Enroll in college and don’t ever enlist in the service

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Illustration by: Jae Kitinoja / Illustrator

For this Veteran’s Day, I’d like to encourage everyone to honor the memory of fallen service men and women of this country by lighting the American flag on fire and burning down military recruitment centers – so that the cycle of creating veterans can end.

But if that doesn’t seem appropriate (although it really quite is), at least think twice about enlisting.

Recently a young and close family relative enlisted into one of the branches of the military. In order to protect his identity and potential repercussions, I will not identify him.

As a borderline-dogmatic anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist activist, I was fervently against the U.S. military, and I had let this be known to him.

But in spite of all my radical rhetoric, he joined. It made me think: a lot of people in his similar situation join for similar reasons.

Why poor people of color join the military

My father’s company shipped off its manufacturing department, leaving him unemployed. My mother’s company closed its doors and filed for bankruptcy. My other younger brother with a felony on his record, was struggling to get through school and find employment. All while the police patrol the city, with cases of abuse and killings, while jobs continue to decline, while street gangs promise drug money and financial gain, all under the subtleties of racism at school, at the workplace and society at large.

No one should be surprised that the presence of military recruiters on high school campuses are embraced. Coming from poverty and instability, I don’t really know who wouldn’t want to join. Certainly, I thought about it.

The lure of economic stability and paying for college is too great to ignore.

When asked on why he joined, my younger relative echoes these reasons in a more mature and raspier voice.

“I still joined because I did my research and I knew what I was getting myself into,” he said.

However, he encouraged others not to join solely as a way of escaping poverty, poor school performance or other problems, especially if they’re a person of color. They’ll do more harm than good, he said.

“What would I tell someone if they wanted to join?” he said. “Personally, I’d tell them not to join. I think it depends where they come from, what type of family they come from. Like us, our family… A lot of minorities that join don’t do the research. They get fucked.”

He remembered going to boot camp and hearing about several suicide attempts. He remembered seeing recruits with slashes on their wrists and a regular presence of paramedics on camp.

He admits that the military, historically, has a legacy of racism within its ranks but also as an institution. But in spite of this there is a need to compartmentalize this reality and treat his service like any other job.

“I still don’t regret joining but I see how the U.S. has been selfish, racist and taken care of its own interests. That’s the part that kind of bothers me about actually joining but not as much but it still bothers me,” he said.

He sighed. For the first time during the interview there was emotion in his eyes. He sighed.

“Everything’s a job now,” he said.

And why am I upset? This is capitalism. We have to survive. I couldn’t use myself as a great example of financial stability. I got $4 in my bank account, running on fumes until my next paycheck. My monthly income is about $900 from working a few part-time jobs and going to school full-time. It’s well below the poverty level. I don’t blame people for stealing, selling drugs or working shitty jobs.

But I will say this. There are a lot of other opportunities out there that don’t have a racist and imperialist legacy to them, which may make you into a killer. Personally, I’d rather flip burgers for the rest of my life than potentially take someone else’s for the pursuit of a paycheck.

Militarism is part of American culture

When I went to Van Nuys High School, I remember taking the ASVAB test. Most of us didn’t understand what it was, and no one offered any explanation, other than it was an aptitude test.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out it was a test offered by the U.S. Department of Defense to measure enlisting qualifications. ASVAB stands for Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery, and was administered in many high schools. It still is.

I spoke with another active duty service member whose identity will remain anonymous in order to protect this person’s position, and according to him the U.S. Department of Defense contacts the Department of Education with the test and then the schools administer the tests to students.

The federal budget for the military is about 19 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. However, the discretionary budget, which is what is voted on by lawmakers each year, is different from mandatory spending. Programs like Social Security and Medicare are mandatory. Mandatory accounts for two-thirds and discretionary is one-third. In actuality, the military accounts for 57 percent of discretionary spending, according to National Priorities.

The service member is aware of the pressure and the concentrated effort by recruiters and the military. But it’s needed.

“I don’t think that the government should force young kids to go into the service,” the service member said. “But we do need the younger generation. They are the fighting force that builds the military.”

When I asked what he meant he said simply with the nonchalance and neutrality of solving a math problem that there are thousands of positions that need to be filled.

