Five Years of Counter Recruitment in Chicago

June 29, 2008

Nick Kreitman -

Reviewing Five Years of Counter Recruiting in Chicago

Counter recruitment is shorthand for a strategy by the peace movement to make the military withdraw from the occupation in Iraq and other countries through impacting the enlistment levels of willing soldiers. Countering military recruitment involves dissuading people who might interact with the recruiters from doing so and removing the public presence of military recruitment altogether.

Over the past five years of counter recruitment in Chicago there have been roughly four areas of struggle; confronting the military presence inside high schools, the military recruitment at public events, recruitment at universities and confronting military recruitment centers directly. Unfortunately there have been few moments to pause and allow ourselves to review our accomplishments and setbacks. Hopefully those engaged in counter recruitment and those who want to know more will be helped by this work which looks to outline some of the questions that need to be asked in order to help benchmark our progress.

Before discussing the individual arenas where counter recruiters have acted in Chicago, we have to acknowledge the fact that there will probably never be reliable statistics published on our efforts. Most likely the military will never keep statistics on counter recruitment, and if some government agency did receive a budget to track counter recruitment there would be a number of serious issues about reliability. This dearth of information on the regional and national levels however, does not prevent us from collecting information and drawing conclusions about our efforts at the city level. Although the need to collect data of more quantity and quality from actions is universal to the social justice movement, it is particularly necessary in our case because such data could help us choose between a number of possible strategies towards ending the war.

Counter Recruitment in High Schools

Countering recruitment in Chicago area high schools is generally done through students and by outside groups like the American Friends Service Committee. My experience has been that student led efforts at counter recruitment are few and far between and unfortunately are rarely communicated to the larger world. Large personal and social obstacles facing those who speak out against recruiters are part of the reason there are so few student led efforts at confronting high school military recruiters. Military personnel command respect in spheres private and public; we treat them as heroes. The recruiters attempt to use this universal respect as a wedge to advance their agenda, for students who disagree with the war this exploitation of social respect poses a problem. Like it or not, students confronting military recruiters are found by their peers guilty until proven innocent of being iconoclasts and misfits. Such an exclusion of political discourse is unhealthy, but one has to remember that its purpose is to serve as a social control mechanism. In America you don’t need a Gestapo or a KGB if you can get people to hum along with murderous policies.

Another often overlooked issue recruitment is the physical presence of military recruiters. Even as a football jock I was not always immune to the boasting and physical intimidation of military recruiters at my school; for average sized high school students it is even more intimidating to confront such imposing authority figures. Recruiters know that one’s physical presence in a space is just as important as the verbal message and frequently use it to their advantage, walking up to people who disagree with them nose to nose, circling, and basically exploiting opportunities to intimidate those who are not completely confident with their message of peace. Though it’s a pretty childish way to win arguments, it greatly increases the stress on potential counter recruiters and raises the personal investment needed to confront the military. The only effective way to counter such disparities in physical presence is thorough preparation; enough to build an unshakable confidence in the counter recruiter. A confident organizer that can win space from a recruiter then can either rap on about how the military lies to students or about the Iraq War, or inject humor into the situation to deescalate and to further dissolve the bravado and bullshit of the recruiters.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by students is the lack of a clear message to counter recruitment and the consequent lack of thorough preparation and training. I knew many students who would help me engage in counter recruitment but wouldn’t take individual initiative because they weren’t prepared to argue with a professional salesman for the military. Unfortunately, most of the literature around counter recruitment sends mixed messages because it is written by liberals arguing against the military with their hands tied behind their backs. The literature offered debunks military enlistment myths but does not include more general criticism of why we oppose military recruitment. This has served to distract and add another layer of complication for potential counter recruiters. Understanding a substantive critique of the occupation should be a much higher priority for counter recruitment than memorizing specifics about military enlistment contracts.  A clear and cogent message about the goal to end enlistment and end the occupation can help resolve issues about confidence and presentation when confronting military recruiters.

Another problem when straying from a debate on the merits of the Iraq occupation is the lack of alternative opportunities facing many students who are interested in the military. When emphasizing a career based approach to counter recruitment, one quickly realizes that there are few alternatives to military recruitment for those who don’t have the resources available for post secondary education. Viewing the compensation offered by the military without regard to the potential consequences or moral decision making, it compares pretty well for those with few occupational skills. An obvious corollary to this discussion is how our movement can generate employment and also leverage more employment from local institutions without compromising our values. Such questions come to the forefront when counter recruiters begin to engage in career counseling with high schoolers during counter recruitment sessions. I have seen first hand however how easily these discussions with military recruits fall apart, both because of the lack of a focused message about why we really oppose military recruitment and because of the inability of the counter recruiters to role play a career counselor.


