UConn Scholar Chronicles History and Debate over Military Recruitment in American Schools

'Breaking the War Habit' examines 100 years of recruitment and 'counter-recruitment' in schools

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Joe R. Campa Jr. speaks to students in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program at Luther Burbank High School during a 2008 visit to Sacramento. MCPON also took time to visit the Navy Operational Support Center, Sacramento and speak to Sailors at Navy Recruiting Stations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jennifer A. Villalovos/Wikimedia Commons).

Breaking the War Habit: The Debate Over Militarism in American Education – co-authored by School of Social Work Associate Professor and Ph.D. Program Director Scott Harding – is the second book in a series from the University of Georgia Press about children, youth, and war. In the following Q&A, Harding and one of his co-authors, Seth Kershner, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discuss their research and recommendations for change.

In the book, the authors analyze what they view as the militarization of schools in the United States and trace the 100-year effort to prevent the military from infiltrating and influencing public education. Examining the hidden history of resistance to the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in higher education and the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) in high schools, including the development of “military counter-recruitment,” is of special interest to Harding and Kershner.  They have published extensively about counter-recruitment over the past decade, aiming to understand and highlight those who have challenged the privileged status of the military in U.S. education settings. They recently spoke with UConn Today about their work, and the issues it raises.


In the book’s introduction, you state that while school militarism was a contested topic through much of the 20th Century, it is now “a largely forgotten issue”. What got you interested in this topic now?

Scott Harding: This is a long-standing research interest of ours. We wrote an article in 2011 that was published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Work. Prior to that article there was little published scholarship in the academic literature specifically looking at counter recruitment. There had been very few studies that were critical about the extent of school militarism and the presence of military recruitment in public schools in the United States.

I met Seth while teaching an elective at the School of Social Work: War, Militarism, Peace and Social Work. We developed a relationship that led to writing the paper and then subsequently doing research and interviews across the United States with people who were involved in counter recruitment. That led to a first book that we wrote, Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools. That was the first, comprehensive study of counter recruitment, focusing on the period of the 1970s to now, using the end of the draft in the United States as the starting point when counter recruitment really emerged. We’ve been doing this for over a decade.

Seth Kershner: I would add that I first got an insight that there would be an interesting historical angle to recruiting at the UConn archives. I began working on this topic more than 10 years ago and traveled to The Dodd Center for Human Rights and looked through newsletters from the early 70s called Counter Pentagon. Through this newsletter, early counter recruiters across the country communicated with each other. In the 2000s, during the Iraq war, when counter recruiting was really hot, even seasoned activists assumed that military recruiting in schools was new. But it has this long history, as we show in the new book.

In your research, going all the way back to 1920s and more recently, were there any examples of recruitment strategies that surprised you?

SK: It’s important to keep in mind that while it a has a long history, recruiters visiting schools and using sophisticated sales techniques on children is a fairly recent phenomenon dating back to the 1980s. The most shocking things we learned have happened more recently. A new development is moving from the high school level down to middle schools. Since the 1990s, there’s been a program called STARBASE, which brings 5th graders, and some 6th and 7th graders, to military bases. This is a program that’s active in Connecticut and a couple dozen other states in the country. It’s a one-week program and they have hands-on science activities, which seems innocuous, except in the last day when uniformed military personnel come in and give these 5th graders a pitch about how exciting it can be to work in the military. It’s a form of what we call “pre-recruitment.” Of course, you can’t technically recruit a 5th grader into the military. But looking at trade journals published by military recruiting services, we have been able to identify language used by recruiters, like “planting a seed.” That’s how they describe these kinds of operations at the middle school level.

The cover of the book "Breaking the War Habit."
(University of Georgia Press)

SH: More recently, something that we highlight in both books is a disparity in terms of recruitment. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we got data on the presence of military recruiters in high schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts. We found that Avon High School and Bloomfield High School, which have distinctly different demographic characteristics, were targeted in different ways by the military. In the time period we were looking at, recruiters came to Avon High School twice in the school year, whereas at Bloomfield High, they came in an average of twice a week throughout the year. There are other examples like that where schools that might be in communities with lower incomes or higher rates of poverty are visited more frequently by recruiters compared to schools that are much more affluent and less diverse.

You talk about the school to military pipeline. What is that? How do you define it?

SH: We see it as a way in which youth are socialized into a potential career that is portrayed as desirable, as exciting, and as manly or masculine. There is clearly a trend where the military is in schools, both formally and informally, and have a much greater presence, whereas other voices, other career options, may not be made available with the same frequency as the military.

SK: You can think about this school-military pipeline in terms of resources. We mentioned Bloomfield and Avon, and there are numerous examples like that where there are schools that don’t have the kinds of courses that prepare students to compete and get into colleges. Education Week did a study. They looked at how many schools across the country are offering physics and other STEM courses that students typically would need on their academic record to be competitive. Around 40% of high schools in the United States don’t offer a course in physics.

The Rand Corporation did a valuable study a few years ago and found that in some states, two-thirds of public high schools had Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). Those are statistics that should alarm us – that in some states there are more schools that offer military training than offer traditional, rigorous academic courses that prepare students for college.

The military and veterans are revered by many and hold a special place in our society. How do you talk about this issue with people who don’t see a problem with recruitment in schools?

SH: It’s a good question. In part we would note that the military is guaranteed access to public high schools in the United States through federal law. Other types of recruiters are not guaranteed access to schools. If the military is not granted that access, federal resources can be withheld from schools and school districts. There’s already an uneven playing field and the military comes in as a highly resourced institution. They have extensive fiscal resources and staffing to be able to saturate schools across the country and that’s difficult for other institutions or other voices to replicate.

SK: For all those reasons, a community of public health scholars in the United States have shown concern about military recruiting in high schools. In 2012, the American Public Health Association (APHA) released a statement questioning the propriety of having military recruiters going to schools and trying to sell youth on a dangerous career. They noted that there are currently far more regulations governing sports recruiting than military recruiting in high schools and called on Congress to eliminate the federal law forcing schools to admit military recruiters on their campus.

What do you propose as potential solutions or alternatives? How do we break the war habit?

SK: I’ll offer two common sense proposals. A very simple solution is to cap the number of annual visits by military recruiters. For that to comply with federal law, there must be equal access for each type of recruiter, including college, employment, and military. There’s no reasonable justification for 100 visits a year to an individual high school from the military. So, cap the number of annual visits, restricting these recruiting visits to a guidance counselor’s office and allowing students to sign up ahead of time. Reasonable, commonsense regulations.

SH: Another idea is to add curriculum to local schools that explores the pros and cons of military service. The reality is that the U. S. military is a massive entity with a budget of well over $700 billion a year. If we look historically, the U.S. military has been involved in formal wars and other informal types of use of force numerous times, most recently a 20-year invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and over 10-year occupation in Iraq. But we don’t see an opportunity for public school students to learn about that and to engage with different perspectives about the use of military force and the presence of military recruiters in schools.  Why not have some type of curriculum or bring in guest speakers to talk about the pros and cons of these issues?