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Militarism and Education Normal

Erica R. Meiners (e-meiners [at] teaches courses in gender and women’s studies at the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University, and works toward prison abolition. She is the author of Right to be Hostile: Schools, Prisons and the Making of Public Enemies (2007), and, with Therese Quinn, Flaunt It! Queers Organizing for Public Education and Justice (2009). Therese Quinn (tquinn [at] teaches art education at the School of the Art Institute and serves on the Local School Council of Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago.

Jesse is a sweet-looking fifteen-year-old whose serious face lights up when he talks about the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) uniforms, which he likes because they are warm.1 Jesse is a freshman at Chicago’s Roberto Clemente High School, who enrolled in JROTC because “We only have two options, ROTC and gym.” After half a semester, he received his report card, the grade he was receiving in his physical education class was a D: “I got a bad grade. Everybody got the same grade—a ‘D.’”

The teacher told Jesse that he gave these low grades because students were running around and were not wearing their uniforms. “But that’s what he told us to do, play sports, and we didn’t have our uniforms,” Jesse points out. Jesse did not want to fail, he said, so he decided to switch. “I had two or three friends in ROTC and they said they had better grades, and I thought, if they’re doing great, I can do great.”

Jesse is starting a formal engagement with the U.S. military, a relationship made possible because of the government’s retreat from its people. The U.S. power structure has systemically starved civilian infrastructures that support our daily lives, from roads and public transportation and schools to libraries; it has abandoned communities to decay or private dollars. At the same time our prison and military infrastructures have grown, and are poised to fill the civilian void. With over 1.68 million men and women in military service, eleven hundred bases across the globe, and only six thousand foreign service officers and two thousand U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) workers, the military is U.S. international aid, diplomacy, and foreign relations. There are more members in military bands than the State Department has foreign service officers.2 The armed forces are deployed for war and military intervention and for domestic and worldwide natural, political, and other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, and Haiti’s and Japan’s earthquakes. Omnipresent and well-supported, this is “military normal.”3

With the military’s ready and waiting personnel, infrastructure, and resources, no one should be surprised that the JROTC is now offered as the alternative to physical education in urban school districts, or that the Department of Defense has responded to the educational crisis by opening and staffing public military schools. Currently, the military is education normal.

Jesse likes his JROTC class; it is third period every day, and he wears his uniform for inspection, a “check up” every Thursday. For “check up,” students stand in formation: shoes and belts must be shined, uniforms lint-free, and badges aligned. Young women can only wear small earrings, men’s earrings have to be removed, and everyone’s hair must be up above the collar. If anything is dirty or disorganized, students lose points, and the tally from these weekly checks, says Jesse’s older sister, Jasmine, constitutes half the grade for JROTC classes.

Jasmine is eighteen and a senior at Rauner College Prep, a charter school, where she transferred after spending her freshman year at a private school named Mooseheart Child City & School, Inc.4 Mooseheart is described on its website as a “community and school for children and teens in need.” According to Jasmine, students at the school did not have an option: everyone took JROTC because the Navy “gave the school a lot of money…we got new uniforms every year and when you graduated you got to take your uniform with you.”

For both Jasmine and Jesse, JROTC met the important need of having a place to belong, to have fun. Jasmine describes field trips to bases across Illinois where JROTC students got to sit in cockpits of planes, tour submarines, play games, and see “so much technology.” When school and neighborhood are chaotic, JROTC offers order, play, and a kind of bloodless, deathless military lite.

The problem is recruitment. JROTC and other public in-school military programs are designed and funded to secure bodies for the military. As educational researcher Gary Anderson has patiently outlined in a number of scholarly articles, public schools are recruiting entities, and their targeting is not race, class, or gender neutral.5 Anderson’s work summarizes the myriad ways that young people—specifically those who are brown and black and poor—are targeted by the military. Some targeting techniques include the mandatory in-school use and reporting of students’ scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB); recruiters’ nearly unfettered reign in urban schools; and the clever use of teen-appealing swag and stars, including Reeboks and rapper 50 Cent.6 The young people who are the focus of recruitment have largely been shut out of other futures—college, living-wage employment—or have already been identified for participation in our militarized/prison nation.