How We Can Be More Effective in High Schools

What is necessary is an explicit opposition to military recruitment on the grounds that our military engages in occupations of nations around the world. Military recruiters almost uniformly recoil when engaged in arguments about the Iraq war; they even did in the good old days of the war when I was in high school and counter recruiting five years ago. Our literature and training however lacks such a critical edge, and instead students are burdened with calling our respected military personnel as liars to their face. Its much more inviting for a student to question the logic of the war and to oppose recruiters on that level then walk up to a soldier and call him a bald faced liar. Though we do need to call recruiters out on their lies; whether soldiers get 3,000 or 15,000 dollars for college is irrelevant to our ultimate goal of counter recruitment, namely the end of neo-imperialism and occupation.

When military recruiters enter into a high school, or are embedded into it, they might be ignored by students, but rarely are they confronted by students without some organizational support. SDS or CAN must embrace the rather fleeting high school counter recruiters that usually burn out before even being plugged into a city wide network. Whichever group that steps up to the plate must actively search for these high schoolers and must be able to provide trainings to these organizers on the Iraq War to make them more confident and effective when confronting military recruiters. A first step would be to connect to other groups who are actively engaging high school students like the American Friends Service Committee, CAWI, etc. Accessing contacts through social networking websites like facebook and myspace is key to expanding our own networks of who we know in high schools and are interested in opposing military recruitment.

Outreaching to students at events like concerts and shows has to be changed as well. Instead of sitting behind tables of pamphlets we have to be as enthusiastic and social as the recruiters we oppose. We should look to get commitments from people specifically for counter recruiting when we canvass events and already have a follow up meeting planned that contacts can attend for more information and training. Making sure canvassers at events are adequately prepared beforehand to deal with contacts helps the awkwardness of connecting with people out of the blue. Preparation includes not only having appropriate materials for potential counter recruiters that explain our strategy and why we oppose the occupation but also having an organized system to arrange contact information. Half of the battle is entering contact data into a useable form and making the effort at follow up.

Our movement’s goal should be to have high schoolers lead counter recruitment at high schools. Students listen to their peers much more so than older folks coming into high schools no matter how polished they are. We need to be aware that our strategy requires us to identify and access social networks of students who can be mobilized to confront military recruitment in high schools. Part of this is learning how to effectively organize data obtained from social networking websites like myspace, part of this is better data collection like finding out friend relations from contacts, and part of it is maintaining relationships with people who are in different social networks.

The most egregious oversight our movement has made in counter recruitment is failing to acknowledge the importance of our relationship with the Iraq Veteran’s Against the War. Military veterans are the single greatest resource to counter recruitment. Every high school student engaged in counter recruitment needs to meet someone from the IVAW. Nothing steels someone’s convictions like a personal interaction with someone who has been through what one’s fighting against. The IVAW is an autonomous organization with an agenda to organize veterans and active duty personnel but it has also tried to engage in counter recruiting through campaigns like “Talk to a Recruiter.” We have to articulate our movement’s needs to the IVAW and clearly state how they can help us further our objectives of ending further recruitment by the military.

Creating more social exposure for members of the IVAW should be a priority. We need to be organizing networking events like parties, shows, trainings and conferences where veterans can interact with high school students leading counter recruitment efforts. They need to learn from first hand sources why they are opposing the war. So far our movement has not associated social networking goals with political goals. Changing our perception about the importance of building relationships through social spheres is necessary to build a much broader movement. Cosponsored events would be mutually beneficial, especially since there are so many veterans in the Chicago area who oppose the war but are unaware of the IVAW and may only need an introduction from a friend at party to get involved.

Military Recruitment at Public Events

Chicago is a city of public celebration. From block parties, to music festivals, to ethnic celebrations, to the Taste of Chicago, the military takes advantage of dozens of opportunities to recruit more soldiers. Many of the same groups that have taken a leading role in counter recruitment in high schools have taken similar roles at counter recruitment at Chicago’s festivals. Two of the events with the best attendance by counter recruiters have been the Taste of Chicago and the annual Air and Water show. Several similar issues arise when counter recruitment is taken outside the context of the high school and into public space. Counter recruiters are still primarily targeting military age men and women but also have a broader audience of other attendees at the festival. Problems of accessibility for counter recruiters are still frequent however, only a few years ago at the Taste of Chicago the Chicago Police decided that the counter recruiters needed to leave the premises, leading to a number of arrests and a fiery response (a burning President Bush delievered in a wheel chair). The best defense against such bare knuckle oppression is usually having a contingency plan to deal with police harassment that includes legal support, if not a planned response that might deescalate the situation and allow for the counter recruitment to continue.

