No Where Else to Go: Latino Youth and the Poverty Draft


No Where Else to Go: Latino Youth and the Poverty Draft 
By Jorge Mariscal

Military recruiters are well aware that the economic situation for Latino youth is relatively bleak and have targeted Latino communities as one of the primary objectives for their efforts in coming decades. In the document “Strategic Partnership Plan for 2002-2007” written by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, the architects of what we might call “niche recruiting” state: “The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in the United States and is projected to become 25% of the U.S. population by the year 2025.” The Plan goes on to explain: “Priority areas [for recruitment] are designated primarily as the cross section of weak labor opportunities and college-age population as determined by both [the] general and Hispanic population.” Not surprisingly, the top two recruiting batallion areas according to the Plan are Los Angeles and San Antonio.


The targeting of Latino youth for military recruitment was initiated by former Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera (now president of the University of New Mexico) who once declared that “Hispanics have a natural inclination for military service” and that the Army could “provide the best education in the world.” The very notion that “Hispanics” constitute an ethnicity-based military caste would seem to belong to an earlier century, yet it is sustained by comments such as these made by Caldera and reiterated by the Mexican American commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who told Hispanic magazine: “When I became a soldier the ethics and the value system of the military profession fit almost perfectly with my own heritage. It made it very easy for me to adapt to the military value system.” 
Given the overall economic context and the military’s interest in Latino youth, we can be sure that the enlisted ranks will fill up with increasing numbers of Latinos and Latinas. In 2002, a Pentagon spokesman told a San Antonio newspaper: “Hispanics represent approximately 22% of our recruiting market” (Express-News, 10/10/02). That means Latino youth are being targeted at about twice their rate in the general population. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Puerto Rico where high unemployment rates facilitate military recruitment efforts. In 2002, the Army initiated the Foreign Language Recruitment Initiative designed to give recent immigrants crash courses in English.

What is not generally known is that very few Latinos make it into the officer’s ranks. Among all Latinos in today’s Marine Corps, for example, only 3% are officers. Over 80% of the officer corps (in all branches of the service) is white. According to an article in the Army Times, the vast majority of Latinos and Latinas are bunched together in the private and corporal ranks (or lowest ranks) and therefore are among the most likely to receive hazardous duty assignments.

According to 2001 Department of Defense statistics, Latinos made up 17.7% of the “Infantry, Gun Crews, and Seamanship” occupations in all the service branches. Of those Latinos and Latinas in the Army, 24.7% occupy such jobs and in the Marine Corps, 19.7%. It is important to remember that Latinos make up only 13.5% of the general population. (Although women do not serve in the “Infantry,” they can be found on gun crews and in other forms of hazardous duty). In other words, Latinos and Latinas are over-represented in positions directly related to combat. In the elite and most highly romaticized military special operations units such as the Navy Seals, however, people of color are virtually non-existent given stricter educational admissions criteria.

Visit any high school with a large Latino population, and you will find JROTC units, Army-sponsored computer games, and an overabundance of recruiters, often more numerous than career counselors. One of the Army’s newest recruitment programs targeting Latinos was designed by Latino Sports Marketing of San Diego, California. Marketed as the “Hispanic H2 Tour” it consists of a customized Hummer described as: “a mobile branded platform. While maintaining brand integrity; the vehicle is custom painted to effectively appeal to custom car enthusiast. The interior is customized, emphasizing high end craftsmanship and branding opportunities. The audio package is of competition quality. Multiple video screens are installed and capable of supporting the Army Game interactive.”

The Hispanic H2 Tour is similar to the Army’s “Takin’ it to the Streets” Tour designed to accelerate recruitment in the African American community where recruiters are particularly hard-pressed and faced with declining interest in the military as a career. According to the Army website, the goal of the tour is to “Build, confidence, trust, and preference of the Army within the Hispanic community.” In Latino neighborhoods around the country, the H2 tour visits baseball games, custom car shows, and other events where young Latino and Latinas congregate. Latino Sports Marketing claims the tour has “surpassed its initial goal of qualified leads [potential recruits] by 57%.”

The centerpiece of the agenda to militarize the public school system is the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps or JROTC. Although the Pentagon periodically claims that JROTC is not used for recruiting purposes, the Army’s own literature states: “Junior ROTC is a strategic initiative that allows us to present the idea of the military lifestyle to High School students. By mission JROTC attempts to create better citizens, but also emphasizes military values, and presents the idea of the military lifestyle.”

Two lesser known Pentagon-sponsored programs merit our attention. The increased presence of military recruitment programs in the nation’s public schools is a little known consequence of the Department of Defense’s plans for maintaining manpower levels in coming decades. By targeting teachers, counselors, coaches, principals, and other school personnel known in Pentagon jargon as “influencers,” each branch of the armed forces seeks to create a pool of unofficial recruiters who are in daily contact with young people and who can guide them towards military careers.

