School Shootings: The Inevitable Violence Of Child Soldiers In The U.S.

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A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes. Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007.

The United States, in its long-running tradition of only following the international laws it agrees with, is not a signatory to the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. This is what immediately came to my mind when the recent shooter of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was identified as Nikolas Cruz, an expelled student who had been in his school’s JROTC program, even being awarded medals for it. It was in my head again when his social media began to be uncovered and verified by surviving students, particularly an Instagram account where he is often pictured wearing different Army hats.

This post is unfortunately not the first one I have done in response to a mass shooting. If you want a quick overview of why gun control laws have not worked, read that piece first. We have now seen a spontaneous movement of youth rising up and particularly taking real action through going after companies that provide benefits to NRA members. And there have also been many conversations, from school walkouts in Chicago to the usual Twitter fighting, about connecting these issues to the struggles to disarm the police.

Unfortunately one noticeable gap in the conversation has been confronting the role of U.S. imperialism in gun violence. In fact, the ambiguous refrain of “American culture” as the cause for all this gun violence is really euphemism for the role of the U.S. as a global empire. One of solutions I talk about in that last piece is fighting back against the indoctrination of children, particularly through advertisement, into this violent culture. But as Nikolas Cruz demonstrates, sometimes the connection is a lot more direct, and stands in contradiction with the same supposed advocacy of “human rights” that justifies our imperialist aggressions.

“A child…below 18 years of age”

JROTC Child Soldiers
The great thing about Twitter is how it brings all the callous underlying theory behind right wing thought to the surface.

Columbine will always hold a historical place as when the United States began to fear its own children. Prior to this turning point, the majority of discussions about children in U.S. political discourse was either about children as a burden (especially in a eugenics sense) and as class in need of protection. The political fights over children were over issues like child labor, birth control, public education, WIC, etc.

But the history of children as soldiers, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a long one. A shocking 20% of soldiers who fought in the Civil War were under the age of 18. It’s noteworthy that the source for this disturbing fact seems to not consider it disturbing at all: “Although young children, these boys served their country with as much bravery and dedication as any of the full grown men they fought alongside.”

That is because, as shown in the above tweet, there are significant numbers of people in the United States who are comfortable with the idea of child soldiers. They seem to be ignorant or apathetic to how this effects a still-developing brain, how child soldiers are per se more vulnerable to the sexual violence that already plagues the U.S. military, or how children make lack the capacity to make appropriate decisions about death and life. While the science on the capacity of children to make such decisions is contentious, the perspective of the law is pretty clear: children are not allowed to make decisions about alcohol and tobacco until they are 21 and 18 respectively. Ironically, it is often the people most comfortable with children being soldiers that are uncomfortable with those same children being exposed to profanity, given sexual education in school, or choosing to have an abortion.

But gradually the U.S. has passed laws to restrict children becoming soldiers, first in 1899 requiring the child to be at least 14, then in 1901 requiring the child to be at least 16, and then finally the adoption of the present standard in the 1968 overhaul of military law: that only 17 year old minors could serve and only with parental consent. There is one technical loophole to this law called “constructive enlistment” – basically where a child under 17 somehow manages to enlist and is not found out until they are 17.

However, the final prohibition of children enlisting was not so much the prohibition of child soldiers as the separation of child soldiers into their own development and training programs, technically in compliance with U.S. law but meeting the definition of child soldiers under international law. Because four years before the 1968 law, the Reserve Officers Training Corps Vitalization Act of 1964 opened up the JROTC to all military branches and without limit on how many programs could be created.

“recruited or used by an armed force or armed group”

In 2002 Congress passed now infamous legislation called the No Child Left Behind Act. A little talked about provision of the act was included less to help struggling schools and more to mobilize for the new “global war on terror”: military recruiters were given names and contact information of students by their schools. This law broadened the targeting which began on college campuses with the Solomon Amendment, a 1996 law that denied federal funding to college campuses that did not allow military recruiters and Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

The extent of intrusion by the military into high schools and even grade school is enormous. There are 14 major ways the U.S. has built the school-to-military pipeline:  (1) the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, (2) the Troops to Teachers Program, (3) hiring military generals as principals and CEOs of schools, (4) the school uniform movement, (5) the Lockheed Martin school, (6) Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, (7) Civil Air Patrol, (8) Joint Advertising Market Research & Studies (JAMRS), (9) Mission: Readiness, (10) National Guard Youth Challenge, (11) Project PASS, (12) the Sea Cadets, (13) Starbase DOD, and (14) the Young Marines. And this does not even include the completely private projects of military-worshiping fanatics like the plethora of summer bootcamps for children that have persisted despite being the centers of controversy again and again.

