Fight the Pentagon with poetry? It sounds far-fetched, but harnessing youth culture to spread antiwar messages is one tactic of the growing “counter-recruitment” movement, a push by students and activists to thwart military recruiters. They’ve stepped up efforts as the Iraq War drags on, especially at high schools where No Child Left Behind compels administrators to give the military student contact information unless a kid officially opts out.
Now activists Aimee Allison and David Solnit have weighed in with Army of None, a practical guide to counter-recruitment. The book reveals facts about recruiters (they lie) and manipulative marketing, and suggests countertactics. “Counter-recruitment addresses war and a system that trains youth to think in a military style,” says Allison, who ran for Oakland City Council last year. “By nature it has to address other inequalities like class and racism and immigrant status, because those are the young people being targeted.”
The new book talks about how to reach students, access school campuses, and win allies among the teachers. It contains photocopy-ready fliers, and, for the daring, instructions on how to alter billboards, stencil discreetly, and avoid arrest.
But youth culture is key. “Marching, people singing, people giving spoken word — there’s also been people who have developed street theater; they make fun of the recruiter’s message,” Allison says. “It’s really about youth speaking for themselves.” Events such as poetry slams make the message more accessible, she says. The book includes numerous spoken-word pieces.
Allison is no stranger to recruitment tactics. As an ambitious Antioch teen, she was dismayed to learn her parents couldn’t afford to send her to Stanford. Instead, she turned to her high-school Army recruiter who, she says, “put his arm around me and said, ‘I believe in you.’ And that meant a lot to me.”
But boot camp repelled her. A vegetarian and animal-lover, Allison says she was taught to chant “Kill the people, burn the village.” She recalls a drill sergeant physically forcing a comrade to perform an exercise where recruits take off their gas masks and inhale noxious mustard gas. “You learn you have to do what they say,” she says.
Later stationed at Palo Alto’s VA Hospital, she worked with paraplegics and quadriplegics. “I got a really, really hard lesson about how veterans are treated when they come back from war,” she says. As her unit prepared for the first Gulf War, she got an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector. She never did get that $20,000 her recruiter promised for school — she’d have made more working at McDonald’s, Allison notes. And when she talks to kids, she reminds them they always have options. “Don’t lock yourself into a path,” she said in a recent KPFA interview. “Work at McDonald’s or Taco Bell because you can always quit. It’s harder to quit the military.”