The foundation for the increasingly wide array of stealth-recruiting strategies is the Educator Workshop Program (EWP). According to the Marine Corps EWP website, teachers and others who participate in the program: “Get a basic understanding of the Marine Corps and are better equipped to advise their students about our career opportunities. These workshops dispel the myths about recruit training and the Marine Corps’ mission by providing you with a first hand experience that is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After being bussed to boot camp, EWP participants are given a week-long glimpse of military life in a kind of ersatz “shock and awe” designed to instill enhanced respect for recruits. Experiences range from the initial harangues delivered by drill instructors to visits to weapons training activities as well as the final act of the “Crucible,” the 72-hour ordeal that pushes recruits to the limits of their endurance and concludes with a patriotic spectacle complete with amplified anthems at the foot of a mock Iwo Jima Memorial. The approximately 40 educators from each recruiting area who participate every year are flown to either San Diego or Parris Island, lodged in nearby hotels, and reimbursed upon their return with a $225 per diem.

“Influencers” are expected to communicate their excitement about their well-controlled and sanitized “experience” of boot camp to their young charges.

Not all “influencers,” however, are welcome in the workshops. In an article written by a recruiter in Lansing, Michigan, EWP organizers were told to eliminate as workshop participants anyone with prior military experience. Because one of the goals of EWP is to “dispel all misconceptions about the Marine Corps that infiltrate the American society,” military veterans are considered to be potentially disruptive given their first hand knowledge of military values and practices.

On the one hand, then, the Pentagon courts professional educators in order to exploit their influence over young people. In a complementary move designed to achieve the same result, military veterans are moved into school systems through the so-called “Troops to Teachers” program (TTT). Initiated as a Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Education (DOE) collaboration in 1994, TTT seeks to place veterans in teaching positions across the country with an emphasis on districts in poor and underserved areas. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 provides funding for TTT through Fiscal Year (FY) 2006. To date over 6,000 teachers have been placed and another 6,000 are currently in training or seeking employment. In California where cash-strapped school systems such as Los Angeles and San Diego serve large African American and Latino communities, military veterans are given a six-week crash course and placed directly into the classroom.

Given the crisis in educational budgets and on-going teacher shortages, it would seem that there is nothing inherently wrong with a program that attempts to help veterans transition into careers in education. But the long-term impact of exposing children to “military values” and experiences coincides well with the recruiters’ goal of “getting them while they’re young.” A recent Washington Post article on TTT captured the agendas of some of the veterans turned teachers:

Such teachers also can make good ambassadors for the military. When [George] Hartman [a former gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps] took over his business education classroom from a former Navy man, he put in a call to his local Marine recruiter. “I said, I want calendars. I want pens. I want all this Navy stuff out of my classroom, and I want to put Marine junk in here,'” he said

Both the EWP and TTT programs are key elements in the on-going effort to instill military values as a collective common sense. The debacle of the American war in Southeast Asia produced a generation of young people wary of warrior masculinities, cheap patriotism, and foreign policy adventurism. The Bush administration’s manipulation of September 11, exaggerated claims about the threat of Saddam’s Iraq, and media complicity allowed many to wrap themselves in the flag once more. If the United States was to conduct itself as a missionary for free markets and “democracy” in coming decades, a reserve force of foot soldiers for its legions would have to be continually replenished. What better institutional site to conduct such a campaign than the nation’s dysfunctional public schools systems that have been thrown into chaos by massive budget cuts, overcrowding, and neglect?

Recently, at historic Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, a group of students was so appalled at the intrusive behavior of military recruiters that they formed an organization called “Students not Soldiers” and demanded that real career counselors be hired. At Cal State Northridge just north of Los Angeles, students and faculty have protested the university’s contract with Army ROTC, a contract that brings Pentagon funding on campus and unlimited access to students for recruiters. In Puerto Rico, student members of the Frente Universitario por la Desmilitarización y la Educación (FUDE) recently established a civil disobedience camp at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez in order to block the construction of a ROTC building.

These acts of resistance to the on-going militarization of public education are rarely reported and not well known. Most Latino students and their parents, therefore, will fall prey to a limited range of opportunity (the “economic draft” or “economic conscription”) and the Pentagon’s propaganda blitz about free money for college and travel. For working-class youth with limited horizons, these are powerfully seductive messages.

With the nation engaged in protracted military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and domestic crises in education and health care, Latino communities are slowly awakening to the fact that a permanently militarized economy and culture will not benefit them or their children. We can only hope that, in the great tradition of radical social movements and militancy that mark Mexican, Latin American, and Chicano histories, Latinos in the United States will continue to add their voices to the international chorus demanding a different future than the one envisioned by the oligarchs of the new imperialism.

