Junior ROTC Shouldn’t Exist

W.J. Astore

High school students shouldn’t be wearing military uniforms

I entered the Air Force through ROTC and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.  I also taught for 15 years at both military and civilian colleges.  As a retired military officer and as an educator, perhaps I have some standing on the issue of Junior ROTC in our nation’s high schools. So, to put it bluntly:

  • High school students, in my opinion, are too young to decide to wear a military uniform.  In short, I believe JROTC is inappropriate.
  • Many veterans involved in JROTC in our nation’s schools lack experience and qualifications in education.
  • The U.S. military is already glorified in our culture and society.  Its dominance of American institutions is undeniable.  That dominance should not extend into America’s high schools.
Combat uniforms wait patiently for fresh high school bodies (Zack Wittman for the NYT) 

A friend with experience in JROTC alerted me to notable shifts in the program’s mission and organization, especially since the 9/11 attacks. In the past, JROTC had focused on leadership and civics while being overseen by civilian directors. In the 1990s, the director of JROTC for the Air Force was a civilian with a doctorate in education. The current director of AF JROTC is an active-duty colonel with no experience in education, though he has an MBA and a master’s in strategic studies. (His deputy is a retired colonel who similarly lacks credentials in education.)

Over the past 20 years or so, JROTC has increasingly been militarized and used as a feeder for military recruitment, despite disclaimers that it is “not an accessions program.” High schools are enticed to support JROTC with financial incentives such as subsidized (read: low-cost) instructors, veterans who often lack teaching credentials but who are willing to do grunt work at schools (monitoring lunchrooms, school exits, and the like). In return, the military gets access to young, impressionable students, the ultimate goal being recruitment of the same into the ranks.

JROTC, in sum, is now militarized. It’s more of a pipeline to military service as a “warrior” than a civics program that develops alert and knowledgeable citizens who may then decide freely to enlist as citizen-soldiers. Consider this change as yet another example of creeping fascism in America.

Put uncharitably, JROTC is preying on America’s youth.

Incredibly, students in some high schools today are being assigned automatically and involuntarily to JROTC classes, notes the New York Times. In a sense, 14- and 15-year-olds are being drafted into JROTC and trained by gung-ho veterans with virtually no experience in education.

And people say the draft died fifty years ago!

JROTC is in 3500 high schools across the nation, and, as the New York Times notes, has its highest enrollment numbers in areas where there’s “a large proportion of nonwhite students and those from low-income households.” To such students the military promises opportunity, an identity, and of course financial aid for college, enticing inducements indeed.

Again, students in JROTC don’t have to join the military upon graduation. They’re not dragooned into the ranks. But they are gradually enticed and subtly pressured into joining. The military doesn’t run JROTC programs for purely altruistic reasons.

Imagine, for a moment, the elimination of those 3500 JROTC programs. Or, better yet, a re-imagining and re-purposing of them. Why not make a true national service corps of teenagers in which military service is only one option among many? A national service corps that fosters civilian conservation, that offers options for fostering peace, that is focused on service within communal settings that is unrelated to wielding weapons while wearing battle dress uniforms. There are many ways, after all, to serve one’s community and country, ones that don’t involve military discipline and exposure to what concerned parents term “indoctrination.” 

Speaking for myself, I wasn’t ready to wear a military uniform when I was 14. When I was 18 and enlisted in ROTC, I’d graduated from high school. I (sort of) knew what I was doing and the true seriousness of the choice I had made.

Military service is far too serious to be inflicted on impressionable young teenagers. Let’s give our kids time to grow and mature before we start issuing them uniforms for battle. Better yet, let’s work to create a more peaceful world where there’s far less call for militaries, period.

(For more information on JROTC, see this recent panel discussion sponsored by Massachusetts Peace Action.)