But the problem is also wider than enlistment. When 58 percent of the U.S. discretionary federal budget is spent on war, and twenty-five million Americans are now veterans, the military largely forecloses other possibilities and reworks the civilian landscape.7 In 1961 when Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned about the new “military-industrial complex” (which he himself had promoted while in office) he challenged audiences to think through how other seemingly democratic institutions were being transformed through participation in a near-permanent war economy.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.8

Eisenhower’s warnings about the militarization of our economy and our daily lives are even more relevant today than when he first issued them, particularly in educational contexts.

Indeed, anthropologist Catherine Lutz goes much further, describing a “military-industrial-Congressional-media-entertainment-university complex”in order to point to the symbiotic and interlocking relationships between varied institutions and structures.9 The power of the entertainment industry to recruit youth and naturalize war is limitless. Take, for example, one unabashed military recruitment tool, also known as the blockbuster 2009 summer film, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra. This was essentially a war-music-video that included the hit summer single “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black Eyed Peas. And then there’s Army Wives, the Lifetime network TV show now in its fifth season. Each week the Wives have hot adventures, healthy babies, and plenty of loving video-chats with their barely absent husbands. War is distant, without trauma, a mere—but exciting—bloodless backdrop in these media.

Military dollars have also remade post-secondary educational landscapes, funneling dollars toward science, engineering and technology fields, and “area studies” programs. As one example, military dollars have dominated and reshaped the field of physics. By 1954, 98 percent of all physics funding came from the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission, and, while budgets ballooned, the focus of physics departments narrowed. As Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist who has studied the culture of nuclear weapons, writes, they “dropped the interest in deeper philosophical issues that had characterized pre-war physics and continued to prevail in European physics departments. Instead they adopted a pragmatism that resonated with the outlook of their sponsors”—in other words, nuclear physics and solid state physics dominate in alignment with the military’s priorities.10

What is deemed worthy of inquiry and funding are decisions that advance the military-industrial complex. But militarization, according to researchers, asymmetrically shapes contemporary higher education, channeling resources to sub-fields within science, engineering, mathematics, and particular areas of linguistic and political inquiry, while the remaining disciplines—art and humanities, in particular—receive no military dollars. Dependent solely on dwindling public funds, they often wither. In Arizona, despite the success of ethnic studies programs to retain Latino students in education, these programs are being excised from classrooms because they are too political, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and “individualistic.” Still, military recruiters are funded to roam K-16 education sites across Arizona, and ROTC/JROTC programs are heavily resourced and supported in the state’s schools and colleges.11 This militarized redefining of what counts as important knowledge and merits resources, and who and what counts as a public good—in K-12 education and elsewhere—is anti-civilian. Yet, considering that public schools have been drained of resources, offer only skeletal athletic, visual and performing arts and music programs, and employ increasingly few school guidance counselors able to share college pathways, it is understandable that students and parents gravitate toward military high schools and programs.

Parents like Ryan Rueda are relieved that the military runs a few local schools.12 Ryan is tired. Between November 2010 and January 2011, this full-time university student and single working mother of two spent fifty hours she does not have to help her daughter Autumn navigate the application process into Chicago’s public high school system. Last year, Autumn’s counselor at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy let Ryan know that, despite getting Bs and As throughout her elementary school, doing well on her seventh-grade Illinois State Achievement Tests (ISAT), and being a good basketball player, Autumn would probably not get into the selective enrollment school of her choice: Lane Tech. Nor would she get into the other schools she had her eye on, including Lincoln Park High School (she does not have any special art skills that would enable her to bypass the cutoff scores, according to this school’s counselor).

Ryan dreaded telling this to her daughter, but knew both needed to face the reality that Autumn would not move with the majority of her peers to Lane.

Then the real work started. While the choices on paper seemed broad—selective enrollment, charter, military, or neighborhood—the pool of schools rapidly diminished once Ryan thought through what constituted a good school for Autumn, and what was feasible. Ryan dreamed of a school that would offer a quality diverse education, and be empowering, safe, affordable, and convenient. Where would she find this? She brought Autumn, on public transit, to at least twenty open houses. What impressed Autumn and Ryan? Rickover Naval Academy (RNA) on the north side of Chicago.

