875:
"A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the
liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the
Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the
support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools."
Moses concludes, "Into this succinct line of reasoning is packed a serious
claim. Where there is no suitable education, there can be no real hope of
preserving rights and liberties."
The day before the Texas Supreme Court ruling that left school adequacy
and issues unresolved, I was visiting a local high school to staff
a literature table for Nonmilitary Options during the lunch periods. A
fight broke out between two students in the hall near our table. My Air
Force veteran colleague and I were the only older adults available at the
moment the students began circling each other and putting up their fists. A
crowd of students formed quickly around them. My colleague and I decided to
place ourselves between the two young men and try to hold them apart. The
only thing I could think to say as I held onto the shoulders of one of them
was "It's not worth it." He would not make eye contact with me, but I
sensed he would welcome a way out of the fight. Before long, school
officials arrived, and a police officer grabbed the other young man, who
resisted, was handcuffed and led away.
"Books Not Bombs, Conscience Not Combat," stated the large poster above our
table as a backdrop to the fight. But how can I fault those young men
for doing exactly what their country guides them to do? They can see
plainly enough that the USA jumps right into the ring with fists pounding
when there is conflict. The president of their country clearly chooses bombs
over books. Young people can see the ways that school officials promote the
military at the same time that they punish students for fighting. During the
course of our tabling, a teacher stopped by and told us about a recent
all-faculty meeting where military recruiters gave a 20-minute power-point
presentation offering assistance with discipline in the school.
Rather than more punishment and rigidity, I have to think that
guidance, especially with teenagers, means trying our best to practice what
we preach. Young people notice consistency. A role model who comes
immediately to mind is a friend and colleague, Susan Quinlan, a former high
school teacher who, along with a small group of volunteers at the Central
Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Oakland, California has developed a
program called Alternatives to War through Education (AWE). Quinlan, a
long-time war tax resister, is clear with students about her standpoint but
encourages them to think for themselves and develop their own positions.
Funny and, a natural in the classroom, she guides students through
interactive exercises that help them explore and express their beliefs about
killing and conscience. She also has begun an after-school class for
students who are learning to organize events for their peers and facilitate
Mainly, Quinlan asks questions and listens to the answers. She is
accompanied in the classroom by military veterans and
conscientious objectors whose very presence as former soldiers who changed
their minds about war is enough to cause students to stop and take notice.
Quinlan and the AWE program are much in demand. The evolving curriculum
offers a form of guidance that expands the mind, allowing students to follow
the twists and turns along the many paths where rights and liberties lead.
Students whose views are sought and valued are bound to ask questions in
return. Such as why a drill sergeant who orders strict conformity is billed
as a protector of freedom, and why schools allow drill sergeants in their
hallways in the first place.
Susan Van Haitsma is active with
Nonmilitary Options for Youth and Austin Conscientious Objectors to Military
Taxation. She can be reached at:
For more information about the Alternatives to War through Education (AWE)
Other Articles by Susan
Peace Roll with the Peace Train
* We Will
Not Pay for Killing
Casey, Texas: The Village is the Answer
Guilt and Innocence
Pushing Back the Violence: Peacemaker Teams Get in the Way
Red Flag: Recruiting at the IMAX
Confessions of a Conscientious Objector
the D-Word: Does the Military Really Instill Discipline?
Recruiter in Each of Us
Trade: Mixing Guns, Schools and the Messages We Give Our Kids