When I was in high school, I wanted to join the United States Army or Marines. Raised on 1980s action movies and comic books like G.I. Joe, I saw myself jumping out of planes as a paratrooper, or maybe skulking about in a jungle like a scout sniper. The recruiters made their rounds and tried to snatch me up. I was a smart young black kid from the working class who scored, in their words, “amazingly high” on the ASVAB test. I would never be courted by a college sports team, but I would be repeatedly called by military recruiters for months, each one trying to increase their offer in order to secure their human prize. The intimidating bald white Marine with a huge neck sat with me in his office and asked, “Do you want to be part of the country’s most elite fighting force?” The African-American Army sergeant told me that the Marines were “crazy,” and that I could “join up with the 101st or 82nd airborne as an officer one day.”
My father, a World War II veteran, entertained my schoolboy dreams of military fame and fortune. But one day while sitting in the family car, he told me we were going to take a trip to the VA Hospital. He wanted me to see the “basket cases”—men with no arms or legs, their bodies destroyed by war. I was scared, embarrassed, as my made-in-Hollywood and by video game militarism and masculinity wilted away. I never did take the trip to the VA. It’s easy to play wannabe soldier when you don’t have to face the human consequences of when the bullets are real, and the pain is not pretend.
I was lucky. I would not have to mortgage my body to go to college. I had a father who had seen war and other relatives who told me, “No way! The Army ain’t for you!” My dad fought in the “big one,” my cousins and uncles in Vietnam and Korea. They were both united in their belief that as Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler famously said, “War is a racket,” and Uncle Sam has little to offer working-class and poor black and brown folks.
During my Friday morning train ride here in Chicago, I see young boys and girls, some high school-aged, others much younger, in their military uniforms. Khaki pants, shiny black shoes, white or tan shirts with banners or insignia on the sleeves and chest, and blazers with the names of schools on the arms, the occasional rank insignia on the collar of a dress shirt. The clothes may be ill-fitting—allowing for growth spurts is more important than a perfectly tailored fit. These young folks wear them with pride and a sense of destiny and purpose.
These are “public” school students who attend one of Chicago’s military style “academies.” I hope that they have someone like my father or other kin to tell them the truth about service, war, and glory. If they are really lucky they will have a man like Rory Fanning tell them the things—about American empire, the military, and how the poor and working classes are ground up by the system—that their teachers and recruiters will not.
In a recent piece at Tom Dispatch, Fanning shared his story:
The first time I went to speak to high school students about my life with the Rangers in Afghanistan, I was surprised to realize that the same nervous energy I felt before jumping into Lake Michigan or lacing up my gym shoes for a bone-shaking work-out was coursing through my body. But here was the strangest thing: when I had said my piece (or perhaps I really mean “my peace”) with as much honesty as I could muster, I felt the very sense of calmness and resolution that I’d been striving for with my other rituals and could never quite hang onto come over me—and it stayed with me for days.
That first time, I was one of the few white people in a deteriorating Chicago public high school on the far south side of the city. A teacher is escorting me down multiple broad, shabby hallways to the classroom where I was to speak. We pass a room decorated with a total of eight American flags, four posted on each side of its door.
“The recruiting office,” the teacher says, gesturing toward it, and then asks, “Do they have recruiting offices in the suburban schools you talk to?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t spoken to any on this topic yet,” I reply. “They certainly didn’t have an obvious one at the public high school I went to, but I do know that there are 10,000 recruiters across the country working with a $700 million a year advertising budget. And I think you’re more likely to see the recruiters in schools where kids have less options after graduation.”
At that moment, we arrive at the appointed classroom and I’m greeted warmly by the social studies teacher who invited me. Photos of Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and other revolutionary black leaders hang neatly on a wall. He first heard about my desire to talk to students about my wartime experiences through Veterans for Peace, an organization I belong to. “There is no counter-narrative to what the kids are being taught by the instructors in Junior ROTC, as far as I can tell,” he says, obviously bothered, as we wait for the students to arrive. “It would be great if you could provide more of a complete picture to these kids.” He then went on to describe the frustration he felt with a Chicago school system in which schools in the poorest neighborhoods in the city were being shut down at a record pace, and yet, somehow, his school district always had the money to supplement the Pentagon’s funding of the JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training) program.Chicago’s military academies and other charter schools are a symptom of how the city’s public schools have been eviscerated by neoliberal policies.
It would seem that Milton Friedman’s shadow hangs over all things as it descends down, even into some of the poorest and under-resourced urban communities in the United States.
Neoliberalism is a product of late 20th century capitalism and a belief that the market should control every aspect of social, political, and economic life. It uses the language of “efficiency,” “choice,” “freedom,” “hard work,” and “opportunity” to seduce the public into believing that the “the Commons” ought to be eliminated. Corporations, in this twisted vision, should run all things. The concept of collective bargaining, positive liberty and freedom, and that the state and government can do good, are anathema to it. Neoliberalism transcends party lines. To varying degrees, it is the political religion and a type of uncontested commonsense for both Republicans as well as “New Democrats” like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Neoliberalism considers public schools (as well as public hospitals, public roads, public parks, etc.) to be an enemy, and an opportunity to transfer the monies of the American people to a parasitic class of rich financiers and other private, elite actors. When education becomes a business, it is the poor and working classes who are first made to suffer. Likewise, when prisons are privatized there is money to be made by locking people up—many of whom are the same poor and working class black and brown folks from the same neighborhoods that send their kids to charter schools. The school to prison pipeline has many routes.