The importance of maintaining a clear message is elevated when addressing the general public. When groups engage in Direct Action to remove recruiters they remove their focus from the people in public who are being recruited and instead place their focus solely on the recruiters. It’s a calculation that most groups have not considered when using direct action to literally shut down the recruiter. Direct Action attempts to dislodge recruiters in public spaces through tactics like locking down on recruiter equipment has had mixed results. Sometimes it has lead to the frustration and departure of the recruiters but often it has lead to significant court fees and a less than supportive crowd response. The same factors for successful interactions in high schools are still true when the audience is the general public. Having confidence in and a broad knowledge of the argument against recruitment (our war in Iraq is wrong and you shouldn’t fight in it) is the only way people can be comfortable enough to be effective counter recruiters.

One of the biggest obstacles to communicating our message about the Iraq War and military enlistment to people is the distraction of the debate around first amendment rights of the military. In actuality the first amendment is not a justification for protecting the speech of an organization engaged in unlawful violence but it’s a debate that prevents a lot of people from becoming participants rather than supportive spectators of our work. Not enough attention has been paid to issues around the clarity of our message to our audience, who is the general public that would otherwise only interact with the recruiters. If at all possible it would be best to avoid unnecessary harassment from the police in order to maintain our focus on defeating the message of the military and its recruitment drive for war. Ultimately the military recruiters stay wherever they feel they will be the most productive. The military perceives hostility by the most sustained threats to its message, not necessarily privileging a few incidents of physical resistance that can bankrupt the resources and energy of the individuals and groups responsible. Transforming the recruitment experience into an explicit defense of the Iraq War powerfully takes away from the message of the recruiters and allows us to organize a much broader audience.

Similar to counter recruitment at high schools, we need to be more meticulous about collecting contact information. Appropriate organization of the data is crucial and in my experience has consistently been neglected by counter recruitment efforts. Part of the high turnover of people engaged in counter recruitment is a result of the failure of consistent follow up and because of the often sporadic nature of direct action approaches to counter recruitment. Unfortunately, conflict with the law and the potential for stress and legal consequences deters a lot of organizers from dedicating time to counter recruitment. Re-envisioning counter recruitment as an opportunity to canvass against the war and build relationships with people lowers the necessary personal investments from the counter recruiters and would encourage new and more consistent participation. Sometimes conflict with the law is inevitable and anyone engaged in counter recruitment needs to understand that organizing for change always incurs risks of financial and personal risks but we need to evaluate necessity of actions that lead to escalations of force.

Counter Recruitment in the University Setting

Military Recruitment at public universities, as in high schools, is explicitly endorsed by the No Child Left Behind Act. While Obama’s presidency and the Democratic control of Congress hopefully will mean a slight reprieve from the full court press by the military, we can expect that NCLB will continue on and that the legal enforcement of the military’s right to recruit in public schools will continue. Humor and attempts at detournment (using created pretenses to radically alter the context of a message from an institution) have been common in counter recruitment at the post-secondary level. Since college students are under much less scrutiny and college campuses are much more physically open institutions than high schools, more options are available for counter recruitment at colleges.

The military however acknowledges that there are less potential recruiters who are in four year institutions and only occasionally recruits on campuses in the Chicago area. More frequently the military or other agencies look for recruits at colleges to fill specialized programs like ROTC, combat nursing or intelligence analysis. Military recruitment at private universities and colleges is near non-existent except for the occasional job fair appearance recruiting for these specialized occupations. Not surprisingly the military recruits more frequently at the community colleges in the suburbs and within the CCC system.

Military recruitment efforts at universities and colleges should also be treated as opportunities to engage in a debate over the occupation and to canvass the public about opposition to the war. Such efforts do not always need to be somber affairs as humor can help deescalate awkwardness and tension between the public and the counter recruiters making conversations more comfortable and more productive. The main concern however should be maintaining the clarity of our message against the war and against recruitment while still incorporating humor. Ideally humor and communicating a clear message to an audience are mutually beneficial but sometimes the creation of a spectacle is privileged over the overarching goal of building popular opposition to the war and specifically recruitment.

