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Veterans Push Back Against Military Recruitment in Schools

The branches of the U.S. military have long seen high schools as optimal recruiting grounds. Some veterans are beginning to fight the propaganda and tell students the truth about military service.

Air Force Master Sgt. Jon Wedel adjusts the ascot on Cadet Taylor Mathew before the colors demonstration during the 2017 Delaware State JROTC Drill Competition at Dover Air Force Base, Del., April 8, 2017. Cadets from the Caesar Rodney JROTC color guard presented the colors at the morning ceremony. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jared DuhonApril 3, 2023 / Ruben Abrahams Brosbe / Yes! Magazine - March 20 marked the 20th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. The war took hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, with some estimates of Iraqi casualties putting the number at over 1 million. More than 4,600 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq during and after the invasion, and thousands more have died by suicide

Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, the U.S. military is facing its worst recruitment crisis since the end of the Vietnam War. The Defense Department’s budget proposal for 2024 outlines a plan for the military to slightly cut back on its ranks, but to reach its projected numbers, it will still need to embark on a heavy recruitment push. Across the country, anti-war veterans and their allies are working together in an effort to stop the U.S. military from reaching its goal.

We Are Not Your Soldiers is a project of New York City-based nonprofit World Can’t Wait. The organization sends military veterans into schools to share honest stories of the harm they have caused and suffered. In doing so, they hope to prevent young people from signing up. 

“I wish I had somebody who told me when I was young,” says Miles Megaciph, who was stationed in Cuba and Okinawa with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992 to 1996. “The experiences I’ve lived, as painful as they are, and as much as I don’t like to relive them, are valuable to help future adults not live those experiences,” Megaciph told me.

“We wanted to get to the people who were going to be the next recruits,” says Debra Sweet, the executive director of World Can’t Wait. When We Are Not Your Soldiers launched in 2008, the experience was often intense for veterans. “They were all fresh out of Afghanistan and Iraq,” Sweet remembers. “It was very raw, it was very hard. [It was] really hard for them to go talk to people in public about what had happened. And we learned a lot about PTSD, up close and personal, and how it was affecting people.”

How E-girl influencers are trying to get Gen Z into the military

January 10, 2023 / Günseli Yalcinkaya / Dazed - “I’m not the American dream, I’m more like the American nightmare,” beams the influencer known as Haylujan in a video to her 363k TikTok followers. With full-face E-girl make-up, drawn-on freckles and a rosy nose, the 20-year-old is the face of an unsettling new breed of E-girl garnering millions of views online. She posts thirst traps inside choppers and pouty selfies with assault rifles, with hashtags like #pewpew and #militarycurves. She shares cutesy unboxing compilations and make-up tutorials, Get Ready With Me videos and lip syncs. She jokes about war bunkers and plays with remote control tanks, which she overlays with sparkly filters and heart emojis.

Known in esoteric meme circles as the psy-op girl, Haylujan, also known simply as Lujan, is a self-described “psychological operations specialist” for the US Army, whose online presence has led to countless memes speculating that she is a post-ironic psy-op meant to recruit people into the US army. Lujan, who’s actually employed by the US army psy-ops division, posts countless TikToks and memes that play into this (her official website is called sikeops). “My own taxes used to psy-op me,” says one commenter. “Definitely a fed (I’m signing up for the army now)” writes another.

But Haylujan isn’t the only E-girl using Sanrio sex appeal to lure the internet’s SIMPs into the armed forces. There’s Bailey Crespo and Kayla Salinas, not to mention countless #miltok gunfluencers cropping up online. While she didn’t document her military career, influencer Bella Porch also served in the US Navy for four years before going viral on TikTok in 2020, and is arguably the blueprint for this kind of kawaii commodified fetishism in the military. An adjacent figure, Natalia Fadeev, also known as Gun Waifu, is an Israeli influencer and IDF soldier who uses waifu aesthetics and catgirl cosplay to pedal pro-Israel propaganda to her 756k followers. She poses to camera, ahegao-style, with freshly manicured nails wrapped neatly around a glock, the uWu-ification of military functioning as a cutesy distraction from the shadowy colonial context: “when they try and destroy your nation,” she writes in one caption.

Our Children Are Experiencing Militarization of the US Up Close and Personally

A child waves from the back of a jeep with an M60 during a Veterans Day parade in Reno, Nevada, on November 11, 2022. Ty O'Neil / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty ImagesFebruary 23, 2023 / Andrea Mazzarino / Truthout -  During a Veterans Day celebration in my small Maryland community, a teacher clicked through a slideshow of smiling men and women in military uniforms. “Girls and boys, can anyone tell me what courage is?” she asked the crowd, mostly children from local elementary schools, including my two young kids.

A boy raised his hand. “Not being scared?” he asked.

The teacher seized on his response: “Yes!” she exclaimed. “Not being scared.” She proceeded to discuss this country’s armed forces, highlighting how brave U.S. troops are because they fight to defend our way of life. Service-members and veterans in the crowd were encouraged to stand. My own children beamed, knowing that their father is just such a military officer. The veterans and troops present did indeed stand, but most of them stared at the ground. As a counselor who works with children, including those from local military families, I marveled that the teacher was asking the young audience to dismiss one of the most vulnerable emotions there is — fear — in the service of armed violence.

No mention was made of what war can do to those fighting it, not to speak of civilians caught in the crossfire, and how much money has left our country’s shores thanks to armed conflict. That’s especially true, given the scores of U.S.-led military operations still playing out globally as the Pentagon arms and trains local troops, runs intelligence operations, and conducts military exercises.

That week, my children and others in schools across the county spent hours in their classrooms celebrating Veterans Day through a range of activities meant to honor our armed forces. My kindergartener typically made a paper crown, with six colorful peaks for the six branches of service, that framed her little face. Kids in older grades wrote letters to soldiers thanking them for their service.

I have no doubt that if such schoolchildren were ever shown photos in class of what war actually does to kids their age, including of dead and wounded elementary school students and their parents and grandparents in Afghanistan and Iraq, there would be an uproar. And there would be another, of course, if they were told that “their” troops were more likely to be attacked (as in sexually assaulted) by one of their compatriots than by any imaginable enemy. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the most progressive and highly educated counties in the country and even here, war, American-style, is painted as a sanitized event full of muscular young people, their emotions under control (until, of course, they aren’t).

Even here, few parents and teachers dare talk to young children about the atrocities committed by our military in our wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

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