Global Policy Forum

A Turning Point for the Anti-War Movement?


By Rick Jahnkow*

February 2005

Despite 2005 being the start of a second presidential term for George W. Bush, this year may bring together a number of factors that will offer the antiwar movement an important opportunity to shorten the US occupation of Iraq and begin to reverse the decades-long growth of militarism in this country. However, to take advantage of this opportunity, the antiwar movement will have to think critically about its emphasis on symbolic war protest and look more closely at strategies for interfering with the flow of human resources needed for war, especially through counter-recruitment organizing.

As the year began, it should have been clear to everyone that the neoconservative plan for the Middle East pursued by the Bush administration had run into trouble. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is now the quagmire that many predicted, and US actions in the region have created less political stability instead of more. Meanwhile, total annual spending on war and the military has reached almost half a trillion dollars. This is being financed through deficit spending and proposed cuts in domestic programs that will generate much anger in the coming months toward Bush and his Republican majority. The increasing reports of Republican realists publicly criticizing Bush policies, especially over Iraq, indicate that beneath the surface, opinion against the neocons is growing even within the conservative base of Bush's own party.

Perhaps most importantly, a developing personnel shortage within the military, caused by Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, will soon mean the Pentagon can no longer carry out the mission that has so far been handed to it. Reserve and National Guard forces now make up about 40% of the troops in Iraq, but the National Guard missed its recruitment quota by 13% last year and Reserve forces are "rapidly degenerating into a 'broken' force," according to a December 2004 memo by the chief of Army Reserves, Lt. Gen. James R. Helmly. Earlier in the year, a report by the Defense Science Board, a Department of Defense advisory group, concluded that the US military could not maintain its current peacekeeping commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan without either a significant increase in the size of the armed forces or a scaling back of its missions' objectives. The Bush administration has publicly stated that it intends to "stay the course," but trying to resolve this problem by increasing the size of the military is appearing to be impossible without a draft. That route, if chosen, would be an absolute disaster for the Pentagon.

Thirty years ago, the public image and influence of the military establishment reached a low point because of controversy over the Vietnam War and the draft that was used to fight it. When massive war resistance and social upheaval forced an end to the draft, the Pentagon had to begin relying on aggressive marketing to fill the armed forces' ranks and improve its relationship with the public. As a result of this shift in strategy, the military has been gradually expanding its presence in K-12 schools and strengthening its ability to propagandize through other institutions of socialization. Those efforts, together with a less risky war fighting doctrine that grew out of the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, have helped the military establishment rehabilitate its image and expand its influence to an unprecedented level.

Right now, however, public opposition to the war in Iraq is increasing and antagonism toward the draft is still running extremely high -- so high that the Republicans in Congress felt it necessary to bring Congressman Rangel's nonviable draft bill to the floor just so it could be voted down 402-2, and both Bush and Kerry felt compelled to publicly promise there would be no draft if they were elected. Furthermore, the Pentagon knows that its political gains over the last 30 years would be jeopardized by a firestorm of hostility if, once again, conscription were used to force people to fight an unpopular, risky war. A draft would mean that recruiters and ROTC programs would come under fierce attack on college campuses, as would the military recruiters and military-linked programs that have invaded our K-12 schools, including the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), military aptitude testing (ASVAB), the Young Marines, and the many military-school partnerships that have been taking root at all school levels.

If the military believes it cannot marshal the resources needed to carry out its mission, and if the draft is an unacceptable solution because of the perceived likelihood of a severe political backlash, it leaves only the choice of changing the mission. In other words, the US would have to find a way to begin phasing out its occupation of Iraq relatively soon. Even though Bush has talked about staying the course, there is little he can do if the troops, money, and will are not there to continue, and if the career officers at the Pentagon become more vocal in defending their own vital institutional interests. In this case, the Pentagon's interests are best served by changing the mission rather than resorting to a draft.

The challenge for the anti-war movement is to work toward this outcome by strengthening the perception that neither a draft nor aggressive recruiting can sustain the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have an opportunity to do this by making counter-recruitment organizing and the demilitarization of schools a higher priority.

Counter-recruitment activism in our schools can advance the most important goals of the anti-war movement in several ways. By supporting and facilitating more organizing against the military's presence in schools, we can communicate clearly that even more dire consequences are around the corner if conscription is reintroduced.

Showcasing alternatives to enlistment, such as job training programs and college scholarships, helps students and educators confront the dangerous trend toward the militarization of education, which if not reversed will lay the foundation for future wars and make a draft much more likely. Counter-recruitment also offers great openings for youth activism.

Even more than through protest alone, by reducing the number of new recruits, we can materially interfere with the -government's ability to sustain the occupation of Iraq and pursue other preemptive wars. In the process, we can push the Pentagon toward expressing more direct public criticism of the administration's handling of the war and of the Bush administration's military interventionism in general.

One of the barriers to counter-recruitment activism in colleges and universities has been a set of laws known as the Solomon Amendments, which since 1997 has threatened campuses with the loss of federal funds if they ban recruiters and ROTC. A parallel law was implemented in 2002 to stop high schools from restricting recruiter access to students and student lists. Multiple lawsuits challenging the college-related law were introduced in 2003, and on November 29, 2004, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the Solomon Amendments violated the plaintiffs' free speech rights (see also the district court victory in Burt v. Rumsfeld, the case brought by Yale). The Justice Department indicated that it will appeal the appellate ruling to the US Supreme Court, and has asked for a stay from the Third Circuit. (For more information about the legal cases, please see Currently, however, there is an important window of opportunity to escalate college counter-recruitment organizing. There is also a possibility for some high school districts that formerly had restrictions on recruiter access to reinstate them. Amidst the current climate of concern about predatory recruiters and the Iraq war, renewed restrictions on recruiters could inspire a larger number of districts to follow suit.

Even if the Supreme Court eventually overturns the court ruling against mandatory recruiter access to colleges, there are still many possibilities for challenging and resisting the military's efforts to recruit and indoctrinate young people. The many grassroots groups belonging to the National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth ( are bringing new energy to the struggle. Creative counter-recruitment direct action is also spreading nationwide, including a recruiting center takeover in Madison, Wisconsin by individuals demanding that it be turned into a college financial aid office.

More anti-war activists are gradually realizing how critical counter-recruitment work is and are deciding that symbolic protest, though valuable, is not enough. By countering military recruitment, people can actually nonviolently stand in the way of what is being done in Iraq. If more of us get involved in stopping the machinery of war in our own communities, this could be a turning point for the anti-war movement.

About the Author: Rick Jahnkow works for two San Diego-based antimilitarist organizations, the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities ( and the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft ( A version of this article first appeared in the January-February 2005 issue of COMD's Draft NOtices.

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