Junior ROTC Shouldn’t Exist

High school students shouldn't be wearing military uniforms

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Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

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.

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.)

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.

12 thoughts on “Junior ROTC Shouldn’t Exist”

  1. JROTC’s should be abolished. We are taught to believe the military is the greatest thing that ever happened to our country and the wars and drone strikes keep us free and we are promoting democracy and prosperity all over the globe.
    We support repressive regimes if it’s convenient to the US government but inconvenient to the people in the countries. Many government entities require allegiances to Israel. I hope the JROTC will not do that and hope they will not require allegiances to Ukraine either.

    1. Americans say that the military is the most trusted institution in the U.S. Americans worship their military, that’s how disgusting this all is.

  2. The right claiming that kids are too immature to make decisions regarding gender affirming treatment – some are even trying to say people under 25 are too immature to make those decisions. If young people are too immature to be making decisions about altering their bodies, would the right agree that young people are too immature to be making decisions about getting their bodies blown up in war? How about if we make 25 the minimum age to enlist?

    1. I agree with not allowing people to make irreversible decisions about their gender until they’re 21-25 — hell, you can’t even buy alcohol until you’re 21! — and I also agree to the highest minimum age for enlisting in the military, the latter because I’d love to see the military eliminated.

        1. We’re discussing laws here. Clear-thinking adults should be able to do this without making personal insults, and I find your extreme Libertarian attitude rather childish.

  3. I was teaching in a high school with a JROTC program when the Iraq war started. A few observations:

    1. The JROTC instructors I knew cared about the kids.
    2. Most kids in the program respected the instructors.
    3. Many of the kids had stressful and even chaotic home lives–they were from poor families. Many were immigrants. Most were “persons of color.” The kids felt they benefited from the structure and predictability.
    4. Yes, the school was 80 percent black and Latino. I say black instead of African American because many kids were from the Caribbean.

    5. Non-JROTC recruiters entered my classes without my permission and recruited, telling kids if they enlisted in the reserves that the military would pay their college tuition. I thanked the man for his talk and when he left told the kids that if they enlisted they would be fighting in Iraq and not studying in America.

    6. Poor kids were enticed to get on recruiting lists by being offered baskets of goodies like CD players and other things that are very attractive to impoverished young people.

    So, yes, I had first hand experience with the school-t0-war pipeline that almost nobody talks about.

    Thank you, sir, for writing this column.

    1. I get your point, but who cares whether the “JROTC instructors I knew cared about the kids”etc.? If your kids joined the evil U.S. military, they’d be supporting U.S. empire around the world and quite possibly be killing and injuring people in other countries. In that case, your kids would be the problem, not the victims.

      If Nazis came to your school and offered good pay for doing evil work, would you make the same comments? We live in Mordor, the Evil Empire, and we need to be aware of that first and foremost. The U.S. military is likely the most evil force on the planet, and whether they treat their own people well is totally irrelevant to that.

      1. 1. Since the American military is under the authority of the civilian government, I place the blame for America’s disastrous wars on every president since FDR. I also blame voters who keep reelecting war hawks. I do not blame JROTC instructors.

        2. My purpose in writing about the students and teachers in JROTC programs was to show what the JROTC offers that makes it attractive to so many students. Unless we can understand why these programs are popular and why kids voluntarily register for them, we cannot stop them.

        The sad truth is that for many students, JROTC is the best thing in their lives. Some of my math students registered for it every semester saying it was a great course, it taught valuable life skills, and instilled self-discipline and self-respect.

        3. I was also trying to convey how aggressive the recruiting effort is in poor and minority schools.

        Trying to understand a program’s appeal and saying that many JRTOC instructors are decent guys is not the same thing as saying the goals of the program are correct. It is certainly not the same thing as supporting crimes like the Iraq War and US military actions in the Horn of Africa.

        1. OK, I get your points. I thought that you were praising certain aspects of JROTC.

          As to the appeal of JROTC:

          First, there’s the economic issue. People who are poor or working class and don’t think they have any way to advance themselves economically are far more susceptible to these recruiters. There are multiple reasons that people want to join the U.S. military, but none of them provide a legitimate excuse. Where someone is trying to improve their economic situation, it’s selling your soul if you realize how evil the military is. If you don’t realize that, get a clue. If you know what the U.S. military does and support it anyway, you’re evil.

          Second is the fact that many if not most human males have a very strong urge to fight. That’s why we play sports, so we can satisfy this urge without fighting, despite the fact that most boys & men don’t know this. But some people still want to fight. These are the more aggressive people, who we’d do well to either fix or remove them from society.

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