According to Ryan, the woman in uniform at RNA emphasized that this was a reliable school that stressed academics: only “2 percent of graduates of RNA moved into a career in the armed forces.” The school, Ryan thought, would have money for travel and technology, and, if Autumn did not get into one of the selective enrollment schools, RNA could offer her extra resources and a college prep experience. Free. It also met some of her other criteria—it felt safe and looked clean and orderly.

After choosing RNA, Ryan is conflicted. She hopes that, of the six selective enrollment schools, two military schools, and ten other schools including charters, neighborhood schools, and private Catholic schools to which she and Autumn have applied, the military is not the only option. But she fears it might be and that she and her daughter could be trapped. RNA worked hard to de-emphasize the military component of the school, never mentioned the Navy’s unstellar track record of covering up sexual assaults, and asserted that the school did not recruit. Ryan watched the drill team performance at the open house and thought that the military was “sneaky.” Sharp, analytic, and a feminist, Ryan knows that there is no such thing as a free ride, and she asks, “Why would they support schools? What do they get for it?” But RNA remains on the list for her daughter.

When we talk to young people, teachers, and parents about the JROTC program in Chicago Public Schools one message was clear: JROTC programs and military public schools have little to do with parent or youth desires for more military options in education. Rather, these are the reasonable—safe, clean, and at least somewhat well-resourced—choices that are left for many parents and young people. After two decades of urban educational privatization, application-free neighborhood schools are few, and the process to apply to selective/restrictive schools is increasingly complex and competitive. Further, parents like Ryan are often acutely aware that the other heavily subsidized public pathway—the prison system—is also ready and waiting to absorb their children.

In grade eight, Julia Gutierrez knew little about how to apply to high schools, and leaving her Little Village neighborhood seemed “scary.”13 In 2002 she enrolled in the JROTC program at Farragut Career Academy, and at first it was fun. To gain rank “to Private or Sergeant,” students had to join “rifles, color guard, saber team, or the one with the drums.” She picked rifles because they “got to perform and to do spins and turns with the rifles,” and when they used the real rifles they were really heavy. Former soldiers would come and speak to them during class about recruitment, although no one ever talked about what war was like.

At Farragut, the school was divided in half between the physical education (PE) side that hated the JROTC kids and the JROTCers who were called “Gumbies” because of their green uniforms. The JROTCers also had their own area with a polished floor and even a couch in their bathroom. When Julia wanted to leave the JROTC as a junior, because she got tired of the constant evaluation and competition and getting up early, she needed a letter from her parents, neither of whom, growing up in Mexico, had finished elementary school. Because her parents had “noticed that the ROTC side was better than the PE side,” they did not want her to transfer out, so they refused to sign the letter.

Julia distinctly remembers Lieutenant Colonel Matich, the head of the school when she attended, stating that “The possibilities of dying in the army are very slim. There is more possibility to be killed in the street. You will come out of the army without a scratch, rather than being in the street.”

The Lieutenant Colonel’s analysis is both on and off mark. The streets are often dangerous in Chicago. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, Farragut, located in Little Village, was a neighborhood neatly divided by two rival gangs, the Latin Kings and the Two-Six.14 In 2011 Little Village is peppered with surveillance cameras—“blue light specials”—and the state seems to have deserted this neighborhood, leaving only police officers as an official presence, and incarceration as a likely destination.

Not unlike the permanent war economy that has reshaped our democratic institutions, the carceral landscape has remade possibilities for young people. Between 2000 and 2005, a new prison was built in the United States every twelve days.15 These massive investments in a carceral state, and the corresponding “tough on crime” criminal justice policies, created “million dollar blocks”—impoverished neighborhoods with so many residents in prison that the total cost of their incarceration exceeds $1 million.16 Far from reducing big government, the shift from a welfare to a carceral and military state has translated into dramatic increases in the government’s role in the lives of the poor. For example, the Pew Center’s “Public Safety Performance Project” documents that, at the start of 2008, U.S. prisons or jails held 2,319,258 adults, or one prisoner for every 99.1 men and women.17 This unprecedented ratio of incarceration indicates that the government is not “down-sizing”; rather, it is increasingly regulating the lives of poor men and women, especially those of color. Farragut is at the center of this carceral investment in Chicago, and Julia’s choices are informed by this looming possibility.

