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And You Think Sisyphus Had A Problem?
By Ed White (reviewer)
Breaking the War Habit: The Debate over Militarism in American Education
by Scott Harding, Charles Howlett, and Seth Kershner
(University of Georgia Press, 2022)
This book is a multi-authored short history (139 pages) of the uphill battle against military instruction and drill in our colleges and high schools in the United States. It is a subject not reported in the press or written about by many American historians.
Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) operates in colleges and universities. Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) operates in high schools. Overall, the Pentagon spends $1.4 billion to enlist those going into military service. Currently, 1,700 colleges offer ROTC. Three thousand three hundred high schools offer JROTC with 550,000 cadets, costing $400 million. The good news from the authors' views is that only 40% of JROTC cadets join the military. In Chicago, where I am writing this review, there are 37 schools with JROTC, plus six service academies. There are 151 high schools in the Chicago system.
The idea of ROTC came after the Spanish-American war when the military needed a supply of officers for "imperial ventures." Later, in New York, Jewish neighborhoods and socialist-spirited students reminded those who would listen that "rejecting school militarism was a part of a long tradition of opposing the military meddling in civil affairs." They brought up our colonial history of civilians being superior to the military. By the way, they also said to remember that the founding document mentioned housing the Army against our will.
The Land-Grant College Act of 1862, the Morrill Act, specifically required colleges to do military training for male students. After the Civil War, military officers were part of college life. After the United States became a world power after the Spanish-American war, the country needed officers. The National Defense Act of 1916 created a military preparedness for the upcoming war. At this time, the language of "discipline" and "moral qualities of good citizenship in youth" came to enter the discussion. And let us not forget that "military drill develops the fine art of being a man." It was from this time and the 1920 National Defense Act that the ROTC became established.
After World War I, the pushback to military influence in schools and colleges came from many sources. The peace movement had its beginning. The War Resisters League (WRL) was one such group. Also, the Committee on Militarism in Education (CME) joined the peace movement.
The pamphlets of CME were of particular influence nationwide. Currently, organizing a national coordination with many peace activists has gone lacking. However, individual spokespeople like Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Jane Addams captured the national conversation. They stressed the purpose of education, critical thinking, and teaching peace, not war. The clergy joined in with the Federal Council of Churches, 30 Christian denominations demanding an abolition of ROTC. In part due to the Great Depression, lobbying Congress, petition drives, and campus meetings accelerated throughout the United States. The War Department and veterans organizations pushed back, particularly in the 1930s when war clouds were developing, and CME had financial problems. After World War II, CME dissolved. Peace activism did not rise again until the 1960's with the opposition to the Vietnam War.
With the Vietnam War in the '60s and '70s, the opposition to ROTC grew with protests on campus, leading to fire-bombing on some campuses. The emphasis was on ROTC, not JROTC.
A significant expansion of JROTC came in the Reagan era when the concept of patriotism and instilling discipline in youth was offered as a way to solve the country's problems. The American Friends Service Committee was a stalwart throughout this period, together with the National Campaign to Demilitarize Our Schools (NCDOS) later in the 1990s. This group created a more significant national coordination of peace activists.
The Gulf War, which brought coalition forces and the largest deployment of American troops since Vietnam, started the "cultural veneration of the US Military." Parades, banners, and ribbons on trees seemed to pop up nationwide—however, new coalitions developed with Blacks and Latino youth against school militarism. At the same time, after the "swift victory" in Iraq, the Pentagon asked to double the number of JROTC units nationwide. General Colin Powell, an ROTC graduate, pushed expansion to prevent urban unrest and emphasized the benefits to society of "high school soldiering." And by the way, in the Bush legislation of No Child Left Behind of 2002, high schools must provide military recruiters access to campus and student information. And so it goes…
In more current times, the Pentagon has been creative in its approach. One example is programs like March 2 Success, a website designed to help students be better test takers. Also, the Army created STARBASE, which brings 5th graders to military bases for a week of hands-on science instruction.
Senator Bernie Sanders has hailed this program as beneficial. Huh? Oh, and by the way, then President Obama advocated greater military presence in prestigious universities. Double huh??
The authors have updated the history of school militarism since Pat Elder's Military Recruiting in the United States (2016). The authors have an impressive bibliography of manuscript collections, dissertations, reports, books, articles, and interviews. If you are in the anti-recruitment campaign, I would also suggest a short edited work by Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg entitled 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Join the Military, 2006.
The myth of Sisyphus in the world of militarism in colleges and high school is real, but as someone said, if you don't understand the world, you can't change it. Reading this book is one way of changing it.
Ed White is a Marine Vietnam combat vet with memberships in VVAW, VFP, and VVA. He has taught courses on the Vietnam war at Triton College in Illinois.