Young people tend to enlist in the military when they see no better option for their future. Far from being an “all-volunteer” force, as commonly asserted, the US military survives in large part by coercing economically-disadvantaged and jobless youth into its ranks while promising them huge enlistment bonuses, money for college, job training, and other benefits.
But despite the longstanding correlation between economic desperation and military enlistment, it appears that the current recession has not produced a sudden spike in recruitment levels as many military recruiters had gleefully asserted and as others, including myself a few months ago, had believed.
A recently-released analysis of 2009 Army recruitment by the National Priorities Project (otherwise famous for its “cost of war” calculator) shows that the US recession and rising unemployment have failed to boost enlistment rates. According to the report, “The economic recession appeared to have minimal impact on FY09 Army recruitment efforts. Only the broadest measure of unemployment showed a modest correlation with recruitment rates and that was primarily for recruits who identified themselves as white.” More telling, perhaps, is the fact that “Fiscal Year 2009 finds the fewest active-Army recruits since NPP began its analysis in 2004.”
The new report, which NPP compiled based on government data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, contradicts earlier military claims that recruitment levels had risen. The Army boasted late last year that it had exceeded its recruitment goals for the first time in several years. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, bluntly asserted that the recession had put the military “in a very favorable position.” The main reason for the discrepancy, the NPP report notes, is that the Army had quietly lowered its original 2009 recruitment goals by about 17 percent, from 78,000 to 65,000 recruits, thus allowing it to report that it had exceeded expectations when it recruited only 70,045 new enlistees.
The new NPP report is good news for war opponents for a number of reasons. First, the new numbers make it very clear that despite the awesome quantity of taxpayer resources annually devoted to luring young people into joining the military, the Pentagon is still facing a chronic shortage of new recruits. This shortage is a key factor limiting the ability of US war-makers to carry out overseas interventions; it likely contributed to the Obama administration willingness to withdraw about 100,000 US soldiers from Iraq (though they were basically transferred to Afghanistan), to the reluctance of many foreign policy elites to support the US escalation in Afghanistan, and to the aversion of many of those elites to an unprovoked attack on Iran.
The significance for antiwar organizers is that if the military is still struggling to fill its ranks, any concerted counter-recruitment action on our part stands to have even more of an impact on the US capacity to wage wars. Sociologist Michael Schwartz observes that “with the military still desperate, every little bit [of counter-recruitment] helps to keep them from achieving the goals that would ‘free their hand’ to utilize the military in all sorts of circumstances. For example, they might not have the military needed to help foreign oil companies take control over the oil fields in Iraq, over the resistance of locals who want it to remain in Iraqi hands and are fighting to keep it so.” Although the US military in recent decades has begun to find new ways to wage war that reduce the number of front-line soldiers needed—e.g., through high-tech drones that can murder entire villages—it remains dependent on real soldiers, and that dependence will continue for at least several more decades. Those who care about peace and justice do have power, if we choose to exercise it.
The NPP report also provides clear evidence of the mounting antiwar and anti-military sentiment among communities traditionally targeted by recruiters. That sentiment has been very apparent, for example, among the black and Puerto Rican communities in the past decade. Recruiters in those communities, and especially in the cities, have faced plummeting enlistment rates despite endemic economic crisis and unemployment among those very populations. As Schwartz comments, “There could well be a threshold effect in which the current shortages morph into escalating shortages as local communities become more consolidated against joining the military. This sort of political culture could begin to spread to other communities, as the ugliness and consequences of US wars become more visible.” The goal of anti-militarist organizing should be to promote the spread of that political culture through education that underscores the impact of war on US communities, soldiers, and foreign civilians.
That political culture is arguably the weakest in rural white communities outside the Northeast, and is particularly weak in the South. Faced with rising anti-militarist sentiment among communities of color, especially northern blacks, military recruiters have increasingly targeted rural whites. And rural youth of all races are much more likely to enlist than their urban counterparts. It’s more difficult for organizers to reach rural youth given their geographic dispersion, yet counter-recruitment efforts are solely needed in rural areas.
But in the cities, too, we must dramatically intensify our counter-recruitment leafleting and other work. While the new report is a reason for optimism, these gains are never irreversible and will not consolidate themselves without continuous anti-militarist education and organizing. The urban black enlistment rate even appears to have exhibited a slight increase since 2007 after a dramatic drop during the previous seven years, and overall black enlistment rates still remain higher than the national average. Youth of all races continue to be coerced and misled into joining the military, and thereafter kept ignorant so that they’ll blindly serve corporate and imperial power by killing all who resist. Such realities remind us to be cautious in our optimism.
So while there’s cause for hope, only concerted and sustained action will translate that hope into real progress.
For a variety of materials for use in counter-recruiting, visit www.sbusja.com/flyers.php as well as the links provided in https://znetwork.org/counter-recruitment-season-by-kevin-young.
ZNetwork is funded solely through the generosity of its readers.Donate