When a state builds no public colleges or universities, and barely funds those that already exist, choosing instead to invest in prisons and jails, the avenues for young people are clear. For Julia and Jesse, joining JROTC was, and still is, a way to resist being shut out from other educational tracks and an attempt to push back against the uncertainties visible in their neighborhood. Julia today is confident, funny, twenty-two years old, a senior at university in Chicago, who has her eye on graduate school and has learned to think critically about the military’s role in her life. Jesse, still in high school, is still building his academic opinions. He likes his freshman seminar class, where he gets a chance to watch movies, he says, laughing, but more importantly, a chance to work on group projects, and “think about our future, what jobs we might have, and prepare for our future.” Students took a test in this class that directs them to jobs they might like when they are older. Jesse was matched with mechanics, computer engineering, designing arts, and even a few more, he reported with pleasure. Julia, Jesse, and many other youths we talked to dream of lives of opportunity, not about adulthood on either side of a gun, yet the military seems to offer them their only educational pathway.

Not surprisingly Jesse, Jasmine, Ryan, Autumn, and Julia are Latinos, a group which, according to the U.S. military, is likely to serve but is underrepresented in the armed forces. In fact, since at least 2005, Latinos and Asians have been primary targets for recruitment by the military.18 Yo Soy El Army, a 2011 documentary co-produced by Big Noise and Producciones Cimarron, charts the military’s explicit focus on increasing the numbers of enlisted Latinos. And, in recent years, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other military branches and government agencies have sponsored the annual conference of an student organization—the East Coast Asian American Students’ Union (ECAASU)—which was formed decades earlier as a civil rights organization with a broad focus on social justice.19 And, with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a law that prohibited out lesbians and gay men from serving in the military, Obama publicly stated that he wants all universities to be open to ROTC programs.

It is clear from these examples that, while the military is interested in attracting older youth, it aims at the very young, as well. For example, in Chicago, JROTC Cadet Programs are offered in middle school. However, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that has been ratified by all nations but the United States and Somalia, expressly prohibits the use of children under eighteen in conflict. It also identifies strong parameters for the recruitment of those under eighteen into military forces, stipulating fifteen as the minimum age that one can be “voluntarily recruited” into an armed force. The JROTC Cadet Program targets children in sixth through eighth grades, and all JROTC programs are part of the recruitment budget of the Pentagon.20

Without the seemingly limitless budget, ample numbers of personnel, and the high prestige and legitimacy of the military, how do civilians wrest control of public education? How do we reinvigorate education and the larger public sector that is both starved for services and accused of widespread failure in mainstream media? The tasks are large but the work is now. We must collectively participate in the reframing of public education as a social, political, economic, and civilian necessity, and recognize how the consequences of state abandonment have been framed as individual and public sector failings.

As those studying the relationship between the military and public education have noted, militarized schools not only cost taxpayers more than neighborhood schools, but there is little evidence that they are successful in educating our nation’s most vulnerable youth. Pablo Paredes, with the Bay Area’s chapter of American Friends Service Committee, identified a number of strong alternatives to the “stale, one-size–fits-all JROTC program,” that are overwhelmingly cheaper, and statistically more successful in working with poor, urban youth of color.21 Paredes contends that the military has no track record or real interest in working with the most “at risk” youth.

In Oakland, he identifies local programs such as Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership and 67 Sueños that invite youth to develop leadership and skills in advocacy and media activism, and to take pride in their identity. These programs, notes Paredes, work: “At risk youth need programs that are locally relevant, reflect their identities, reflect their struggles, and engage them in ways that are relevant. They need programs that promote empowerment, not good followership. Programs that engage them in change making in their community, which is the most empowering experience possible.”

