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Watching what we’re up against: Challenges facing anti-militarization activism in the post-civil rights era

Submitted by on April 14, 2010 – 10:39 pmNo Comment

Watching what we’re up against: Challenges facing anti-militarization activism in the post-civil rights era

Tamara K. Nopper

April 14, 2010

At the end of February of this year I had the opportunity to participate in a panel called “Beyond 28 days: Testimonies of Black resistance and war.”  As panelists, we were asked to comment on two films that had been shown at the event, both of which explored the impact of war on communities.  The first, No Vietnamese ever called me n****r, is a documentary released in 1968 that flows back and forth between interviewing African Americans who are either participating in or observing an anti-war feeder march of Harlem residents toward the United Nations office in New York and an interview with three young Black male veterans who discuss their experiences in the military, the unfulfilled promises of military service, their concern for the Vietnamese people affected by the war, and their commitment to the Civil Rights Movement and Black humanity.  The second was a 2006 youth-created film titled A military education: Youth and the cost of war, which explores contemporary military recruitment strategies and youth resistance.

The request to relate our comments to the film fit perfectly with what I had wanted to talk about that evening: the challenges facing those of us who are both anti-war and anti-military in the post-civil rights era.  Specifically, I am interested in what obstacles we face as a movement seeking to counter the appeal of military service.    I am not the first, of course, to think about this issue, as several anti-war organizations, whether defunct or still operating, have emphasized and challenged the U.S. military’s promise of “good” jobs and educational benefits after the tour of duty is completed.  Along with simply being moved by the footage of resistance, what stood out to me the most about the two films was how they represented two extremely different approaches to military resistance.  While No Vietnamese showed political opposition to the Vietnam War—as well as to the U.S. government and the socially enforced racial hierarchy— A military education was a film typical to today’s political culture.  No Vietnamese expressed raw political opposition whereas the second one was trapped in the professionalization of political critique, with no one taking too explicit of a stand against military enlistment.  Additionally, No Vietnamese’s footage involved people literally being asked on the street what they thought of the war and the anti-war march that they were either participating in or observing whereas A military education allowed for a diversity of voices, including one white college professor who emphasized the potential of military service for civic engagement and a Black woman military recruiter who discussed the purpose of her work.  This is not to suggest that A military education was pro-war, per se, as scenes of the military recruiter in action talking to a young person considering enlistment were juxtaposed with commentary by anti-war activists, including one of my former colleagues from The Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), an organization for which I had volunteered and that was kind enough to give me an activist home for several years.

A military education, while inherently a valuable project, nevertheless illustrates the current obstacles facing anti-military activists.  While some might think it unfair to critically engage a youth-made project, I think it is useful to consider how A military education represents the current political environment in which anti-militarization activists attempt to voice opposition to the military state.  More, the approach to military resistance shown in the film is similar to that found in most documentaries and short films made by both established and neophyte filmmakers.  Specifically, the popularity of this approach to anti-military work is indicative of what we’re up against.

The cold war impact on military resistance

As someone deeply interested in cold war politics and what it has meant for political resistance, I have spent a lot of time studying how the state responds to demands by either repression or concessions or both.  Given my interest in minority and immigrant business development in the U. S., I have read numerous sources exploring Richard M. Nixon’s strategy of containment toward Black protest, which mixed policing and repression with a disingenuous promotion of affirmative action and “Black power” and “Black capitalism.” I have also learned that, unsurprisingly, similar strategies were used to contain critical questions about war and military service among veterans and the people that they financially support.

Specifically, Nixon got rid of conscription, more commonly known as the draft, in 1973 in response to social protest against the war.  This transition to an “all volunteer-force” (AVF) was significant because the draft had been a staple of U.S. culture since the Civil War.  Among the general public, white resistance against the Vietnam War has received far more attention than the resistance from Black and other people of color communities, including Asian Americans, who, despite us being treated as absent in the anti-war movement by most non-Asian American accounts, were deeply critical of a racist war against “yellow people” abroad.  For example, several Asian American veterans initiated or became members of anti-imperialist organizations such as Richard Aoki of the Black Panther Party.  And Asian American organizations, such as the Red Guard, called for Asian Americans to resist and be exempt from the draft.  Yet non-white opposition to the war, especially among the Black community as expressed in draft resistance, political statements and speeches, organizational support for activists who were incarcerated for failing to report to military service, and rioting, certainly was a major form of social protest that Washington could not ignore.  Despite the conservatism of some civil rights organizations and white supporters who thought that the mixing of anti-war activism with the Civil Rights Movement would “undermine” the latter, as shown in the film No Vietnamese, even among the many bystanders who did not march, there was a great deal of opposition to the Vietnam War and critiques of African Americans being forced to serve in the military for a country that treated Blacks so racistly.  As such, it is difficult to separate Nixon’s strategy of containment in terms of quelling opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft from his other containment strategies against African Americans, as well as other people of color.