On Militarism and Capital

In his classic 1907 study of European militarism, Karl Liebknecht argued that the primary purpose of any standing army was to protect the interests of the capitalist elites or, in modern parlence, the corporate class. “The task of militarism,” Liebknecht wrote, “is above all to secure for a minority, at whatever cost, even against the enlightened will of the majority of the people, domination of the state and freedom to exploit.”

Focusing his activism on the youth of his day, Liebknecht argued that the struggle against militarism must begin with the young workers in both the urban and rural areas of the nation. He emphasized: “We must not overlook the question of the education of young people, which is the most essential part of anti-militarist propaganda.” But the counterdiscourse of antimilitarism must reach beyond individuals: “We have to consider the question not only of the youths liable to military service, but also the parents, especially the mothers, who should be specially mobilized for educating the young people in anti-militarism.”

Almost one hundred years after Liebknecht delivered the lectures that would become his book Militarism and Anti-Militarism, we have much to learn from his insights. Updated with only a few changes of language for the new context, the book offers us a precedent with which to analyze our own moment, an analysis that would expose the cynicism and greed of those who would govern the world in the name of free markets and corporate democracy.

The first lesson of militarism is that it must not be thought of as the domain of a particular group or caste. Modern militarism is to be found at every level of culture and, if it is to be successful, resides at the core of every state-sponsored institution. Liebknecht writes: “Militarism makes its appearance as a system which saturates the whole public and private life of our people with the militarist spirit.” Liebknecht was one of the first thinkers to point beyond the standing army towards a wide range of social practices and discourses that prepares the general population for military action as both a logical and acceptable part of everyday life.

He reminds us that the children of working families bear the brunt of militarism. It is not that working people are completely deceived by the flag waving and the patriotic rhetoric. On the contrary, they are painfully aware of the losses they must endure. He writes: “The proletariat knows that the wars which are waged by the ruling classes impose on it heavy sacrifice of life and property for which it is rewarded with miserable pensions for the disabled, funds in aid of veterans, street organs and kicks of all kinds after it has done the work. The proletariat knows that in every war brutality and baseness are rampant amongst the peoples participating in it and culture is set back for years.”

At the economic and cultural levels, military expenditures eventually undercut the development of other institutions even when those other institutions are more necessary to the long-term prosperity of a nation. According to Liebknecht: “The school, art and science, public hygiene, the system of communications: all these are treated in the most niggardly way because, to use a well-known phrase, moloch’s greed leaves nothing over for the tasks of culture.”

Liebknecht reserved especially harsh criticism for military adventures within a broader imperialist project. “The essence of colonial policy,” he writes, “under the cloak of spreading Christianity and civilization or of defending the national honor, exploits and deceives with eyes raised to heaven, for the benefit of the capitalists with colonial interests.” He added: “Militarism is not only a means of defense against the external enemy; it has a second task, which comes more and more to the fore as class contradictions become more marked to uphold the prevailing order of society, to prop up capitalism and all reaction against the struggle of the working class for freedom.”

The struggle against militarism, he boldly stated, is “the source which invigorates the revolutionary spirit.”

Parable of the 9 doors and the Wall of Glass

In a vast assembly hall were gathered all the youth of the nation. Some had arrived in their family car, others had taken public transportation, others had walked. Dividing the room was a high glass wall that separated a small fraction of the young people from the rest.

The individuals in the small group had arrived in expensive cars and seemed to have nicer clothes and straighter teeth. The large group was ethnically mixed but a closer look revealed that it was made up of poor whites from primarily rural areas and young people of color from the cities. The smaller group was not quite as diverse. A handful of black and brown faces were scattered throughout its ranks but they were few and far between.

The glass wall had only one opening. The opening allowed the youth from the small group to move to the other side but guards carefully monitored the traffic and blocked those from the large group from entering the more privileged group’s space.

At the front of the hall were nine doors, each representing different career paths and economic opportunities. The young people in the small group had access to all nine doors. Those in the large group could see all nine doors but the glass wall stopped them from entering all but three. The largest of the three was marked low-paying jobs. Another was marked military service and another was marked prison.

Those entering the military service door did so for a variety of reasonspatriotism, defending our freedom, serving one’s country, helping other countries get on their feet but also paying for an education because my parents can’t afford it or I just had to get out of my parents’ house. Even young people who were not US citizens could be heard giving some or all of these reasons but for that group it was mainly the one about money for college. It was never clear to the hundreds of families who lost their child to an illegal invasion and occupation why their son or daughter had to die trying to become a student.

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