Does JROTC foster a culture of violence, as some in Albuquerque purport?
I did not wake up thinking that today’s blog would address this question. Instead, I was all set to post a blog about renovation in Barelas and the challenge of maintaining historic architectural integrity in our neighborhood during trying economic times.
And then I walked into the dining room and saw the front page
of the Albuquerque Journal, with photos of some kids who looked very
familiar, and my plan flew out the window.
Here’s one mother’s take on this issue.
Let me start by saying that I lean left. When it comes to social issues, I lean progressively left. I’ve attended plenty of anti-war protests from Berkeley to the National Mall in Washington DC to Civic Plaza here in Albuquerque.
Given this, you can imagine my response when my firstborn told me he wanted to join JROTC at a public high school here in town. It was not a path I had envisioned him taking. We talked about it for months as a family, weighing the value of autonomy
against the value of parental prerogative, ultimately deciding that lessons learned through individual autonomy (with the safety net of parents close by) would be best for our adolescent son.
So we said “yes” to JROTC. (I figured it would last a semester, possibly a year).
I did not reckon that my son had nascent leadership skills that would blossom under this program. Granted, they could have grown under any program, but this was the one that captured his passion. And I certainly did not guess when he joined JROTC that this would be the one constant extracurricular activity that kept him engaged through all 4 years of high school. Or that he would amass a shelf full of JROTC awards and honors recognizing his skills and talent.
For four years, I was the lone JROTC parent pulling up to drill meets in a vehicle plastered with peace and justice slogans. I was the mom with the trilingual peace button on my tote bag (salaam, peace, shalom), plus a few other buttons
that were, shall we say, not exactly supportive of the decisions made by the administration in Washington.
In 4 years, no one ever questioned me about my political views at a JROTC event, though I was ready with a well-honed First Amendment
rebuttal. (Maybe they knew that.) After all, they do teach the Constitution
I watched my son closely during all JROTC events and continued ongoing conversations while he was in JROTC. We spoke numerous times about the need to think critically and reflectively about everything he encountered, including the JROTC handbook and other materials.
We talked about glorifying war and the culture of violence, but we also talked about peace-keeping, nation-building (à la the Marshall Plan
), and the need for the military to have leaders who could think critically using the lens of history.
He had some good role models to consider – two grandfathers who had served in the Navy and who knew their American and world history well enough to write and converse about a host of issues, plus engage him in discussions on topics as varied as "don't ask, don't tell"
, the Geneva Conventions
, the Nuremburg Principles
, and Gitmo
Another man had a significant influence on my son’s interest in JROTC. Colonel Dan Zupan
(ret.), a member of my graduate school cohort here at UNM and a military ethics professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point), was a larger than life presence during my son’s elementary school years. One of Col. Zupan’s students was Ian Fishback
. You might know him as the guy who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib
I’m well aware that not all kids who sign up for JROTC come to it with this background knowledge.
Over the years, we had a number of JROTC kids from different family circumstances break bread with us. Some saw JROTC as the first step away from desperate poverty or a way to avoid gang membership. Some just wanted to develop self-discipline they had never learned at home, and others wanted to gain an edge when the time came to apply to one of the service academies.
Of those dozens of kids who came through our home, some of them are now in the service, a few are in ROTC programs or attending service academies, and many of them (most of them according to my non-scientific evaluation) have no post-high school connection to the military at all.
My four years of experience as a JROTC parent did not give me any cause for concern. This was in large part due to my son’s two JROTC teachers, who respected parents and their children, who listened and responded to parents promptly, and who conducted themselves with integrity.
To my surprise, I even learned that JROTC could provide reassurance. Here’s one example.
One day, while I was working out of town, I received a call from my son, who wanted to talk. It seems that he had noticed that there were kids in his JROTC unit who never ate lunch themselves, but would just hang out with the rest of the unit while they ate lunch.
My son put two and two together, and realized that these kids came from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the school’s residential district zone. At the same time, he recognized that high school kids are often too self-conscious to be saddled with the “free lunch” label
. As team unit leader, my son created a new rule. Everyone would put take their lunch out of the bag and would put it in the middle of the table and all would share. No exceptions.
As he was telling me this, I started swallowing hard, trying to get rid of the lump in my throat. (You see, my main goal as a parent is to raise compassionate kids. We're getting there.)
When he finished with his story, I told him to start making extra sandwiches and throw in a few more pieces of fruit in his backpack. He was a step ahead of me, letting me know that he had already been doing this, and that he had called to let me know why the groceries were getting used up a little faster than usual.
I think that the JROTC’s rigorous emphasis on teamwork, values, and teaching leadership skills allowed this to happen. I’m not sure that it could have happened as easily in any other extracurricular high school context; in part, the hierarchal nature of JROTC made this “order" possible.
When I hear people object to JROTC programs in the schools, I always go back to this example and wonder.
If we remove JROTC from the schools, what educational opportunities will be lost?
What would the act of removing JROTC from our schools teach our children about the ways in which they could serve their community or country?
And perhaps most pragmatically, if a child is born into circumstances with limited opportunities and/or resources and is drawn to JROTC, does it make sense to cut a program that sustains that child's engagement with school? What viable alternatives exist now
at APS for these children?
Recruiting is a separate issue.
Just as parents can refuse to allow their child to take JROTC courses, parents also have the option
of refusing to release their student’s information to recruiters. Parents will need to weigh this decision individually and make the decision that they believe is best for their child.
Some recruiters are incredibly persistent and use highly questionable methods. After a 20 minute conversation with a recruiter from the Navy, I ended up telling the recruiter to never set foot on my property again - partly because he was rude and sexist, but mostly because he was using noncogent arguments and playing with games with statistics. I followed up with a single spaced 2 page letter documenting our experiences and cc’d it everywhere I could. Within a week we received a phone call, letter, and profuse apologies from his commanding officer.
Because of this experience, I’m as skeptical as Sextus Empiricus
when it comes to recruiters, and I caution any parent out there to think very carefully about giving recruiters access to their minor child, especially if that child's critical reasoning skills are not well developed.
I urge anyone thinking about today’s Journal article not to conflate JROTC programs with military recruiting. They are different programs with different goals and outcomes. In my experience as a parent, I have seen JROTC foster a culture of responsibility, respect, and leadership.
A culture of violence?
Not so much.