The legacy of Nixon’s repeal of the draft is demonstrated in the differences between No Vietnamese and A military education.  In the former, which, again, was released in 1968, the forced and artificial nature of the draft is explored.  More importantly, the contradiction of Black men being drafted serves as a source of political clarity.  A military education, released over 30 years after the AVF was implemented, shows the current political environment in which we’re in.  Here, the focus on military recruiters and the push for young people to make decisions, or choices, is a testament to the fact that the draft no longer exists as well as an affirmation of Nixon’s legacy.  Just as Nixon gave us a “choice” on whether to join the military to quell social protest, many counter-military recruiters treat young people like consumers who should make informed decisions based on whether the military is the best deal.  I know that this approach, having seen it in action, is not always indicative of the true feelings of many anti-war activists, who are anti-imperialists and is sometimes viewed as a pragmatic way of reaching young people, a pragmatism partially determined by the constraints of non-profit culture.  I don’t believe in people becoming robots of resistance, where there is no clarity or sincerity in political action, nor do I believe in reinstating the draft in order to encourage more active resistance since there is enough suffering in the world to deal with.  Yet there is something to say about how today, most institutional efforts to challenge the AVF is to simply give the other side of the story and like Nixon, allow people to choose rather than offering a clear and explicit critique against war and the military, which is partially what Nixon sought to quell with his repeal.

Another identifiable feature of both films was that they addressed the economic realities of military service with imagery indicating a shifting political landscape in which increasing numbers of people of color are finding long-term employment in the military.  In No Vietnamese, the three veterans discussed what they returned home to upon finishing their tours of duty, including terrible housing conditions and job opportunities.  A military education featured a Black woman military recruiter selling enlistment.  Just as Nixon promoted Black capitalism, created what was to become the Minority Business Development Agency, and initiated affirmative action as he was simultaneously calling for more law and order, the state is securing a lifelong commitment to the military by seducing veterans and the public by increasing financial incentives for veterans.

Increasing financial incentives for non-whites

The presence of a Black woman military recruiter in A military education speaks to some shifts in terms of the military’s approach to race and gender.  Not only is the Department of Defense (DOD) currently the “nation’s largest employer,” with over 1.3 million individuals on active duty—a figure that does not, of course, include the 1.1. million currently serving in the National Guard or the Reserves—there are more chances for people of color to develop military careers.

Racial discrimination still exists in the military, as noted by the high rates of PTSD among people of color service members, the disproportionate discharges of Black women under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and military convictions and dishonorable discharge rates.  Yet, as illustrated by the Black woman recruiter in A military education, one of the major challenges facing the anti-war movement is the fact that increasing numbers of people of color are finding the military a place to stay rather than a temporary stop.  Historically, people of color returned home from service to hostile racial environments and difficulty getting professional jobs, which often served to increase their political awareness and encourage them to participate in or lead radical political activity.

Today, more and more people are deciding to join the military later in life or remain in the military in some capacity rather than attempt to develop a career in an unstable job market.  The New York Times reported in 2009:

“The last fiscal year was a banner one for the military, with all active-duty and reserve forces meeting or exceeding their recruitment goals for the first time since 2004, the year that violence in Iraq intensified drastically, Pentagon officials said.”  Curtis Gilroy, the director of accession policy for the DOD is quoted as saying, “‘When the economy slackens and unemployment rises and jobs become more scarce in civilian society, recruiting is less challenging.’”

For African Americans, who, because of racial discrimination, have difficulty getting jobs regardless of the economy, military careers are seductive alternatives to searching for professional employment in the civilian sector.  Some of my friends from high school, a few of whom had earned college degrees and after working in retail stores, decided to enlist and have stayed in the military ever since.  Another former friend who had limited college education and spent years working in service jobs, such as arcades, has been employed by the military for the past fifteen years or so.  Some of my college students are middle-aged people of color working as ROTC instructors.  A middle-aged partner of my friend is about to retire from the military, who he’s been with since he graduated from high school.  He decided to remain in the military when his efforts to find a job in the civilian world didn’t pan out.

