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Counterrecruiters Claim Some of Credit for Drop in Military Enlistments

As the death toll has climbed during the two years of U.S. military operations in Iraq, the number of young American men and women signing on to serve in the armed forces has declined. Historically, casualties have often affected enlistment. It is a correlation that the U.S. military has seen before. But, this time, anti-war activists are also claiming some responsibility for the drop in recruits by conducting "counterrecruitment."

Last year, the Army National Guard failed to meet its goal of bringing on 56,000 new soldiers -- missing the mark by about 7,000. For the first time in almost a decade, the Marine Corps has failed to reach its overall recruitment goal. The active-duty Army is currently 6% below its year-to-date recruitment target.

According to Douglas Smith, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army's Recruiting Command, recruiters have had to change their tactics as the numbers have gone down. "They're spending more time reassuring potential applicants and their families that, even though we are an army at war, there's nothing different about the amount of training that a new soldier gets," he says. "The enlistee would go to basic training and then go to advance training to learn the particular job skills that he enlisted for. And only then would they be assigned to an Army unit."

Nevertheless, military officials are still using "tried and true" peace-time recruitment tactics: visiting high schools…calling students in the evening, when they are home…and setting up information tables at malls, video arcades, and other places where teenagers hang out. The message also remains the same: serving your country is more than just a noble endeavor, it is also a great way to get a free education and, for many students, a ticket out of poverty.

Yet, increasingly, military recruiters are finding that they are not the only ones making that kind of pitch to students.

"Counter-recruitment is providing youth with a picture of all the different alternatives that are out there for their future -- making them aware that joining the military is not the only option available to them," says Steve Theberge, a youth coordinator for the War Resisters' League, one of more than 50 anti-war organizations across the country that are trying to curb the flow of young men and women into the military.

"One thing a lot of people don't know, and it's not very well advertised, is that there's an incredible amount of money out there available for college funding," Mr. Theberge says. "There's things like joining the Peace Corps. There's things like volunteering with AmeriCorps and actually making a concrete difference in your community. So there's quite a few things that people can get involved in that don't involve risking their life and killing other people."

Many of those involved in the counter-recruitment effort are the same people the military is targeting -- students or recent high school graduates who may not know yet what they want to do with their lives.

"A lot of us don't have the perfect family life…you know, the two-parent household with the picket fence and all that," says Molly Birnbaum, 18, a high student from an economically depressed neighborhood in Brooklyn who got involved with the War Resister's League after she met a counter-recruiter. "College hasn't always been an option for us. And it isn't that there aren't scholarships out there, it's just that people don't know that there's other options out there. So when the military comes in and says 'we're going to give you all this money,' students look at that and they say, 'well, it's either this or working at McDonald's.'"

Counter-recruiters get access to teenagers primarily through the schools. But they have had an uphill battle, and one in which the military enjoys a distinct advantage. The No Child Left Behind Act, approved by Congress in 2002, requires schools that receive federal funding to provide military recruiters with contact information on every student who will be graduating at the end of the year. There is no similar obligation to share that information with counter-recruitment groups.

A 1986 federal appeals court decision does require schools to give draft registration opponents equal access to their students. Teachers in Los Angeles -- the nation's second-largest school district -- recently referenced that decision when they demanded that counter-recruiters be allowed into the schools.

How does the U.S. military feel about all this? "We understand counter-recruitment," says Douglas Smith of the Army's Recruiting Command. "One of the wonderful things about living in the United States is we do have freedom of expression, and of course the Army is one of the organizations that defends that freedom. We have no problems with people expressing their opinions, whether they disagree with us or not. What we do hope for is a polite conversation and that the activities not affect our ability to recruit."

But of course that is precisely the objective of the counter-recruitment movement -- and members point to declining recruitment numbers as evidence of their success.