Flordia Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Nikolas Cruz marksman rifle club
Nikolas Cruz being arrested after the shooting, wearing a JROTC shirt.

All these programs should raise concerns, but for this post I am going to focus on the ones that contribute to the militarization of children themselves: the JROTC, Mission: Readiness, the National Guard Youth Challenge, Project PASS, and the Young Marines. Mission: Readiness, the National Guard Youth Challenge, and Project PASS are all focused on framing the military as a solution to children at risk for dropping out, children who have dropped out, and children who will not go to college after graduating.

Mission: Readiness has done this in a particularly insidious way by developing what they call the “Citizen-Readiness Index”: measuring how ready youth are for the post-high school world by how prepared they are for the workforce or for the military and how involved in crime they are. They skipped over the usual messaging of the military as the choice for those unsure of what to do after school: instead, youth not being prepared for the military is itself a sign that they are not ready to be “citizens.”

And of course, they made it into a hashtag.

But what does being prepared for the military entail? According to these programs, it means exposing “at-risk” or “troubled” youth to an ideology of violent domination. Even this calculus should be suspect, but the utter inanity of the militarization of U.S children comes out when the children are not just exposed to the ideology but trained in the means of violent domination.

“in any capacity…as fighters, cooks, porters, spies, or for sexual purposes.”

kids with mp 15
Various children using the same firearm that Nikolas Cruz used in the shooting. You don’t even want to know just how many videos there are like these.

Nikolas Cruz was definitely not #CitizenReady. The boy, adopted at birth, lost his adoptive father at six years old. He had problems interacting with the other students and was violent towards animals. His mother was to desperate to instill some discipline in him, and of course teaching children discipline is supposedly what the military is all about. So Nikolas Cruz joined the JROTC.

Cruz became obsessed with the military and excelled at the JROTC program. He was part of their “marksmanship team” and represented the school at competitions. The other cadets called him “Wolf” and, while allegedly unsettled by his obsession with violence, never reported him or kicked him out of the program. As one of the cadets in his program said in defending the JROTC program following the shooting, “You hang out with these people, getting up at 4 a.m., and going to competitions, and they become your family.”

While these marksmanship competitions use air rifles rather than something like the S&W M&P 15-22, they provide serious training where cadets have to hit targets as small as coins. And as their manual states, the cadets are trained in the techniques and terms for “all types of guns,” not just air rifles.

Related image
A JROTC Marksmanship Team at a competition.

And many of the children that join are like Cruz, as Ann Jones wrote in The Nation:

In Boston, I asked a 14-year-old boy why he had joined JROTC. He wore a junior Army uniform and toted a rifle nearly as big as himself. He said, “My dad, he left us, and my mom, she works two jobs, and when she gets home, well, she’s not big on structure. But they told us at school you gotta have a lot of structure if you want to get somewhere. So I guess you could say I joined up for that.”…JROTC has entrapped that eternal youthful yearning to be part of something bigger and more important than one’s own pitiful, neglected, acne-spattered self. JROTC captures youthful idealism and ambition, twists it, trains it, arms it and sets it on the path to war.

The JROTC is funded by hundreds of millions of dollars from the Department of Defense every year because it is the best recruitment tool they have. But they are not just using that money to buy air rifles and recruitment flyers: they also teach JROTC courses. This curriculum is meant to inculcate the students with imperialist ideology. “History has shown that people crave power,” the text reads, “and once having it, people will use that power to stay in power. It is human nature not to share power.” It completely rewrites the constitutional dictate to “promote the general welfare” as the Founding Fathers encouraging “self-improvement.” And of course the history of the Cold War is a joke, from calling the government of Syngman Rhee “democratic” to the obvious disdain for those who opposed the war in Vietnam and petty praise of how the soldiers had it better in that war then any before or since.

And the JROTC program is heavily funded and supported by the National Rifle Association. The program Cruz was in received $10,827 from the NRA in 2016, one of more than 700 schools to receive funding from the NRA between 2010 and 2016.

Graphic shows overall donations NRA Foundation gave to schools from 2010 - 2016.

The Army very adeptly jumped into action following the mass murder by its cadet Nikolas Cruz. The Army awarded “Medals of Heroism” to the three children killed who were also in the ROTC program. The medals are given to cadets whose actions “involved the acceptance of danger and extraordinary responsibilities, exemplifying praiseworthy courage and fortitude.”

