As local schools were set to graduate this spring, Buchanan High School in Clovis, California held it’s first-ever “Military Signing Day” on April 24 to honor twelve seniors for having signed enlistment papers prior to shipping out after their graduation on June 4 (plus a thirteenth that will be attending West Point in the fall). This school has gained a reputation in the community for having what their principal calls “a strong presence with our armed forces.”
Many of Buchanan’s former students have served in the military since the school opened in 1991. Since the events of 9/11, eight of its graduates have been killed in Aghanistan and Iraq (four of those from the class of 2001), which is more than any other high school in California and perhaps more than any one high school in America. This includes the tragic local story of three brothers who served together, only to see two of them fall in Iraq, leading to the passage of the Hubbard Act, which says that a servicemember is to be discharged with full benefits if they are the sole survivor of a family.
Such heartbreak harkens back to story of the Sullivan brothers from Iowa (as told in the 1944 film The Fighting Sullivans) during the Second World War. All five of the brothers perished when the ship they all served on was sunk in the Pacific, prompting the military to rethink their policy on sole survivors (which was later updated by the Hubbard Act). In the case of the Sullivans, their parents and sisters dutifully toured the country to make speaking appearances in support of the war effort and to promote war bonds, even after that war effort took the lives of five of their children. That was over seven decades ago. Surely we know better now than to promote the very wars that see our youth come home in coffins? Apparently not, as we see with the “patriotic” fervor of schools such as Buchanan and their celebration of Military Signing Day. For their alma mater to turn their students’ enlistment into a day–not of mourning the dead or reflecting on mistakes made–but of celebrating the induction of more children into the war machine, feels grisly and obscene.
Frankly, this illustrates the pervasiveness of national propaganda, like some sort of collective delusion or mass Stockholm Syndrome–prompting cheers from the masses as we send our young away like lambs to the slaughter. All of this as the military struggles to reach it’s recruitment goals, now openly stating they are targeting kids as young as twelve years old! Their justification is to lament that “if we wait until they’re seniors, it’s too late.”
Talking about the honor of this annual celebration, Buchanan High School’s administrators were eager to “showcase them in front of their friends and families” in what is surely a win-win in terms of good public relations for the school in this conservative community, and a boon for local military recruiters as well, who attended en masse. Sure, all of that is desirable if you want more kids to become infatuated with the glory of militarism, and possibly become so desensitized to the pro-war message that they’ll encourage others (even loved ones) to join up and fight the wars of tomorrow.
Some of us (like the members of VFP) see through the broken promises, and want our precious young to not be killed or maimed in wars, to not suffer through post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, or moral injury. The fact that military service guarantees young people college benefits, free healthcare, and a steady job is further a reflection of the moral sickness permeating our society. Higher education, full healthcare, and employment are not treated as rights for all. They are treated like privileges for the deserving. They are prizes, dangled in front of our teenagers like bait. No, these are luxuries we are told we “cannot afford,” all while the wealthiest defense contractors, oil companies, and media conglomerates and others rake in billions in record profits due to our grotesque levels of military spending.
Dwight Eisenhower once stated that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” adding that “this world in arms is not spending money alone.” As an organization with over 140 chapters worldwide, Veterans For Peace works to expose the true costs and consequences of war and militarism. I argue that Buchanan’s Military Signing Day is both a cost and a consequence. It is a cost in that we pay the price of such folly with the blood of our young people. It is a consequence because such public displays serve an effective propaganda function as a result of our militaristic and warmaking posture.
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those fallen Buchanan grads, and to all lives senselessly lost in war. And while I have grave reservations about the message sent by Buchanan administrators and the community when they celebrate military induction, I absolutely wish those youth who enlisted the very best. May they live long, happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. But let us ask ourselves: if our goals really are a safer, more peaceful world where our youth can live such lives, is a “Military Signing Day” really the best we can do?