Thus, it would be helpful for the anti-war movement to address the fact that we have more people, including people of color, than ever building military careers, which in turn, helps maintain a commitment to the military.  The alignment between professional careers and a political commitment to the military is interesting to observe.  For example, in a conversation with a man I know who has been a career military person, spending at least 25 years working with the military since graduating from high school, I mentioned how one of my students, who’s affiliated with the ROTC, was speaking critically of the military and the Iraq War in class.  The man I was speaking to immediately responded to my story by saying, “He’s not allowed to do that!”  The quickness and content of his response were striking, as both demonstrated a conflation between political silence and service and the success of the state in stifling political critiques of the military.  My concern about the state’s success at using financial incentives to undermine political resistance is underscored by the 2 million military retirees and their families receiving benefits for military service, a block of people who may, at best, challenge Washington to lessen government bureaucracy regarding benefits, pay, and services, but who are highly unlikely to become anti-imperialists anytime soon.

Antecedents to today’s financial incentives

Today, veterans are considered a special “class” of people, with government organizations, such as the Small Business Administration (SBA), making resources available specifically to veterans and tracking how many loans, etc., veterans receive.  Such practices, of course, have historical antecedents, one of the most notable being the Veterans Administration Loan Program for mortgages.  Established under the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more popularly referred to as the GI Bill of Rights, the program allowed for veterans to get mortgages with relatively low terms.  According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the VA backed nearly 2.4 million home loans between 1944 and 1952.  By 2008, it had guaranteed over 18 million home loans valued at over $911 billion.  In 2008, around 180,000 individuals including veterans and active duty service members, received loans valued at about $36 billion.  As Richard K. Green points out, the promotion of mortgages was not entirely altruistic as the VA Loan Program was “intended both to reward veterans and to stimulate housing market construction.”  Given that the loan was guaranteed, financial and related institutions were able to discriminate since in the end, they can decide who gets loans to be backed.  Social scientists and community advocates have shown how racial discrimination among banks, the real estate industry, and white residents resulted in racial disparities in terms of who benefited the most from changes to mortgage lending (hint: the racial group rhymes with “right”).

Along with home mortgages, the military’s promise of good jobs in the civilian sector after service has been well-explored and debunked by anti-military activists, including some of the people featured in A military education.  Yet it is useful for us to consider how the military has been used as a jobs training program since at least the Civil Rights era.  At one point, the draft was considered by some in the White House as an employment opportunity and job training program.  For example, Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the infamous Moynihan Report, saw the draft as a bridge between employment, civic engagement, and social assimilation.  Consistent with Moynihan’s emphasis on “emasculated” Black men in the Moynihan Report, the former navy veteran considered the draft an opportunity for Black men from ghettos to acquire job skills and in the process, “mature.”  For example, in the 1960s, Moynihan was quoted as saying:

The draft is one of the greatest institutions ever invented by the United States…Service in the military is, for almost everyone who serves, a maturing and enlightening experience, whether they themselves realize it or not, and it is an especially significant experience for the poor, particularly the Negro poor. In fact, for the young Negro boy from the slums, military service is an escape hatch out of the ghetto into the main current of American life, and it is the shame of our urban school systems that so many young Negro boys fail to pass the qualifying intelligence tests for the draft, and, in consequence, are lost in the ghettos.

Moynihan and McNamara sought to remedy the intelligence testing issues by drafting people who normally would not be selected for service by proposing such ventures as Project 100,000, which, given its active targeting of poor and working-class African Americans, was derisively described as “McNamara’s moron corps.”

Military service as civic engagement

Efforts such as Project 100,000 were not simply job training programs but were also promoted as opportunities for Black civic engagement.  In Johnson’s speech to Congress on May 1, 1967 subtitled The president’s manpower report,” the president, after describing the bleak unemployment forecast, announced:

The Secretary of Defense has launched ‘Project 100,000’ to accept and train thousands of young men who were previously rejected as unfit for military service. Under this program, 40,000 young men are joining the Armed Forces this year.  100,000 will join next year. All will receive specialized training to help them become good soldiers—and later, productive citizens.  (emphasis added)

