By Ernie McCray
I love my life, especially my moments with kids. Recently I had the pleasure, along with a teenage Latina friend of mine, of talking to an assembly of young people, most of them Latino, in Chula Vista, about something they’re confronted with regularly: whether to join or not join the military.
We were doing so because we hate to see our children being sucked into the war machine by Uncle Sam who loves to play with their innocence.
Our government never rests when it comes to building up our armed forces, even creating a rule years ago attached to “No Child Left Behind” that threatened to deny federal funding to an entire state if any school refuses to release student contact information to the military or let military recruiters in their doors.
This friend of mine and other incredibly bright high school students like her and a few adults set out, a while back, to do what little we could about the situation and helped create some changes in San Diego City Schools wherein the military was prominent in students’ lives.
Through our focused efforts, counselors, although every now and then I hear words to the contrary, can’t say to students (as many had been doing with mostly Latino and African American students), “No, I can’t get you that U.S. History course you want during the third period” and then proceed to place them, against their will, in JROTC. Now students and their parents have to be fully informed about the JROTC program and they have to sign a form indicating that it is okay for the student to take part in such class work.
Confronting the district with their own Zero-Tolerance Policy against firearms of any kind we brought weapons training to an end on school campuses.
Military recruiters now, from our sustained efforts, can’t spend as much time on our campuses collecting personal information and jiving students about the armed forces being a great way for them to “make a difference” in the world.
Much of our work is centered on countering the distorted and glamourized pictures of the military and war that the Department of Defense tries to paint in the minds of our youth.
We are very concerned that many low-income students and students of color, students who aren’t offered a lot of other opportunities, are being diverted away by our government from considering higher education. They are found in disproportionate numbers in the armed forces.
We don’t say to a student “Don’t join,” but we do say “Joining the military is not something to take lightly and casually. It’s serious business.” So many kids join and are shocked to find themselves in a war zone, thinking of the whole thing as a kind of a game – games they’ve played on the range of electronic devices available to them in today’s world, games that don’t show the horrors of war as they really are.
We give them some “truths” to consider like they don’t have to join the military to learn valuable skills or find adventure or pay for college or serve others.
The students my friend and I addressed the other day were very interested in what we had to say. It was quite evident that critical thinking skills are high on the list of what their school wants to leave them with as they navigate their lives.
But it’s hard work. The military influence on our kids is deeply entrenched. They’re sought out not only in their schools, but in slick television commercials aired during timeouts in ball games and during popular shows that kids watch. I find myself sometimes bobbing my head and moving my shoulders to some tune on my TV, and then discovering I’m getting down with “The few and the proud” and the like, and I look at my cat with a sheepish grin filled with guilt. It’s easy to get taken in.
Sadly, though, we Americans don’t seem to value the truth. Someone like Michael Moore will delve into school shootings and the problems in our health systems and globalization and greedy corporations and the horrors of the “War on Terror” – and we treat him like he’s a character in a scary movie.
At the same time a president and his men lead us into a war based on lies and we just shrug our collective shoulders with barely a sigh.
I’ve found in my peace work that our children can handle the truth. They value it. But they’re human, and, on the whole, will be influenced, like us grown-ups, by those who have the most power to get their attention.
The big truth, however, is: children are the hope for any chance of a better world being created down the line. But they need us to show them the way. My life is dedicated to doing just that.