The great uprising against white supremacy of people all over the country and the horrific response of the fascists in the White House, has opened discourse about the domestic role of the military. This gives We Are Not Your Soldiers the opportunity to broaden and deepen that thinking and take it to an understanding of the imperialist role of the U.S. military as the police of the empire. More profound thought is bolstered by young people here seeing the solidarity in protests against racism now taking place around the world.
As Trump threatens and acts on bringing in the military to quash the demonstrations and local police forces use military weaponry, questions are being raised in the minds of young people which weren’t previously part of their purview. As we recently heard from a high school social studies teacher with many JROTC students, her population is struggling with the dichotomy of being anti-violence at home, specifically in regards to police violence against their own communities, and just now starting to come to grips with signing up for a military that they are beginning to understand engages in violence in other countries.
WE ARE PLANNING TO EXPAND WE ARE NOT YOUR SOLDIERS IN THE 2020/21 SCHOOL YEAR BUT WE CAN ONLY DO THAT WITH YOUR SUPPORT.
We Are Not Your Soldiers has been visiting schools since 2008 but 2019-20 concluded in a way quite distinct from any previous year! At the end of the first scheduled full week of the spring semester we had to cancel our final Friday visit due to increasing concerns about the Covid19 pandemic. By the second scheduled week, NYC was in lockdown and so all our visits were cancelled due to the closing of schools and the ensuing difficulty of educators suddenly attempting to carry out their work under unplanned-for circumstances and the resulting problems in connecting with students. (We did still do, via distance, one previously planned remote visit to a college in the South.)
This school year we engaged in often intense dialogue with some 1400-1500 students over major questions of morality related to U.S. imperial wars. Most of these students, as most of the people in this country, despite having lived in a state of war for all or most of their lives, did not know there are officially seven wars (and unofficially countless others) currently being carried on in their names nor the realities of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, students in several classes were also surprised to hear that the U.S. is the richest country on earth as that’s not what they witness in their daily lives.
WHAT DO WE DO DURING A CLASS VISIT?
Visits are designed in close consultation with participating educators to fit in with their curricula and be as relevant as possible to the needs of their students. Each veteran presents very differently but each speaks from the heart and is completely upfront and honest with the students, willing to respond to any comment and answer any question to the best of their abilities. Presentations involve the use of media such as music, film clips, photos and Power Point slide shows.
John Burns: “I got out of the Army (active duty) in 2009 after serving for roughly two years, first as Explosive Ordnance Disposal and then Military Intelligence. Basic training was the first but certainly not the last grim reminder that what I knew and believed from movies, games or news wasn’t the reality we are all collectively forced to digest on the daily. These speaking tours serve not only as a form of therapy for myself but as a way to give students a chance to ask questions and become more critical thinkers. With all that’s happening in the world right now, this sort of thinking is needed more then anything. Unlike the military, I will never tell someone what to believe. I’ll bring you facts and evidence, maybe my opinion, and you can make up your own mind. My only goal with this program is to educate.”
Will Griffin: “I was born and spent my childhood on a U.S. military base overseas, being completely raised through the military-industrial-congressional complex. My experience in the U.S. Army was as a Paratrooper and Mechanic. I speak about my experience in the failure of the Iraq Surge under President George W. Bush, a Republican, and the failure of the Afghanistan Surge under President Barack Obama, a Democrat. These experiences led me to study more deeply about U.S. Foreign Policy history and the oppression that comes with it all around the world. Through my personal experience and studies, I provide an in-depth critical analysis of the global security state that covers land, sea, air, outer space and cyberspace.”
Miles Megaciph: “I was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992-1996, November to July, three years 8 months 6 days and 10 hours in total. I use hip-hop/rap music to tell my personal stories of the racism, sexism and oppression of the military. The lies of recruiters and the inequities seen all throughout the fleet, from Cuba to Okinawa and back to Jacksonville NC. I enlisted under the veil and had it pulled back in Cuba seeing America’s hypocrisy firsthand. The classroom visits I’ve done with We Are Not Your Soldiers have been both cathartic and inspiring. This is vital work; I wish I had the opportunity to receive someone’s truth when I was thinking of enlisting.”
Lyle Rubin: “I talk about my journey from a privileged childhood to commanding an intelligence platoon in Afghanistan in 2010. I recount my brief time as an enlisted Marine, especially my experience at boot camp in Parris Island (SC) and the dehumanization of entry-level training. I also speak in detail about participating in the partial destruction of a remote village in the Helmand province, among many other actions I now profoundly regret.”