Lately, military service and military-inspired youth programs and schools have been praised as increasing the civic engagement of young people.  Whereas the veterans in No Vietnamese emphasized their commitment to civil rights and the Black community, A military education features a white college professor mentioning that the military has the potential for promoting civic engagement.   Basically, Washington rhetoric of the military as civic engagement has won the hearts and minds of a great deal of the public, with even some of those critical of the military nevertheless promoting it as a source of civility.  Although I’m all for some people feeling connected to, and working to empower their communities, civic engagement has become the dominant discourse among funders, educators, community organizations, and public policy makers, despite being a rather vague concept and having varying meanings for different people and organizations.   In terms of the state, several presidents have promoted civic engagement campaigns.  Often a strategy to privatize, to an extent, the welfare state vis-à-vis volunteer work, relevant to my emphasis on military service, Johnson and others promoted enlistment as a baptism into adulthood and citizenship.  While martial citizenship has been a feature of naturalization policy since at least WWI, folks like Moynihan, McNamara, and Johnson saw enlistment as a disciplining feature that would help Black men “grow up” and assume adult responsibilities.

Related to this pathologization of politically resistant communities, the term civic engagement is also meant to allay fears of social and political unrest.  Whereas history has shown us that many a freedom fighter drew from the contradictions of military experience as a source of politicization and interracial and international solidarity, today’s veteran is encouraged to see military service as an act of civic engagement, which is both a form of moral posturing and a way of sanitizing the violence and brutality that military members participate in, even if they feel ambivalence or repulsion toward their actions.  Further, the term civic engagement is a dangerous one because it takes things that many in oppressed communities value, such as a sense of belonging, the idea of contributing and building the type of society we want to live in, and maintaining a connection to communities, and exploits and reinterprets them as discourses and practices of social control.  For example, the concept of civic engagement works to neutralize political critique by taking critical views and professionalizing them by suggesting “You can make more change inside than outside the system.”

The result is that we have more and more people, particularly young folks, who, as part of the “Obama generation,” are quick to dismiss radical critiques of the military state.  Some will see “working outside of the system” as “too angry” or “unproductive.”  Or, some will say they are simply too busy to think about such issues.  These responses make it difficult for viewpoints like those expressed in No Vietnamese to be taken seriously and also diminish the political space in which questions about the military state may be raised and engaged.

Regarding young people, as a college professor who has adjuncted for the past decade at three different universities, I can tell you that the crude form of pragmatism and reliance on informed consumerist approaches to politics, as embedded in A military education, conceals, albeit not well, historical and political ignorance and in many cases, youthful arrogance that many of us, including myself, have been guilty of.  Nevertheless, despite the fact that most of my students, when asked in my Asian American Studies and sociology classes, have never heard of Rodney King or the 1992 Los Angeles Riots—a sign of how long ago the immediate past is to many of them as well as how in tune they are with discussions about racial conflict—they seem extremely confident when dismissing political viewpoints and approaches that are not neatly packaged or presented in ways that make them uncomfortable.  Those who are moved enough by society’s injustices, some of which have been experienced personally, are quick to dismiss radicalism or any posture that is associated with it, even as they are highly critical of both racism and the many nasty comments that students make in college courses regarding a range of sociological issues.  While I have yet to test this theory, I feel comfortable with saying that most of my students, including the ones who have some concern for social justice, would probably praise A military education more than No Vietnamese.


To see both No Vietnamese and A military education one after another was not only an interesting intellectual exercise, the experience was also a visual reminder of some of the challenges facing those of us critical of the military state in the post-civil rights era.  Namely, we are facing increased financial incentives for people to join the military, the growing number of people of color (successfully) seeking long-term military careers and the negative impact on resistance, and the professionalization of political critique and the promotion of the military as a source of civic engagement.  As we watch the level of suffering deepen during this era of troubled times and as people express resistance to civil society in a myriad of ways that at times can be simultaneously amazing and frightening in terms of personal safety, the question of where does the anti-war movement go from here is certainly one on my mind.  As people become more economically desperate and as people of color, especially African Americans, bear the burden of the recession, the military’s allure as a source of (modest) financial stability will certainly increase, which means that it will be more difficult for activists to address the imperialist nature of the military state.  The military’s allure will be made more possible by the triumph of a cold war agenda that has successfully incorporated more people of color, to varying degrees and for different reasons, into the military’s organization and in turn, has created more tension among communities of color regarding military enlistment and identification with the veteran experience.   Although participating in Beyond 28 days did not necessarily answer the questions I have about the future of anti-military work, watching No Vietnamese and then A military education certainly helped me understand what we’re up against.

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