In reality, charter schools perform worse than public schools in terms of educational outcomes for students. However, this type of school is excellent at creating compliant and obedient students—and future citizens—who have been conditioned by power (and fear) to not question authority or to think critically.
Journalist and activist Paul Street explores this process:
Here is a recent newspaper account of military-style public schooling in Chicago:
"Samantha Acevedo stands at attention while the chief yeoman stares her down and orders her to recite the Navy's 5th General Order from memory."
"Dressed in a uniform of black pants and a crisp, white button-down shirt, she answers in a near-whisper: ‘To quit my post only when properly relieved.'"
"She is no raw Navy recruit being put through basic training, but a 15-year-old freshman at Hyman G. Rickover Naval Academy, one of Chicago's five military-style public schools. About 1,800 students in all are enrolled in the schools."
"The nation's third-largest district embraced the concept in 1999, and now has more such academies than any other school system in the nation...
Chicago's five military high schools, located in black ghetto neighborhoods and Latino barrios, are dedicated to molding youth into obedient citizens who know how to take directions and display a strong "work ethic" and a related eagerness to please employers and customers. The military schools, Lippman notes, "single out some youth for their successful accommodation to a system of race and class discipline and set them apart from others criminalized" by the CPS' "Zero Tolerance" policy and by the city's anti-gang law (which permits the police to forbid the gathering of more than three black youth in one place). "Those newly disciplined by the army" in the city's military high schools "are explicitly defined by their difference from others like them whom are, by implication, out of control and menacing."Of course, charter schools are a huge revenue source for private interests, which is why the latter is so interested in expanding them.
The channeling of black and brown poor and working class students into Chicago’s military style “academies” is a function of a perverse economic and political logic. These children are the victims of the neoliberal nightmare and its policies of austerity, surveillance, and punishment. The neoliberal order has created the very problems of urban deindustrialization, blight, over-policing, poverty, and extreme wealth and income inequality that its charter schools and other initiatives are supposed to then correct. Neoliberalism advances itself through the creation of crises. This is what Naomi Klein has described as “the shock doctrine,” now applied to cities and communities such as Chicago, Detroit, Flint, and elsewhere across the United States of America.
Unfortunately, Rory Fanning has encountered resistance to his campaign of truth-telling:
It's now April, seven months into the school year, and only two teachers have taken me up on the offer to speak. “He was comfortable and engaging with the students and in the students’ reflections the following day he was someone that the students clearly enjoyed talking with. I will definitely ask him to come back to speak to my classes every year,” wrote Dave Stieber, one of those teachers.
It’s finally starting to dawn on me, however. In our world, life is scary and I’m not the only one heading for Lake Michigan on cold winter mornings or gloomy nights. Teachers out there in the public schools are anxious, too. It’s dark days for them. They are under attack and busy fighting back against school privatization, closures, and political assaults on their pensions. The popular JROTC program is a cash cow for their schools and they are discouraged from further rocking a boat already in choppy waters.
You’ll bring too much “tension” to our school, one teacher tells me with regret. “Most of my kids need the military if they plan on going to college,” I hear from another who says he can’t invite me to his school anyway. But most of my requests simply go out into the void unanswered. Or promises to invite me go unfulfilled. Who, after all, wants to make waves or extracurricular trouble when teachers are already under fierce attack from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board?
I understand and yet, in a world without a draft, JROTC’s school-to-military pipeline is a lifeline for Washington’s permanent war across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Its unending conflicts are only possible because kids like those I've talked to in the few classrooms I’ve visited continue to volunteer. The politicians and the school boards, time and again, claim their school systems are broke. No money for books, teacher’s salaries and pensions, healthy lunches, etc...
And yet, in 2015, the U.S. government spent $598 billion on the military, more than half of its total discretionary budget, and nearly 10 times what it spent on education…Confronting the attacks on education in the U.S. should also mean, in part, trying to interrupt that school-to-military pipeline in places like Chicago. It’s hard to fight endless trillion-dollar wars if kids aren’t enlisting.A generation of high school-aged (and younger) working class and poor students, many of them black and brown (and in some areas, also the rural white poor) are mortgaging their bodies as well as mental health and safety to the United States military in order to receive what should be a free, quality, public school education that every citizen is entitled to as a basic right.
This is an obscenity and abomination. It is also an additional example of how racism and classism combine to create a condition of “adultification” for black and brown young people in the United States. Childhood is made into a luxury that only some people in certain neighborhoods with enough money and the “right” complexion can fully enjoy.
Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 movie Johnny Got His Gun is a harrowing drama about a World War I soldier who has lost the use of his arms and legs. He is also blind and deaf from his injuries. “Johnny” is trapped in a prison of his own mind and only able to communicate via using his head to tap out Morse code. Unfortunately, America’s charter school military “academies” are ensuring that the Johnnies of our world will soon be joined by the Manuels, Isabellas, Uneequees, and Shaquans from America’s black and brown poor and working classes.