Joe Urgo: “After growing up in a white, conservative, middle-class neighborhood in NYC, I became a Security Policeman in the U.S. Air Force (May 1966-February 1970). I speak about military basic training with a special effort to talk about morality with the students whose relatives have been in the military I talk about my experience in Vietnam, coming home to become one of the leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and what I learned about the long history and role today of the U.S. military around the world to defend and expand the U.S. empire.”
In each presentation, we engage in discussions of misogyny (gender-based hatred) and racism which are key pillars of basic training in the military – from the derogatory terminology and dehumanization of women and the “enemy” of the moment, to who those “enemies” have historically been, to the actual treatment of the recruits – via name-calling, colorism and the class differences often connected to race between enlisted and officers. With the laser pointed now on racism, that discussion can only intensify next year. Often, the relationship (in training and munitions ) between the U.S. military and police comes up and, especially now, we can look at the analogy of the U.S. as “policeman of the world”.
Following our visits, we often get evaluation forms filled out by the students which are very helpful to us in planning future presentations. Sometimes, we receive letters and cards. This is an excerpt from a letter a student wrote to John Burns this fall:
“Learning the reality of American heroes twisted my gut. I’ve always struggled with learning the value of a life beyond my own (meaning I’ve never seen the world around me, but not in a conceited way, I promise). If I didn’t meet a person or connect with them, it didn’t really feel like they exist. But I’ve learned every person struggles, asks questions, learns to love.
When I watched those bodies fall on the screen, the father screaming for his child, I felt a punch to my gut. It hurt. It hurt because I asked myself what if that was my father and sister on the screen? What did their family feel when they returned home but only one could speak?
Being a soldier never seemed so fun, I’ve never been the type to do everything someone else told me. But a child’s blood on my hands? The pain beyond my own of what I did? No one kills without thinking twice about what they’ve done. I can barely stand to look at roadkill, let alone a limp body.
I can’t bear to think what so many soldiers struggle with. Replaying the moment a thousand times in your head. But it wasn’t your hands or theirs. It was the whole system. The blood doesn’t stain anyone’s hand but theirs….
Thank you for creating a change and sharing it with me and hundreds of other kids with an unclear future…. I wish I could show my genuine gratitude. But I want you to know you’ve made a great impact…. Thank you.”
In the introduction to the veterans’ presentation, the students are told they shouldn’t believe what we’re saying just because we’re in their classroom any more than they should believe what they’re told by any “authority figures” such as the mass media. They should do their own research and check on the facts for themselves. Interestingly, this came up as part of a paper by a student in one of the college classes Will addressed.
“After seeing Will Griffin’s presentation on U.S. imperialism and the Army, I was moved to do some of my own research. Originally, I was a bit shocked at the information Mr. Griffin provided because I was unaware of all the conflicts the U.S. military is involved in. He did provide many sources and information from his personal experience, but I was skeptical.
My research turned up in line with his presentation and reinforced what he was saying, which is that the Army is an institution based around oppression. Even the people who volunteer are oppressed since the moment they begin basic training where the Army has perfected a system to break people.”
WE NEED YOUR HELP TO SPREAD WE ARE NOT YOUR SOLDIERS
In the midst of the Covid19 pandemic and the anti-racism uprising, the military is falling behind on its recruitment goals and so is engaging in a major push to attract more youth through its Focus 22 program over the summer. We are fairly sure that the recruitment offensive will continue and intensify when school begins– making our interventions all the more important.
To continue bringing this information about the U.S. military – not typically available in schools – we need your help so we can provide stipends to the veterans who take time off from their jobs to spend days at a time going from school to school. Funds help out with child care and cover transportation costs of veterans coming to NYC where we have such a demand for speakers although they live in other parts of the state or country. And, this year of all years, especially, we need to grow our presence on social media to reach out further to other cities and towns we can then visit remotely. People are rising up against white supremacy while, at the same time, we are faced with more and more in your face fascist moves from the Trump administration. If ever our project was important, it certainly is now.
It isn’t easy to speak out as these veterans do – which is why only a few are willing and able to do it. We are so very grateful to these speakers who share their experiences and their lives. They struggle to do this in order to help others avoid the trauma they have suffered and to avoid the horrific violence being aimed at so many others around the world. These veterans need your support to share information with young people to which, otherwise, they would not be exposed. Please take out your checkbook or your credit card and help us with this outreach today.
And please spread the word of what we are doing. If you know educators, students, parents, suggest they invite us to their schools.