Monday, March 8, 2010

In which I explore the inner workings of the poverty draft.

Seniors I spoke to at one of Chicago's military academies today told me that in each graduating class of roughly 100, only about eight join the military after high school. That doesn't sound so bad, right? So I asked them about West Point and other military colleges. Maybe ten or fifteen more. Still -- only twenty percent? Maybe all this "military academies as a recruiting device" nonsense is overblown. Twenty percent's a lot, given that the military as a whole is about two percent of the 18-49 population, but still, it hardly seems like that percentage makes starting these academies worthwhile as a recruiting device.

Then they said about another thirty go into ROTC in college. This squares pretty well with DoD numbers from 1993, which show that about 45 percent of kids who do Junior ROTC (JROTC) in high school end up in some branch of the military.


Some of the students I spoke to were considering entering some military organization after college, others weren't. I tried to get a bit of a sense of how they were thinking about it, and how their experiences at a military academy had shaped that thinking.

First of all, it seems pretty clear that, at least at the school I was at, students aren't directly pushed into the military by their teachers. Counselors talk to them about non-military career options, lots of them go to (and are encouraged to go to) non-military colleges, and they say there's no judgment on the ones who decide the military isn't for them.

Not having considered joining the military, I don't know much about the inner workings the sort of programs they were thinking about, so most of my information comes from them. But they at least talked like they were pretty well-informed about what joining the military means. They talked with confidence about the differences in pay scales and bonus policies of the different branches of the military, and about the scholarship programs available to students in ROTC. They talked about ways one might use ROTC to get money without having to commit to time as a military officer -- according to them, you can participate in ROTC and take their money for two years without committing, but once you start your fifth semester as an ROTC participant, you're pretty much locked in. At least one student was planning to participate in ROTC for exactly the two-year maximum, and leave before he had to actually commit to military service.

It sounded like incentives around college financing were very important to these students. At least two of them were planning on participating in the military only if they ran into financial trouble in their college endeavors. They also said they knew people from previous graduating classes who had decided they were done with the military after high school, but ended up joining ROTC in subsequent years when they started to have trouble with tuition.

In connection with such students, another important piece of the puzzle seems to be the feeling that "they're used to the discipline." For these students, entering military programs seems like a return to an admittedly unsavory, but ultimately bearable practice. They already know some drills, and they're used to the commands, the ways of walking, the rank structure, the hierarchy, etc. It doesn't sound quite as creepy as it might otherwise.

Also, they have connections in the military. JROTC instructors are retired military personnel, which means they know a lot of active-duty service members. Students said if they did get involved with the military, they'd get "hooked up" with placement opportunities, extra uniforms, and other stuff normal enlistees don't necessarily get.

It didn't sound like this was being presented as an incentive to join the military. These weren't being advertised as prizes, but rather as friendly legs up -- the same way my math professors offered to put me in touch with mathematicians they knew in Chicago when I moved here.

It was also clear, though, that the idea of special privilege -- even in what seemed to me to be trivial arenas like uniforms and boots -- really appealed to these kids. I think this partly relates to the hierarchical culture of JROTC itself: there are no less than sixteen different ranks students can achieve, each with its own insignia displayed on the uniform, along with several other types of insignias, plus aguilettes, arcs, ribbons, badges and medals. About half of this handbook covers this stuff; this one's got a lot of text on it too. Students also, in military academies, get special positions like "hall monitor" and "class leader" (they may have these in JROTC classes in normal schools as well; I don't know) -- I know hall monitorship is displayed on the uniform as well, but only while you're actively monitoring.

At least some kids take this stuff seriously. I've heard a student complain, "He don't even treat me like a First Sergeant! He treats me like I'm some kind of Staff Sergeant!"

Another piece to this is the emphasis of pro-military voices in JROTC classes' discussions of citizenship and history. I didn't ask students about this, but according to the Center for Defense Information,
The AFSC [American Friends Service Committee] report compared an Army Junior ROTC history text's coverage of the Vietnam War to a civilian text and found that the Junior ROTC discussion centered on the argument that the Vietnam War was necessary because the United States took on and should continue to assume "the responsibility for being the world's police officer for democracy." Protests and disagreements about the war were presented as "a threat to national security."
Given all of this, it's not all that surprising that many of the kids I talked to said that either they or their parents had been hesitant about the idea of a military academy. One boy said his parents had gone so far as to forbid him to have any involvement with the military after high school.

I asked some of these students why they had decided to attend (and/or their parents had decided to send them to) the military academy anyway, and their answers were almost universally related to the academic performance of the school. And it makes sense: the four Chicago military academies score far better than their neighborhood schools.

All four are selective; I'm not sure whether they're all academically selective. Students I spoke to said there was an interview, but students weren't rejected on the basis of bad grades; Chicago Military doesn't post its admissions standards online, nor does Carver, but Phoenix and Rickover are both clear about admitting only students who are reasonably academically well-off (by the way, a stanine of 5 -- the requirement for Phoenix -- means above about the 40th percentile, while "at or above grade level" means above about the 20th percentile).

So they're not super-elite, but they seem to be doing just enough to get rid of the bottom ranges that cause the most trouble at neighborhood schools (even the existence of an application process including an interview will get rid of many of those kids). So parents frantic to free themselves from shitty neighborhood schools -- or, at least, the ones with the wherewithal to jump through the hoops -- are being offered something meaningful. Walk three blocks from Phillips to Chicago Military and you'll see a thirty-four-percent jump in testing success.

Part of what I'm saying is, as a student in the middle of the Chicago Public Schools spectrum who would otherwise be going to, say, Phillips, Robeson, Fenger, or Julian, it's very possible to go into this situation with your eyes open and still believe a military academy is your best option. It might be.

And once you're there, they don't need to lie to you to convince you that ROTC is your best option -- because, again, it might be your best option. When you're in that situation, an option doesn't need to be that good to be your best option.

The poverty draft isn't just a problem because the military's recruiting tactics are coercive. It's a problem because poverty is coercive. And we can't stop it by removing the military option, or covering it up, or taking away the incentives -- although we should do all of those things. But we have to also be in the business of creating other options.

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