The Army couches it’s absolution within the awards – children must now “accept[ the] danger” of schools being turned in war zones. The only cadet whose award was given an explanation was Peter Wang – for “holding a door open to allow his fellow students to escape.” The imagery of this is rather compelling but I’m even more curious about what he was thinking. Did he realize who the shooter was? If he did, how did it make him feel that his fellow cadet had unleashed this violence? Did he feel betrayed by Cruz? Did he feel betrayed by the Army?

Who’s To Judge?

The U.S. Military, through programs like the JROTC, has children (1) associated with an armed force or armed group (2) below 18 years of age  (3) recruited or used to be future soldiers of the United States through training in both firearms and imperialist ideology. But as previously mentioned, the U.S. is not a signatory to the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007. So what can be done?

Local: Sometimes the best solution is not a legal one (shocking, I know). The most successful campaigns against JROTC have been through local groups organizing, either to convince students to not participate or to shut down the worst aspects of the program. Iraq Veterans Against the War have done “Truth in Recruiting” campaigns to make sure students know the the truth about war and U.S. empire.

Legislative: There are dozens of legislative goals that could be tackled on this issue. Here are just a few I think would be good targets:

Short Term

  • Repeal the provisions of “No Child Left Behind” that mandate providing recruiters with children’s information.
  • End all firearms trainings in public schools, including with air rifles or other “mock” firearms. Instruction in violence has no place in public education, and as shown with Nikolas Cruz the consequences of providing it can be deadly.
  • End the relationship between JROTC and the NRA. If JROTC is really just a tool for education and discipline, there is no reason why the NRA should be a part of it.

Long Term

  • Repeal the Solomon Amendment and prohibit military programming and recruiters from all schools.
  • Terminate the JROTC, Young Marines, and any other program that targets minors for recruitment.

But of course even these ambitious goals are just the tip of the iceberg. The threat that the U.S. military poses to our schools, while deadly and serious, still pales in comparison to the threat it poses to schools in the places we have continuously bombed for 15 years. However, to build a movement to tear down this imperialism, we must engage with the present demands of gun control and the NRA. By focusing on the militarization of schools, we can respect the fear and outrage sparked by Nikolas Cruz’s shooting while also challenging people to recognize the harms done by the U.S. Military.

Thanks to all my supporters on Patreon: Brian Stegner, Sarah Jaffe, Winona Ruth, Michael Rosenbloom, Red_Rosa, John Michie, Jay Schiavone, Daniel Hafner, Aaron Marks, Eli, and my anonymous donors. For $1 a month you can join this list and support my work/help me survive bar study.

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6 thoughts on “School Shootings: The Inevitable Violence Of Child Soldiers In The U.S.

  1. I’m probably very much not your typical audience, but having served in the military and having been around various units of “Devil dogs” and “Sea Cadets”, this article feels exceptionally biased.
    I do not know, for certain how what the various JROTC instructors attitudes on firearms are- although being affiliated with the NRA couldn’t have helped.
    I knew many kids that the “Sea Cadets” & “Devil Dogs” *did* help. Additionally, in a 23 year career I rarely ever actually saw weapons. My experience was, that no firearms we used, except at a range with a Range Master, and there had to be a very significant training need. Ammunition is expensive, & reports are required for it’s use and for live firing. Generally, the USMC maintained a very secure armoury, with very limited access& they took firearms and firearms safety very
    I am very much *for* gun control reforms, but I think your view of the US Military is a bit skewed.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts. It is important to recognize that JROTC 23 years ago was very different, particularly its relationship to the NRA. And the materials I looked do encourage all the proper safety procedures for firearms (I am a NRA training alumni myself) but that’s not the point. The point is that when you militarize children, you are encouraging violent behavior and morality based on domination. It’s telling that with all the apparent red flags with animal torture and such that the JROTC never kicked him out. Because that doesn’t bother them, because it is common for young boys exposed to violent ideology to then want to experiment with their own exercise of violence. Couple that with the training we know Cruz used and you get something very deadly. We can’t know for sure but I highly doubt that Cruz would have been as successful if he didn’t have the training that he had. And is that power we want in the hands of children?


  2. I myself, am a United States Naval Sea Cadet, and am mighty proud of it. But you can’t generalize all of us in Sea Cadets, Civil Air Patrol, Young Marines, and JROTC/ROTC. You can’t call us child soldiers, I’m horribly offended that you think of us as such. We just want a future in the military, we are not forced or drafted into these programs. We do this of our own free will, and we don’t learn primarily to fight, rather we learn basic military knowledge, and what military life is like. Although we do receive training in combat, it is minimal and we don’t use real firearms unless under supervision by trained officials. We are not Cruz, and we certainly do not stand for what he did. We as a collective did nothing to deserve this slander


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