“There’s a high loss from retirement, combat and suicide,” he said.

According to NPR, the number of military suicides have surged to 349 last year, surpassing U.S. military combat deaths. Additionally, 22 veterans take their own life every day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Want honor, respect and to uplift your community? Go to college

If you’re rich, if your people have high numbers getting educated and successful, if your people have low representation in prisons, then I’d understand why you’d want to join the military: patriotism, to further protect a country that has given you so much, that has been so good to you and your people. It’s a matter of self-preservation and interest, really.

But if you are a poor young person of color, if you want to make your family proud, if you want to make your people proud, if you want stability, if you want success and experience, then I encourage you to go to college and to be a street soldier for a cause that involves uplifting your community and fight to change society.

Learn to be a veteran of a different struggle, a struggle for increasing the numbers of people of color in graduate school, in Ph.D. programs, in organizing communities to stand up for themselves and fight for justice, and break the cycle of state violence.

I promise you a mother will be more proud of the next Pan-African studies major graduate on his or her way to a Ph.D. who organizes to fight for the rights of others. She would be more proud of that, than a returning service member from a war that has cost both sides thousands of lives, that has soaked up government funds that otherwise could have gone to education, social services and other areas much in need.

Kevin Baker, 28, an Iraq war veteran of the U.S. Army was 18 when he enlisted. He encourages young people not to join, especially young people of color.

“I think that if you go to Beverly Hills High School and see recruiters there and then go to Compton High School you’ll see a stark contrast. And if that’s not targeting poor communities I really don’t know what else would be,” he said.

But it’s not just young people of color that are being targeted by military recruiters. It’s poor people in general.

In spite of that, people have to think long and hard about enlisting.

“For young people who don’t have jobs, who don’t have money for college, join a specific movement that puts the energy somewhere else. It’s difficult at times but it’s not as difficult as committing actual war crimes, and then coming back and shooting yourself in the head. I mean, that’s the reality.”


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  • Jimbo

    As already stated this was a poorly timed article. But it isn’t the poor timing, the intentional inflammatory wording, or even the obvious complete lack of knowledge about the military institution that the writer shows but the blatant laziness of the article that really gets me.

    You use two disgruntled veterans (one whom isn’t even identified) whom you give no other information about other than they are veterans (did they serve honorably? Did they use their GI Bill to get ahead or any of the other dozens of benefits that comes with service such as housing loans, low interest rate private loans, discount medical plans? Where was he recruited, is he even a low income individual or a person of color? Without any of this info how is he relevant to your point of view?) and a member of your own family as your sources? Way to really show journalistic objectivity.

    I’m a veteran too, just back from Afghanistan last year and in my fifth year of service (9th if you count the four great years here at CSUN’s ROTC program, seriously check them out, get your degree paid for in return for six years in the reserves). I’m now doing my Master’s degree, the second degree paid for by the military for my five years of service and because I served honorably they also give me a living allowance enough that I can live in a beautiful townhouse just down the street on my own. Before I was recruited I was training at a free government program to be a ship welder for $9/hr. I had no credit, no college fund and no one was trying to give me a loan to house me and pay for my college. Grants aren’t enough when you don’t have family around to help you out.

    Yup I was targeted because I was poor, how is that a bad thing? There’s this weird stigma coming out of the Sun Dial at times that low income and people of color are being recruited to be “cannon fodder”. That’s the most uneducated, ignorant perspective I’ve ever heard. This isn’t Vietnam or WW2 where people were drafted to storm the beaches and die a week after recruiting. The government has spent close to half a million on my training alone including giving me a security clearance, Information Technology training, a Bachelor’s degree, and professional leadership and management courses that have benefited me in the numerous jobs I have gotten because I am part of the military community. This is including my most recent job I had before starting my Masters that started me at $47k a year as a 26 year old student and gave me full medical and dental, the job? Calling and offering help and services to family members of military members oversea free of charge. Clearly the government is trying to throw us poor souls into a meat grinder.