One of the most overlooked resources available to counter recruiters at the post-secondary level is the ability to use students from multiple campuses to focus on a single campus. If SDS or CAN could create a network that has the capacity to be mobilized to counter recruitment efforts the military would be hard pressed to justify spending any money recruiting at universities in Chicago. Realistically it would take around a semester’s worth of effort to create a cell text communication system that could alert people interested in counter recruitment about recruitment at universities. The biggest investment would be getting schedules of recruiters from universities and widely distributing the information since the actual text networking technology would take a week or two to create.

Organizing Against Military Recruitment Centers

Chicago’s counter recruitment effort has had the least success confronting physical military recruitment centers, even though there has been a significant investment of resources and energy in opposing them. Military recruitment offices in Chicago have been expanding in our communities and on our campuses, even with military high schools opening on the physical campuses of existing high schools like Senn High School on the North Side. One recruitment office that has been protested since its inception has been the one recently opened in the “Superdorm” downtown, the world’s largest dorm with students from more than four schools.

Protesting physical institutions is problematic because the protests do not significantly affect recruitment. While organizing protests at recruitment centers expends hours of energy on behalf of organizers, the recruiters usually aren’t in the office when protesters are outside, and even when they are they can do most of their work over the phone or on their computers for the short duration of the protest. Recruiters are not particularly affected by the limited press around recruitment center protests. Serious escalations of force to close the recruitment centers have been sporadic and those organizing towards such goals don’t have the resources immediately available to sustain such high intensity campaigns.

Some recruitment centers have become targets of opportunity for protests and are often visited by crowds from unrelated protests. To my knowledge, one of the few longer term campaigns against a recruitment center was Columbia College SDS’s attempt to create a weekly drum circle around the recruitment center at the Superdorm downtown. Although such events do not represent an immediate threat to the operation of the recruitment center they are further opportunities to engage the surrounding community on the occupation.

The first question we have to ask ourselves when confronting physical spaces dedicated to recruitment is about the goal of our confrontation. Are we protesting in front of the recruitment center in order to shut it down or are we there to communicate to the community around the center, or both. If our goal is to use protests to actually shut down recruitment centers we have failed. Dislodging institutions like the ROTC from the University of Illinois Chicago campus, or the superdorm may not be immediately accomplishable. Confrontation at this point is likely unproductive because we don’t have the social resources to sustain the confrontation and to use its momentum. My limited experience around the superdorm organizing was that the organizers that dedicated their time to organizing for a confrontation over the superdorm were overwhelmed with obligations from the campaign with not enough effort was expended recruiting new participation. Unfortunately it’s a trade-off constantly faced in organizing. For Chicago, the onus should be on expanding the networks of contacts outside of the “activist” communities and being more selective about confrontations to increase our success. Participation in the movement is not limited to engaging in work around active campaigns and just as much relies on personal development and an expansion of relationships with people and communities.

Alternatively, our confrontation could be based on communication with the community around the center. Logically tactics with less legal consequences would be used, like dance parties, drum circles etc. and less emphasis would be placed on organizing for sit-ins or occupations of buildings. The strategy of using confrontation selectively and in a less escalatory manner to expand our movement’s interactions with the community and even with potential recruits would help build the resources necessary for more sustainable direct action. Essential is treating every public action around recruitment as an opportunity to find new participants in the movements and to canvass support for ending the occupation and radically challenging authority in our country.

On the Bicycle Bomber and Property Destruction Against Military Recruiters

No discussion about counter recruitment would be intellectually honest without citing the influence of advocates of property destruction. Public justification outside of the relatively anonymous communiqués and manifestos for property destruction has been sparse and incomplete at best. Many have led themselves to believe that the feelings around property destruction are held only by a disgruntled minority and carried out by an even more extreme fringe, but the reality is that there is a significant number within the counter recruitment movement who believe that property destruction targeting recruiters is not only legitimate but necessary immediately. Examples of attacks on recruitment stations are becoming more frequent and also more intense. Recently a New York City recruitment station was the target of an explosive device, later glorified on stickers by a number of insurrectionist anarchists as the bicycle bomber. Incidents are geographically widespread but are not limited to individual solo actors. With increasing regularity recruitment stations in Washington D.C. have been targeted by the revived tactic of the black bloc and have been physically attacked.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find an example of a recruitment station closed because of a physical assault post 9-11. What has been the pattern without exception has been escalated security around attacked stations, with the confrontation quickly ending and the station reopening. One of the few exceptions to the trend has been the persistent work around DC, including DC SDS chapters. When the sacrifices asked and risks taken are calculated however, many of physical confrontations are not worthwhile.