But youth organizers like Paredes cannot make these changes alone. We—educators, organizers, parents, and community members—must also transform our conceptions of what makes our communities secure and safe. In other words, we do not need more blue light cameras, JROTC programs, and prisons, but more school bands, science labs, and sports in well-stocked public schools, and this is the understanding we must promote now. Programs with this reframed vision, such as those Paredes works with in Oakland, are under- and unfunded across the United States, and generally attached to social justice groups, Quakers, community and youth organizations, and other grassroots entities without great financial resources. However, many organizations are actively creating and supporting alternatives. For example, the New York Collective of Radical Educators curriculum, Camouflaged: Investigating How the U.S. Military Affects You and Your Community, offers educators tools to use both inside and outside the classroom, and the American Friends Service Committee provides a range of materials for young people that highlight myths and truths about recruitment and present alternatives to joining the military. One such publication is It’s My Life: A Guide to Alternatives After High School.

In addition to reshaping our own understandings, and supporting groups that offer alternatives to recruitment, we should work to reframe the connection between the military and public education. Toward that goal, we close with four propositions to help end the “military normal” in our public schools:

  1. Insist that our public education normal is civilian;
  2. Demand that all public schools have fully funded art, physical education, world language, music and school band, field trip and drama programs;
  3. Educate about the Convention on the Rights of the Child and ask that the military stay away from children and public education, and revoke laws such as Provision 9528 of No Child Left Behind that affords the U.S. military access to K-12 schools and youth data, and the Solomon Amendment that forces university and college campuses to permit ROTC classes and access to military recruiters;
  4. Invest in the complex.



  1. Interview with Jesse (who, being in school, would prefer not to use his last name), January 29, 2011.
  2. Roberto J. González, Hugh Gusterson, and David Price, eds., “Introduction: War, Culture and Counterinsurgency,” The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, eds., The Counter Insurgency Manual (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009), 5.
  3. Catherine Lutz, “The Military Normal,” in The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, The Counter Insurgency Manual.
  4. Interview with Jasmine (who, being in school, would prefer not to use her last name), January 29, 2011.
  5. Gary Anderson, “The Politics of Another Side: Truth-in-Military-Recruiting Advocacy in an Urban School District,” Educational Policy 23, no. 1 (January 2009): 267-91.
  6. See “This Beat Is Military, Hip Hop, Computer Games and the Military,”
  7. González, Gusterson, and Price, (2009). “Introduction: War, Culture and Counterinsurgency,” The Counter Insurgency Manual, 5, 7. See also “Obama’s 2011 Budget Proposal: How It’s Spent,” The New York Times, February 1, 2010,
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower, (1961), “Military Industrial Complex Speech,” 1961,
  9. Lutz, ”The Military Normal,” in The Counter Insurgency Manual, 29.
  10. Gusterson, “Militarizing Knowledge,” ibid., 44.
  11. Tamar Lewen, “Citing Individualism, Arizona Tries to Rein in Ethnic Studies in School,” New York Times, May 13, 2010, http:/
  12. Interview with Ryan Rueda, February 14, 2011.
  13. Interview with Julia Gutierrez, February 16, 2011.
  14. Alexander Russo, “Pilsen & Little Village: It’s Not Your Father’s Farragut,” Catalyst, June 2003,
  15. James J. Stephan, ”Census of State and Federal Corrections Facilities, 2005,” Bureau of Justice Statistics,
  16. Jennifer Gonnerman, “Million Dollar Blocks,” Village Voice, .November 9, 2004,
  17. Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,”
  18. Jim Garamone, “U.S. Military Recruiting Demographics,” November 27, 2005,
  19. Lai Wa Wu and Vijay Prashad, :The Military Wants Us to Say We’re Sorry,” Counterpunch, February 24, 2011, Coast Asian American Student Union, “ECAASU Welcomes Dialogue on Sponsorship,”. February 27, 2011,
  20. Lester A. Thomas-Lester, “Recruitment Pressures Draw Scrutiny to JROTC,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2005, Retrieved from http:/
  21. Email interview with Pablo Paredes, March 3, 2011.
2011, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July-August)
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