Monday, May 28, 2012

Militarism at High School Graduation

My son graduated from high school last weekend. The graduation ceremony, like many events at his high school, was marked by militarism, with the JROTC students standing at attention, with their swords drawn, at each of the two ramps leading to the platform where the graduates received their diplomas and shook hands with members of the Board of Education, who said at this momentous occasion, “Smile for the camera.” (The district provided photographers who will supply, for a small charge, of course, photos of the students shaking hands with a Board of Education member.)

At the close of the ceremony, the JROTC students manning the howitzer used to celebrate touchdowns during football games fired a single shot marking the end of the ceremony.

At one point during the ceremony, the principal asked the students who had enlisted in a branch of the military to stand up. Although he mentioned that some of the graduating seniors had already left for basic training, there were about a dozen students who stood up. These students were, of course, applauded by the audience.

That many students entering the service surprised me. I am aware how few job opportunities exist in this country for someone who will not be pursuing either technical training or a college education. I am also aware how both the high school and the administration have pushed military service ever since my son started his freshman year. When a visitor signed in during school hours, the lanyard displaying the pass to enter the high school read, “Go Army.” At a parents’ meeting during my son’s freshman year, the superintendent, when questioned about the school’s dress code, responded by saying that the high school was preparing students for the military. For some reason, the superintended assumed that that form of discipline was admirable and that the military was one of the few options open to students. She, in fact, married an Army officer in the past year or so and clearly exhibits a bias in favor of the military. The former principal was a member of the Army Reserve and was deployed to Bosnia two years earlier while on active duty. The high school in its main corridor displays the pictures of those graduates who became high-ranking officers in the Navy, Army, or Air Force. Each year the high school proudly publicizes the number of students entering one of the military academies. A record number of students was accepted this year because, so I have been told, it is now possible to be nominated by an officer in the Army.

Having been raised as military brat, I was exposed to the military throughout my childhood and teen years. During elementary school, I envisioned myself serving in the Navy and even believed, foolishly, that an education wasn’t necessary. “I’m going to join the Navy,” I said once to one of my teachers during a particularly difficult math lesson. Perhaps because my own father quit school in 8th grade and joined the Navy prior to the start of World War II, I thought I could simply take up a seat in the classroom and not actually apply myself. I apparently wasn’t aware that my father had finished his education in the Navy and had gained more education as he advanced through the ranks, eventually making warrant officer and then lieutenant and reaching the rank of commander before he retired.

As I got older, my father expressed his hope that I would continue the tradition of serving in the Navy and would earn a congressional appointment to enter the Naval Academy. Not passing algebra in ninth grade, both initially during the school year and when I retook it during the summer, ruined that prospect, however.

During my final two years of high school, I attended Lakenheath, an American high school located on an Air Force base in England. My father was stationed at Edzell, Scotland at that time. Like those other American kids whose fathers were stationed in places like Iceland, Ireland, and the submarine base at Holy Loch in Scotland, I only returned home three times a year--Christmas, Easter, and once the school year ended. Despite its location, my high school didn’t publicize the students who achieved success in the military. We were aware of the draft. Those students who achieved success academically were assured an exemption from the draft by attending college. That option didn’t exist for me because of my grades. I was going to enlist once I got back to the States as a way of avoiding either the Army or the Marines and as a way of not serving in Vietnam.

None of the seniors that I knew in high school enlisted before we graduated. No one mentioned getting a congressional appointment to one of the military academies, as I recall. Having been raised around the military, the majority of us were doing the upmost to avoid that kind of life.

The military might have been an honorable profession in my father’s day. For my father, it was a way to escape the mundane existence of small-town life in southwestern Virginia. It was also a way to achieve the economic success that would have been more difficult, if not impossible, to achieve if he had stayed in Virginia.

Anyone who thinks the military is an honorable profession now is mistaken. One of my students this past semester says that he wants to join the Army as an officer so that he can blow stuff up. He apparently isn’t aware of the presence of depleted uranium on the warheads of antitank shells and that he risks being exposed to and permanently affected by the dust that these shells create on impact. Villagers and their children continue to be affected by Agent Orange, the defoliate used in Vietnam. The lingering effects of depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan will be far more damaging and long lasting than Agent Orange. Warfare now not only affects the civilian population but also the population of at least the next seventeen generations.

My son’s high school has a plaque at the football stadium honoring the alumni who have lost their lives while serving in the military. I wonder whether the superintendent will be pleased, and will continue to promote the military, when another name or two gets added to this plaque as the conflict in Afghanistan continues.

The local high school would have better prepared students for the future if it had not placed so much emphasis on the military. Students need to be made aware that college or the military are not the only options available after high school. The high school needs to promote more vocational training in fields like plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work for those students who want an alternative to college and the military. I would have loved to see honored at graduation those students who have chosen to enter vocational training after high school.

Uncertain of his own interests and abilities, my son will be exploring his options at a local college while he uses his skill at playing the saxophone as a way to finance a portion of his education.