Emma Kaplan is the National Youth and Student Coordinator of World Can't Wait
Today me and Matthis Chiroux, Iraq War resister, took the We Are Not Your Soldiers Tour to a public high school in Los Angeles. It felt like a prison: one entrance, one exit, and lots of cops in uniform. You feel like you’re viewed as a criminal just stepping through the doors. Right across from the school, there is a huge military recruiting billboard for the marines.
Most of the students won’t graduate. They are mainly Latino and Black, a lot of immigrants and children of immigrants. I wore a shirt with “Bush Regime: WANTED for Illegally Crossing Borders," and got a lot of “I like that shirt!! Where did you get that shirt?" The school has the highest number of foster kids in the county. But the teachers genuinely care about their students and want them to have a better future, even though they’re up against tough odds.
Military recruiters are at the school once a week if not daily. There’s an active JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) program on campus. The JROTC folks say they don’t want ROTC to be for recruitment and that they want kids to go to college before they decide to join. However, you have to join ROTC and sign up to serve post-college if you want your college paid for. Matthis had done JROTC himself, and said “it’s like a gateway drug,” since it starts training you so young. We observed some of the students (teenagers between the ages of 14-17) drilling with JROTC at the school, marching with rifles.
We spoke to a total of 7 classes starting at 7:30am. The number of people who knew someone in the military is huge. The idea of getting out and getting college benefits is powerful, as most kids work as well as go to school to support their families. The military is the most visible way of doing that – to the point that there’s a billboard for Marine Corps across the street from the school saying, “we don’t accept applications, only commitment.” The kids walk past it every day.
One of the teachers brings in speakers all the time and says the students are usually rowdy, not really paying attention. All the students were totally riveted today. We talked talked briefly, showed the Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” video, and took questions. There were a lot of questions for Matthis about what he went through in the military. They wanted to know if the Army and Marines are the same: “is it okay to join one, and not the other?” Matthis said they’re both bad. He spent only two months on the ground but, “Even a day would change you. Shooting children once changes your life. I wish someone had told me what this would do to me beforehand. I’m not a stronger man for it; I’m a weaker man.”
They asked, “Do you get brainwashed? How does protest convince people to not join if they’re already set on going? How do you talk to friends and family when they won’t listen, when it’s like talking to a wall? No matter what you say this is what they’re going to do. 50% of people in JROTC want to join the military.” Some of the students were afraid to watch the video: “What is it going to show?”
I told them “We’re out to change the way the military is seen, and make it unpopular to join up. We need a societal shift in how military service is seen, so that people think not only ‘you might die and you’re signing your life away’ but confront whether that is worth it. What is the war about? Do you think this world is fine the way it is? Shouldn’t we be about changing the world rather than trying to find your place within it?’"
As they watched the video, Matthis continued to talk to the students, asking questions like, “does this guy look like a terrorist?” The students saw a cameraman walking down the street, so they answered, “no.” Then the video shows this man getting shot from a helicopter. The students said things like, “Oh my god, why did they do that!?” When the video showed an injured man struggling to crawl away, the soldiers say things like, “c’mon, pick just pick up a weapon," so that they could have clearance to kill him. Matthis asked if it sounded like the soldiers wanted to shoot the guy on the ground. Are these soldiers protecting freedom? Is this soldier a hero? The answer from the students was a resounding NO!
Matthis is good at talking about how he became a resister from within the military. I brought in the responsibility we have as people not in the military. “You have a responsibility as people living in this country. The crimes in that video are being done in the name of your freedom and your security. You have to figure out the ways to stop the military and the recruiters. It’s not going to come from within the military. It has to come from without.”
This brought a response from students of, “We have to protest military recruiters. If we don’t stand up to them who will?” Matthis told how, when he was stationed in Germany someone came up to him on the street, identified him as a US soldier and said, “I just want you to know your military is committing war crimes and genocide.” First Matthis freaked out and wanted to punch him, but the German said, “Look, it’s not personal, I just want you to know this.” This one exchange became the standard by which Matthis measured everything he was doing by and changed the whole course of his life.
Every class responded to the presentation by filling out a survey. In each class students said things like, “I don’t want to kill people – before I didn’t know that’s what the military is actually for – I thought it was about fighting for freedom, and defending your country.” The video really changed how they see the military, and they were moved by Matthis’ story, nodding their heads at the situation he was in when he joined: drugs, jail, rough times…but as he said, the military was “the most dehumanizing thing I ever went through – being broken down and built up to not be human anymore.” There were times when he pictured sticking a gun in his mouth and wanting to shoot. He didn’t have faith in himself or what he could do. But talking to these youth, he said he “has faith that you can do something with your lives. You don’t need the military to make you into the person you want to be,” and this resonated with them.
Many students wrote on their surveys that they had changed their minds about the military after hearing the presentation. A lot of them said the military has always been an option on the back burner for them. But after hearing from We Are Not Your Soldiers, “I'm not going to join, no matter what.”
Students also wrote that the recruiters lie about what you’ll actually be doing in the military. They don’t tell you that you will kill innocent people. Going along with what the government is doing is wrong. Seeing “behind the scenes information” like the video was the most important part of what changed their minds. Many wrote things like, “a military is for killing people. I wouldn’t want to kill people. I wouldn’t want people to kill me.”
One student said the war is about dominating others for their resources. A lot of them play the video game “Call of Duty” and said it looks just like the Wikileaks video: you shoot civilians. The target looks the same. Matthis asked, "do you think it’s a coincidence that the games that you play look the same as the kind of war you’re expected to fight? “No, we’re already being trained to look at the world a certain way. We’re being recruited.”
During one class, a girl debated the presenters a lot, saying, “you’re not talking about all the good things. The benefits. You can’t tell people what to do.” We took on her objections but it felt like she wasn’t listening, only debating for the sake of debating. Later on, they learned, she told the teacher that she “really liked the presentation. It was inspiring. [She] just wanted to test them.” This comes up a lot, that if you just see both “narratives” of reality then this is the same as critically thinking. However, what this leaves out is that there is an objective reality, and how you understand that reality is by seeing if what people are saying is actually true or not. Next time, when this comes up it will be important to make the point that debating is not necessarily critically thinking, and hopefully have a more in depth, engaged conversation.
A couple students said we just need to change policy. “Without the military who would protect us? It’s kill or be killed.” This wasn’t the majority, though.
When it came to talking about resistance, giving examples and the effects it has on other people made a big difference. At Oakland High students texted each other and gathered quickly to respond to the recruiters at their campus. They quickly made some signs and held them up in front of the recruiters. “What happened? The recruiters left. They don’t want to waste their time where opposition is going to break open and they’re going to be exposed for what they are. They’re going to book it and strategize for next time.” Painting this kind of picture made it real for the students.
The idea of tracking the recruiters and texting friends to get people to meet up and protest them really appealed to the students. One of the slogans they came up with was, “stop the violence - stop the war.” One student said, just say, “Get the hell away from me!” The first thing that came up, though when they were asked what students can do, was “protest the recruiters.” They also thought it would make a big difference for others to see the Wikileaks video. That it would open people’s eyes to the fact innocent people are being intentionally, not accidently, killed.
As for making joining up with the war machine unpopular, as we were walking past some youth drilling with JROTC, some of them came up and asked for the orange We Are Not Your Soldiers bandannas that were starting to pop up around the school. Everyone wanted one – even the future soldiers!
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