The Magazine

San Francisco to Army: Drop Dead

The perils of the counter recruitment movement.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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HAS SAN FRANCISCO SECEDED FROM the United States? The passage on Election Day of Measure I, dubbed "College, Not Combat," would seem almost to amount to that. By a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent, San Francisco's voters told military recruiters to stay out of the city's high schools. Although Measure I is nonbinding, it is a repudiation of a basic obligation of citizenship. Whatever one's views on the Iraq war and the president's policies, we are all under the protection of the U.S. military. Fighting for our foreign policy goals in the public arena is one thing. Making it impossible for our military to recruit is another.

Measure I may be "merely" symbolic, but the statement it makes is in no way trivial. In the simplified language of the ballot, voters were told, "If you vote 'yes,' you want it to be City policy to oppose military recruiters' access to public schools and to consider funding scholarships for education and training that could provide an alternative to military service." And they replied, overwhelmingly, yes, that is what we want.

San Francisco's symbolic rejection of the military deserves to be met with an equally powerful symbolic response. Congress ought to consider a resolution of censure. Clear statements of disapproval by national officials from the area--Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Sen. Barbara Boxer? Sen. Dianne Feinstein?--would also be in order.

Unfortunately, matters are breaking in the opposite direction. Instead of facing up to San Francisco's rejection of its elemental duty to this country, Pelosi tried to turn the debate over Measure I into a debate over Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who called for a cut-off of federal funds to the city, and hinted at the need for a travel boycott. "I was not behind [Measure I] 100 percent," said Pelosi. "But that's not the issue here." Oh, yes, it is.

Meanwhile, the problem metastasizes. Far from being an isolated occurrence, San Francisco's approval of "College, Not Combat" is simply the first local success of the national antiwar movement's newest tactic: "counter recruitment." With slogans like, "Don't Die for Recruiters' Lies," and "An Army of None," counter-recruiters aim to stop the war in Iraq by starving our army of troops. In the words of counter recruitment activist April Owen, "When the soldiers are really hurting because there are no new recruits, then we're getting somewhere." The more radical counter-recruiters hope to rid America of its military altogether. But there is a split within the movement--between those who want to stop all fighting immediately, and those who want to use a reduction in the number of volunteers to force a draft. Only a draft, this latter faction believes, will bring the antiwar movement to the peak of success it enjoyed during the Vietnam years.

It's tempting to dismiss the San Francisco-based counter recruitment movement as a motley collection of the usual suspects. It is that, of course. Cindy Sheehan is a prominent supporter of the movement, as are Marxist antiwar groups like ANSWER, Not In Our Name, and the International Socialist Organization. Then there are left-feminists like Code Pink, Ralph Nader's Green party, the gay anti-marriage group, Lesbian and Gay Insurrection, and the Quaker group, the American Friends Service Committee, which is proselytizing public school teachers, school boards, and PTAs across the country in an effort to undermine military recruiting.

Outliers they may all be. But their success in San Francisco should not be gainsaid. The city, by the way, had successfully banned military recruiters from its high schools for a decade prior to passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) in 2001. That act denies federal funds to any school that bans military recruiters. Only because of No Child Left Behind did San Francisco lift its earlier ban on military recruitment, and only because of NCLBA is Measure I strictly symbolic. San Francisco needs those federal funds.

While the ultimate goal of the counter recruitment movement is an outright ban on military presence in the schools, NCLBA has forced activists to turn to more subtle tactics. Counter-recruiters have developed lesson plans, videos, and guides for community activists, all designed to encourage students to "opt out" of military recruitment. "Opting out," in this case, means withholding student contact information from military recruiters.