What has been lost to the counter recruitment advocates of property destruction is the breakdown of the parallel between the 1960’s counter recruitment and our contemporary efforts. During the 1960’s there were massive social resources available with which to literally launch guerilla warfare against military recruiters. The website details the dozens of attacks against military facilities on campuses that eventually succeeded in the military’s withdrawal. The key difference is that those engaging in the actions had communities to fall back on and to be protected within. There were many more opportunities to hide one’s identity because of the vibrant nature of the counter culture. The movement was at a popular height and that shared sense of community helped to protect members from intimidation by authority. Investigations were much harder pressed to find records from of communes and crash pads then from corporate employers or apartment management companies.

We need to focus on bringing in more people into the counter recruitment movement and creating a community than can marshal the resources for sustained direct action campaigns. Our goal is to end military recruitment and we have to be prepared to use any means necessary to end the occupation in Iraq. “By any means necessary” means that we have to be able to determine the most expedient ends to that goal. Redirecting effort towards canvassing and communicating to others over the individual work around direct action would yield multiplied benefits because of the greater number of participants contributing.

Those considering property destruction need to examine the true sacrifices in time and energy of their actions. While causing property destruction may seem like a small commitment from the individual, the planning to make sure one is not caught is significant, and the consequences if caught can make such actions totally consuming of their actor. If actions are to be taken its only logical that they can be envisioned as part of an immediate effort at the removal of the recruitment center and that there are the resources available to sustain the resistance against the center and win the campaign.


On Our Movement’s Fragmented Understanding of Economics

“Theory” about economics from the self-identified left is usually detached from how contemporary economies actually function. Participation in and identification with the movement is lopsidedly left brain. Our general lack of goals concerning the transformation of the economy, outside vague concepts like worker cooperatives and living wages, negatively impacts our ability to build organizations that have enough resources to effectively engage in counter recruiting.

The 900 pound gorilla in the room for counter recruiters is that there are few options available to those with no job skills, few job skills, or with too little social capital find a position. Taken at a morally neutral face value; with pay, housing, and the promise of job training, the military offers a compelling opportunity for young people to survive. Counter recruiters often have the unenviable job of playing the five minutes or less career consoler to potential recruits who are in even less enviable occupations and are looking for a way out and up.

Our central contradiction is that none of the major peace organizations, or even most organizations on the “left”, are engaged in building career paths for individuals being counseled away from military enlistment. Without these career paths open in other occupations, counter recruitment will always be an uphill battle and we will continue with mixed success. Chicago needs a coalition to step forward and tackle the lack of clear career paths for youth that do not involve taking on tens of thousands of debt in student loans. We are on the literal cusp of a green technology and manufacturing revolution but our internal discourse about the Chicago economy is pathetically unsophisticated and out of touch. Research and dedicated effort to identifying opportunities for entrepreneurship and effective engagement with existing companies embodying our core values is long overdue.

In Chicago the Daley family has built a political behemoth because of its ability to manipulate the local economy. The jobs provided by municipal and state governments and their contractors have lifted many out of poverty. Imagine an opposition, not based upon political cronyism and dynasty, but based upon creating equal opportunity for economic security and personal expression. Image a movement that could demonstrate that the values of solidarity and innovation are both competitive in a world economy but necessary to create the resources to save the planet. Some are working towards such an economy with their heads in the sand about America’s foreign policy and the stranglehold it places on our potential economic boom.

As long as there are desperate people there will be soldiers in desperate occupations. We need practitioners who organize for an end to the occupation but also who create the infrastructure necessary for a sustained fight against recruitment and against capitalism. Without clear alternatives to the military we will not be able to realize our goal of short circuiting enlistment to the levels necessary to end American imperialism. What is working to our advantage is the potential to realize the collateral benefits from engaging in creating a solidarity economy and counter recruitment. The social networks identified and mobilized for each effort can be incorporated into the mobilization for the other. Each opportunity to engage the public during counter recruitment is an opportunity to begin an extended dialogue about changing the fundamental forces driving our economy. America’s occupation in Iraq is a symptom of the domestic deterioration that we have allowed to happen but is now a self fulfilling prophecy for destruction. Our only solution from this point forward is to resolve our economic crisis at home as part of our fight against the occupation.


Nick Kreitman, 20, is post-ism and pro-organizing. He is a member of students for a democratic society and will be a grad student at University of Chicago next semester. His research is focused on urban political economy, social capital and bringing democratic participation into the workplace and local politics.

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