Creating Momentum: Youth and the Anti-War Movement, Part II

While many of their peers are being recruited to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, high school and college students across the country are engaging in a grassroots effort to stop militarization and recruitment in their schools. The growing number of counter-recruitment efforts and the large turnout among young people at the September 24th anti-war march in Washington DC are evidence that youth are providing essential momentum to the anti-war movement. Before surveying the growing counter-recruitment movement and its potential, it is helpful to recognize where student anti-war activists find their inspiration to get involved in these issues. This is particularly important when considering the challenges of isolation, apathy and consumerism facing young people today.

Before the “College Not Combat” contingent hit the streets of DC, students from the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) discussed why they were there and what motivates them to remain active. “For me the inspiration comes from being informed,” explained David, a student at New York University (NYU). He said that that there are countless reasons to be angry with the Bush administration, all you have to do is pay attention: “You realize that you have to take a part in this and that you almost don’t have a choice.”



Krista, another NYU student felt that, lately, urgency has been building due to the criminally incompetent handling of the crises of the recent hurricanes in the Gulf coast. “People have finally realized that we have to do something now,” she said. This fact is a source of hope for her as things have become so bad that change seems inevitable. This sentiment was also echoed by Nicole, a student activist with CAN. She also believes that there’s more of a sense of urgency now, “especially with Hurricane Katrina. I think the inadequacy of the administration that’s in place right now was just emphasized ten-fold. And in this case even the media has exposed their despicable actions.”



In addition to the pure anger fueled by how bad things have become under Bush, Nicole gets her inspiration from the lessons of her parents who fled to the United States after escaping a dictatorship in the Philippines. They see history repeating itself in the land that was supposed to be their key to freedom. “My parents are seeing the same patterns over and over again and they are afraid for our generation. This is the kind of shady behavior that started a downward spiral for their country. They’re both activists so I just have it in me. They told me not to believe everything I hear.” But for Nicole’s friend Edith, and other young activists, her political awakening came from friends. “I get inspiration from my peers like Nicole.” She added that events like the September 24 march in DC are also important for fueling inspiration and remaining active.



Outrage over the Bush administration’s catastrophic policies is also a unifying inspirational force for students active in the counter-recruitment movement. It also comes down to a general sentiment of not wanting to die or kill others in an illegitimate and illegal war to extend empire. Counter-recruiters are inspired by their direct relationship to the function of the military and the Bush administration’s “War on Terror”.



The Pentagon is relying on young people but as Elizabeth, a CAN activist and NYU student argues, that is precisely why they need to be leading the resistance. “We are the ones being asked to carry out the war. It’s our generation that’s being targeted so we should be on the frontlines of the anti-war movement.” She added that veterans, military families and Arabs and Muslims in the United States are all directly affected by the war and that there must be solidarity amongst these groups in building an effective peace movement. This point was also articulated by Jordan who traveled all the way to DC from Austin, Texas representing the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition. “It’s fundamental that the people at the forefront of any struggle be those most directly impacted by what you’re protesting.” He continued, “Having these groups’ voices amplified in the movement is absolutely essential. That’s a really positive step that we’re taking because no longer can the pro-war crowd say ‘You’re not supporting the troops!’ when they’re talking to troops directly. That’s definitely a wonderful development.”



The philosophy behind counter-recruitment is deeply rooted in a commitment to social justice. Student activists are making the connection between poverty and racism in this country and the imperialist foreign policy that perpetuates poverty and racism internationally. They recognize the tragic significance of National Guard units in the poorest areas of the country being deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan unable to assist in the Gulf coast relief effort.



Emir, a CAN activist and student at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, pointed out how the military cynically targets high schools in impoverished areas and predominately working-class colleges for their recruitment. He also addressed the false promises of jobs and funding for college that the Army offers young people from poor backgrounds who have little career options. “The army is trying to sell itself as a career to disadvantaged students, but,” he exclaimed, “what we’re doing is building a movement to get recruiters off our campuses. It’s very exciting to be part of that movement.”



Beyond opposing military recruitment, the movement is focusing on educating other youth about their rights and about alternatives to the military. “We go to campuses where the army and military think they can recruit any kid struggling to get by and we let [students] know that there are other options and let them make an informed decision, ” said Nicole. “It’s very much education-based.” Rob, an activist with the Teen Peace Project, stressed the importance of educating high school students in particular. “In the No Child Left Behind Act, Section 9528 states that high schools have to give student information to military recruiters or they risk losing federal funding.” He explained, however, that there is a loophole. “What a lot of schools don’t tell you is that students can opt out of having their information handed over. And recruiters have said that their biggest challenge is the opt-out movement since they have nobody to call, nobody to recruit.”



The money that the military has spent on recruitment is evidence alone that this movement is a powerful and growing threat. The annual budget for recruitment alone now exceeds $3 billion and according to the New York City based Indypendent, the Army is spending an additional $500 million and roughly $15,000 pursuing each potential recruit. Also, the Defense Department’s recruitment goals have been in decline for the past year, falling short by between 6,000 and 8,000. It was the worst rate since 1979. A recent report announced that their new strategy is to focus on recruiting high school drop outs.




This excessive effort by the military also speaks to how powerful the student anti-war movement during Vietnam was in their opposition to the national draft. Another draft is clearly something that those in power are doing everything they possibly can to avoid. This is because history has proven what a catalyst that would be for widespread opposition to war. When government policy begins to directly affect lives across the race and class spectrum then a popular uprising is virtually inevitable. They fear that, once again, the domestic social costs of continuing the military occupation of another country could outweigh the benefits of the policy itself. When the entire system is at risk they are willing to make concessions like pulling out of Iraq. This is where the counter-recruitment movement can find its real strength.



From Pittsfield, MA to San Diego to Tucson to Lawrence, Kansas there have been countless battles won by students against military recruiters across the country and at the end of this month there is a national counter-recruitment conference at UC-Berkley called “On the Front Lines.” The importance of getting involved in local grassroots campaigns around issues of international scope also must not be overlooked. As the latest issue of Left Turn celebrates in an article entitled “Vibrant, Young & Relevant,” about the counter-recruitment movement, “Far too often, the traditional antiwar movement has spent the bulk of its energy organizing around larger, national issues and events. Organizing against militarism and recruitment on a local level is turning out to be a powerful movement-building tool with strong potential to help develop and train the emerging generation of youth leadership.”



A youth-led antiwar movement also needs to make larger connections beyond the issue of military recruitment and even war. At the recent DC protest, the Mobilization for Global Justice organized a feeder march against the World Bank and IMF from Dupont Circle, eventually joining the main march. This is a metaphor for an effective strategy that connects opposition to war with global justice and gains strength and momentum from the urgency of environmental and political catastrophes. As Krista WHO expressed, “We’re trying to stop this war but we need to be part of a broader Left movement. There’s such a great opportunity now. We have to tap into this group of students that are radicalized, that are angry about what’s going on and don’t want to settle for it. That will help us build the movement.”

Also check out “Creating Momentum: Youth and the Anti-War Movement, Part I”


For more information about counter-recruitment and the youth antiwar movement check out the following resources:

Student Peace Project

Youth Against War

Campus Activism

National Youth and Student Peace Coalition

Not Your Soldier

Campus Anti-War Network

On the Frontlines Conference

No Draft No Way

Youth in the Military


Matt Dineen is an intern at Class Action, a non-profit organization working to bridge the class divide and create justice, equity, and sustainability for all. Email him at: passionsandsurvival(at) Photo provided by