    “I promise you a mother will be more proud of the next Pan-African
    studies major graduate on his or her way to a Ph.D. who organizes to
    fight for the rights of others.” Talk about self delusion. Ya a Pan-African studies major, a major that boasts such amazingly degree relevant jobs such as: parole office, admission counselor, and radio announcer (http://www.csun.edu/csbs/departments/pan_african_studies/resources/why_pas.html) or what most of us would recognize immediately as “jobs that you could get with literally any degree or no degree at all” it goes on to talk about some really great jobs that by the way you need a totally different degree to qualify for on top of your PAS and are in no way relevant to the degree itself. Seriously just give me your tuition money and I’ll spend it for you if you’re going to throw it away. I can tell you right now if I had gone for a Pan-African Studies PHD over joining the serve my mother would have risen from the grave and slapped me in the face.

    Luckily I did join! I now just paid off a brand new car (Hyundai Elantra 2013, running very smoothly) with money I got from my deployment, live in a three story townhouse down the street thanks to my GI Bill housing allowance(swanky living for a full-time student), have full health insurance at a meager $60 a month via Tricare the military insurance policy and my tuition, books and fees are all paid for courtesy of uncle Sam thanks to the educational benefits. I’m two years away from a Master’s in Software Engineering and thanks to the connections I made through military service I’ve internships and potential job offers upon graduation for major Defense Contractors (can you say making it rain dolla dolla bills?).

    Yes the military is hard living and injury, mental trauma and yes death but these are all specifically outlined when signing up. Is it fair that this is one of the only options for the poor and low-income? No, but then again when has life been fair honestly? At least we have the option, I’d still be sitting on the docks with nine years worth of burns if not for the chance I took.

    Always question the status quo, always have fervor about your opinion, but don’t be lazy enough not to research the opposing view point.

    Otherwise you might just come across as an idiot.

  • Iantha

    I offer a rebuttal to the above opinion with that of another who echoes my own: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/25/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/25Rgen.html?_r=0

  • Arman Gosparini

    A borderline dogmatic anti-capitalist typing on a capitalist computer, for a news paper in a school funded by capitalist tax money, and distributed via capitalist fiber lines to capitalist servers to be viewed through more capitalist computers. Lord help us.

    I know Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They served unprecedented year long deployments. The long length of these deployments is a large contributor to many of the health and mental issues veterans face today. The attitude that drives this op-ed will ensure that the soldiers fighting the wars of tomorrow will have to serve five year deployments.

    I hope the author feels good about telling Veterans, on their day, that their occupation, one that they sacrificed heavily for, is not honorable. I can promise you that the average Army Private has accomplished more in the first few years of service than all the Pan African Studies majors combined will accomplish in a lifetime.

  • Allison

    I felt this article was ill timed. Everyone is allowed their opinion, but griping about and disrespecting our military on the Veterens Day issue is out of line. It would have been better to put this article on a different week.

  • M2000

    Never saw such a tasteless article, sure I’m no fan of Friedrich Nietzsche nor am I an ideologue of his philosophy but to justify stealing and doing shady jobs? Even if the shady job includes a possible multi-million dollar theft even if it’s supposed to be on a theft of a program that’s supposed to help people? (e.g. ripping off medicare, social security, food stamps, etc.)

    “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

    Encouraging about wailing about imperialism but justifying criminal acts is not the right choice at all: “I don’t blame people for stealing, selling drugs or working shitty jobs.”

    You seriously had to choose the day of Veterans Day to author the article? I am sure there are veterans whom have different views, and even if there are veterans struggling you don’t provide any real solutions for them at all. Does griping on something you cannot possibly control make any real difference?

    • Jane5

      What are you talking about? This author is discussing the struggle to survive and how extremely difficult it is if you are poor and especially if you are poor and an ethnic minority. When you’re in a dark hole with little hope of survival, selling your soul to the military becomes the only option many People of Color see precisely *because* no one wants to be a criminal or be shady – they want to get off the fringes of society and become a legitimate member. And the predatory military apparatus exploits that. This author is constructively saying that selling your soul to the military is *not* the only option and that kids shouldn’t give up on finding a better way out. That’s pretty d*mn relevant.

      • M2000

        Oh, so the part of where he states “I don’t blame people for stealing, selling drugs or working shitty jobs.” flies with you? How the heck does that help anyone in that situation?

        Justifying criminal acts okay cause you’re poor and supposedly made the wrong choices in life? That doesn’t make sense.