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.
April 3, 2023 / arch 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.”
Since then, over 50 veterans have participated in We Are Not Your Soldiers. Currently, the project relies on a group of nine veterans, who receive a stipend of $125 for each visit. Teachers affiliated with World Can’t Wait also offer curricular support to veterans so they can connect their stories to class lessons.
I’m trying to respect these kids by telling them the truth that other people are not telling them.Joy Damiani
Sarah Gil, a school teacher at the City-As-School, a transfer high school in New York City, has brought veterans from We Are Not Your Soldiers to her classroom to speak to students in classes focused on just war, race and racism, economics, and moral responsibility. “They share their vulnerability, and it’s more than I could ever do with any of my lessons,” Gil says of the veterans’ visits.
Joy Damiani, an Iraq War veteran who served six years in the U.S. Army, has learned how to use that vulnerability more selectively over time. “I used to go into the classroom and spend a lot of time talking,” Damiani says. “[I was] trying to scare kids into not joining the military, because I was still so freshly traumatized from that.” More recently, Damiani says her role is less about trying to scare young people and instead providing an alternative perspective. “I’m trying to respect these kids by telling them the truth that other people are not telling them. I’m trying to give them something I didn’t have, which was somebody to bring the real talk right into my face where I needed it.”
“Usually, the students don’t have any idea of what it’s actually like,” Megaciph says. “Their narrative really comes from television and comes from the national narrative. ‘Thank you. Thank you for your service. It’s an honor to be a member of the military. Travel the world’ stuff.” While most students have a generally positive view of the military, Megaciph has noticed a shift in recent years. “I think in the past two years, maybe since the pandemic, there’s been a lot more talk about mental health in our country. And so I think in the past two years, I’ve seen more students aware of the trauma that veterans have.”
Susan Cushman is a professor at Nassau Community College and Adelphi University on Long Island, where military recruiters have a heavy presence, particularly on the Nassau campus. She hosts veterans from We Are Not Your Soldiers to help her students “think about alternative ways to achieve an education and get a pension and get a job and travel, without feeling the only option is to join the military.”
In order to counter both the narrative and incentives that military recruiters offer young people, veterans try to share the truth about traumatic personal experiences as well as practical information.
“It’s very meaningful to hear from a veteran that when you enlist, that you are the property—literally are seen as the property—of the U.S. government,” Gil says. Damiani works to put the seemingly attractive military salary and benefits in context for students. “Considering you’re on duty 24 hours a day or on call 24 hours a day, you’ve sold them your body, mind, and soul, essentially. You might not get it back.”
Megaciph also tries to place the role of the military in the context of broader social issues that he knows students care about, including police violence and climate change.
“The U.S. military is the global police, so I like to put that in the students’ head that the way that the police treat Black and Brown and poor people in this country is the way that the military treats people around the rest of the world,” he says. He also tells students that the U.S. military is the largest single contributor of greenhouse emissions in the world.
Ultimately, stories told by veterans like Megaciph and Damiani can be an effective tool to disrupt the mainstream narrative about militarism. But is it enough?
Rick Jahnkow is a steering committee member and an administrative staff volunteer and organizer at the nonprofit National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth (NNOMY). “Simply having veterans doesn’t take into account the way that military recruiters have been trained to convince young people to want to go in the military,” Jahnkow says. “The recruiters have been trained to use basically psychological methods to turn people around if they’re being reluctant to enlist, and if a recruiter knows that a veteran has visited the same class, they have ways to negate that.”
In addition to the military’s preparedness for counter-recruitment, there’s also the issue of simple math. The Pentagon has a multibillion-dollar budget for recruiting alone. By contrast, We Are Not Your Soldiers has an annual budget of $25,000. Meanwhile, Megaciph, Damiani, and the seven other volunteers are up against a much larger body of veterans who generally support military recruitment. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 81% of post-9/11 veterans would advise a young person to join the military.
With these challenges in mind, NNOMY produced a video called “Before You Enlist!” The 16-minute video seeks to lay out a case against military service that preempts the military’s psychological recruitment tactics. With veteran stories and statistics, the video debunks perks, such as “free education” and job training, that the military uses to appeal to potential recruits. The video explains that college benefits are not guaranteed and a “general” discharge can completely disqualify a veteran from receiving benefits. Furthermore, a college education paid by the U.S. military still bears a cost, even if it is not financial. As Matt Stys, a U.S. Army veteran featured in the video, says, “You might not be paying monetarily, but you’re paying with your body, you’re paying with your soul, you’re paying with your mind.” Other veterans share stories of struggling to find meaningful, well-compensated work after their service. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics figure cited in the video, unemployment for young veterans aged 25 to 34 was 42% higher than non-veterans of the same age.
The video also offers a way to bring this message into a greater number of classrooms given the limited number of veterans who are able to make classroom visits. Jahnkow also describes the video as a training tool to develop students’ critical thinking skills so they will be prepared to handle recruitment conversations themselves.
Also central to the video’s message is an explanation of the idea of the “economic draft” or “poverty draft.” The video ends by directing viewers to Peaceful Career Alternatives. Jahnkow and others explain that understanding the economic constraints of young people and offering alternative pathways is essential to counter recruitment efforts.
“I feel like empathizing with them is the first step,” Damiani says. “Acknowledging that right now they don’t have a lot of choices and the military offers a lot of at least money. It seems to them to be a lot. A $10,000 signing bonus sounds like a shitload of money to a teenager.”
Transforming the pre-K-12 education system is an important component of countering recruitment drives. The ways in which students are filtered and tracked into remedial courses starting from an early age has a limiting effect on their post-secondary options. Students who have been excluded from higher-level courses and the college and career pathways that accompany them become ripe targets for military recruiters. Other resources educators can tap into include texts like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and the Zinn Education Project, which present U.S. history with a more honest context.
Aside from creating more opportunities for poor and working-class students, targeting policy changes at the school and district level to protect students from recruitment is another important tactic. Jahnkow cites victories by the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities’ Education Not Arms campaigns to limit recruitment activity at schools that other communities could replicate.
At the same time, the curriculum itself has a role to play. Currently, the standard school curricula often valorizes war and soldiers, while leaving out the U.S. military’s historical role in genocide and colonization. “You know, the Department of the Army was started for clearing Natives off their land and eradicating them, and that still goes on today,” Megaciph says, referring to the original Department of War established in 1789.
Lastly, veterans and organizers like Jahnkow say there is an urgent need to build up the capacity of anti-war, anti-recruitment organizing. Damiani says that includes “finding ways to de-stigmatize sharing the dark side of the military so that more veterans, when they get out, feel safe and comfortable talking about the real shit rather than continuing to glamorize it.”
But growing the pool of veterans—and starting other counter-recruitment strategies—will take money. Counter-recruitment organizing efforts are severely underfunded, Jahnkow says. At the same time, many counter-recruitment and anti-war organizations are being outmaneuvered by the military in digital and social media spaces. This is partly an issue of funding, but Jahnkow adds that the volunteer base for anti-war organizations also skews older. Fighting recruitment online more effectively will require more younger volunteers with the skill set to use Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms in ways the counter-recruitment movement currently does not.
Meanwhile, Jahnkow believes that in today’s poor recruiting environment, the military will “pull out all the stops” in both digital and personal recruitment.
“I think it’s super trippy, that there are children who are old enough to be in the military and being deployed to Iraq, who were not born when the war started. That is something that is just devastating and tragic to me,” Damiani says. “It fuels my fire to keep talking to the kids, because they need to know.”