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Sister, Uncle Sam Wants You Too

As military recruiters step up their efforts to make up for slipping numbers, young women of color are high on their list. Meanwhile, counter-recruitment activists are speaking out.
 
 
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When Rick Jahnkow speaks at youth conferences and visits classrooms with the San Diego-based Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), he asks for a show of hands from people thinking about joining the military.

Over the past year, Jahnkow says, more and more young Latina women have been raising their hands.

There are already over 11,500 young Latina women serving in active duty, a significant part of the estimated 47,000 women of color currently in the military. According to Pentagon spokesperson Ellen Krenke, women of color make up 45 percent -- almost half of the young women in active duty.

Military recruitment numbers have gone down, in general, in the first months of 2005. As a number of media sources have reported, African-American youth, in particular, are staying out of recruitment offices. According to a recent Department of Defense survey, African Americans -- who made up 24 percent of Army recruits in 2000 -- today make up only around 14 percent of the same group. The Army Reserves, which has traditionally seen higher numbers of people of color, has also seen a significant drop.

The overall number of new female recruits has also dropped since the War on Iraq began, but African-American and Latina women still make up around the same percentage of the whole (between 26-29% and 11-12% respectively) as they did in 2002. Meanwhile, the percentage of Asian-Pacific Islander and Native women have grown from 4.2 to 5% and 1.9 to 2.4% respectively).

At the Crossroads

Walidah Imarisha, the editor of AWOL and a board member of the Central Committee on Conscientious Objectors, says she joined the counter-recruitment movement because of her experiences growing up on military bases. She says that women are rarely the focus of counter-recruitment activism but wants to change that.

"The intersection of race and gender is so important," says Imarisha. Usually we talk about race or gender, but not about both.” The issues that young women of color face, she says, are "something we don’t even talk about -- and a challenge for the counter-recruitment and anti-militarism movements."

As the Pentagon is expected to step up its recruitment drive in the coming months, organizers like Imarisha say that recruiters will increasingly target young women -- especially young women of color, in particular.

"In addition to all the promises they make to everyone," Imarisha explains, "recruiters play off young women’s fears of being trapped in the desperate situations that a lot of poor women of color are [often] left in."

Social justice organizers have long identified the lack of options for young people in poor and working-class communities of color. In neighborhoods where schools are under-funded, young men are often faces with two choices. Working in the "underground economy" (and going to prison) or seeking out money for college (and to joining the military). Although it’s rarely discussed, young women in the same neighborhoods have just as few choices.

Aimee Allison, now 35, is a conscientious objector who joined the military when she was 17. As one of six children in a working-class African American family, Allison’s parents were unable to send her to college, even though she was accepted to a number of schools.

At the time, there were constant advertisements on TV about the GI Bill. "When I was 17, $10,000 sounded like so much money," Allison recalls. "That included a sign-on bonus and a loan repayment. I didn't know the details and didn't think to ask." She talked with a recruiter who, like many recruiters today, had an office at her high school. "He knew that I wanted to make something of myself," she says. "He was really encouraging and said, ‘You can do whatever you want with your life, if you join the military. I know you want to be a doctor -- you can get training as a medic.'"

So she joined.

Today, Allison fears that more and more young women of color will be choosing the path she did. To her, this should be no cause for celebration.

"There were a lot of things that happened to me in military training that violated what it means to be a self-respecting woman and a self-respecting African American," Allison says. For instance, the training she went through -- including the songs she had to sing -- was from male-centered frameworks that view "other people" in disrespectful ways, she says. Another part of her training was learning how to follow orders without question; this meant she had to unlearn what her parents had taught her -- that it is wrong to treat people badly. She had to learn to stop expressing her emotions, as crying or hugging were severely punished in boot camp.

In addition to what Allison faced, many women who join the military also face sexual assault and sexual harassment. Nadine Naber, of the Radical Arab Women’s Activist Network and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence -- which just launched a national counter-recruitment campaign -- says it is essential to understand that this violence comes in the context of a long history of the U.S. military’s cultural violence and patriarchy, and is not a series of isolated incidences.

Transnational Solidarity

But the violence and trauma of the military does not end with young women from the U.S. who enlist.

Allison urges young women who are thinking to join the military to be very critical about how recruiters may be targeting them. Recruiters have co-opted a feminist message, she says, appealing to young women’s desire to achieve, to be independent, and take care of their families. "But when it comes to military service, having the same options as men means being the torturer, being the purveyor of violence, the person who victimizes other women and families in other countries," she says. "We who believe that women shouldn't be limited on the basis of gender should be openly questioning whether we should be going down the same path as men in the military."

So Allison urges young women to ask themselves: What are you willing to kill for? What are you willing to die for?

During her service as a medic, Allison had worked with veterans from the Vietnam and Korean wars who were missing legs and other parts of their bodies, and who were mentally and emotionally "fractured." She decided to file for conscientious objector status after attending college. "I started to look at the results of war -- [and what happens after] the cameras are gone -- for regular people in this country and in the countries the wars were fought in," she says. "I realized that as a woman, I could not accept the military way of dehumanizing other people. All those people, even if they live in a different country, matter to me."

Indeed, Mahsa Shekarloo of the Women’s Cultural Center in Iran says, to the women in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, "there is nothing worse than the oppressed becoming the oppressor" and seeing a black person from the U.S. holding a machine gun to her child.

What this points to, according to Naber of INCITE, is the fact that although there are issues of poverty, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, and militarism within the U.S., American women still have a lot of power in a war situation.

Naber says that counter-recruitment work is an exciting way to expand the scope of women of color movements in the U.S.

"We do benefit from living in the U.S.," Naber says. "So American women of color have the responsibility to say, 'No. We will not be used to kill other women and children and destroy other communities.' It's kind of like saying that no lives are more valuable than others." By saying no to Uncle Sam and withdrawing their labor from the military, she says, women of color here can build transnational solidarity with women in countries targeted by U.S. militarism.

Building True Alternatives

In order for young women in poor and working-class communities of color to resist military enlistment, however, counter-recruitment organizers like Jahnkow of Project YANO recognize the serious need to focus on building systematic alternatives.

Jahnkow says, the military promises young people of color societal status they couldn't achieve in civilian society. "It's a reflection on young women who are demanding more from society and feeling dissatisfied with the response they get," he adds, "and then this is presented to them as something they can’t get elsewhere."

In terms of specific alternatives, Jahnkow says that he can always point to local job training programs, financial aid, AmeriCorps, and community-based programs that develop skills, but "until we change the general priorities in this country there’s going to be limits to what’s going to be available. In some cases, young people may join [the military] because we don't present real solutions for them. We have to think long term. The Pentagon certainly does. They plan several generations ahead. We have to do that too."

Vanessa Huang is an organizer, writer and ethnic studies student at Brown University.