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We Are Not Your Soldiers

By Debra Sweet, Stephanie Rugoff and Jay Becker

Early on in the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of veterans were speaking out.  Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded in 2004 and lots of anti-war veterans were accessible.  World Can’t Wait started to make visits to high schools and colleges with recent veterans in 2006 – the time when the military was desperate to recruit more youth, taking even those who hadn’t completed high school, had misdemeanors, etc.  We also sent Vietnam veterans to schools to talk about their experiences and make the connections between what happened in the 60’s and early 70’s with what’s happening now.

In the fall of 2008, immediately after the presidential election, several young veterans attended a World Can’t Wait national meeting.  One of them insistently pointed out that he got really upset when people say they are honoring veterans for their service when in actuality many of them had committed war crimes.  That was when we came up with the idea of starting the organized project which became We Are Not Your Soldiers.

We raised money and did a tour that went on for weeks in 2008 and then did another in 2009.  One of our youth organizers and a veteran went off on a tour of schools in Southern California and Seattle.  Another team of a World Can’t Wait activist and an Iraq vet went around the Midwest. We made up bandanas, palm cards and posters – one of our best shows a terrified Iraqi woman at the door of her home which is about to be forcibly entered by the US Army with words that say “Wrong. Army Wrong.”  For several years we tabled at the Warped Tour and Coachella. 

Over the years, war fighting has changed.  We Are Not Your Soldiers is still needed but the emphasis has changed too. Now, at the beginning of 2016, the government has announced it’s going to double the amount of recruiting.  The military is intensely looking for gamers. Brandon Bryant is a case in point – a young man with gaming skills who became a drone operator until his conscience made it impossible for him to continue with his assignment.

It has been challenging to maintain work over a long period.  Obama has changed the approach to waging the war of terror, partially withdrawing soldiers but expanding the scope of those wars with drones, bombing and the use of proxy forces.  Anti-war veterans deal with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and employment/unemployment issues – everything that affects veterans in general affects them as well.  There has been a turnover in the veterans who participate in the We Are Not Your Soldiers project.

The need to stop the United States’ aggressive militarism and wars against peoples around the world remains urgent.  We feel the necessity of keeping this generation of youth from getting caught up in fighting these seemingly endless wars of domination – and to build a conscious movement to stop this trajectory.  We understand from our years of experience that many young people sign up out of a misguided sense that they will be “helping people in other countries,” that the military will give them a “higher purpose.” The US military creates these dangerous illusions through sophisticated print and film ads that turn reality on its head. As one Iraq-era vet put it to a high school class in Chicago, “The military is NOT the Peace Corps!"

World Can’t Wait’s We Are Not Your Soldiers project brings Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans to classes to tell the truth about the wars and what the military is really recruiting for. Usually, we begin the presentation by showing a short video.  Sometimes we use a version of “Collateral Murder” narrated by veteran Ethan McCord which contains footage, released by Chelsea Manning, of the Bagdad killing of Reuters journalists and others.  Or we may show a clip from a feature film on a drone pilot stationed at a base here in the United States or some other video. The veterans then talk about their on-the-ground experiences in occupying countries, where civilians pay the price.  In-service and post-service issues such PTSD, medical/psychological care or lack thereof and homelessness are also addressed.  Students are provided with information and a perspective to which they may not otherwise be exposed. There is an additional possibility, in some areas of the country, to do a historical presentation with a Vietnam military resister and/or veteran.  This can be done in conjunction with the recent veteran’s class visit or separately.

We also do screenings of relevant films – on drones, torture and/or participation in the US military – and then engage students in a guided follow-up discussion.  This can be either a one-time event or a series of visits to a classroom.

In any of these options we work with educators to develop a customized presentation. Presenters engage in discussion with the students and answer their questions.  The students feel free to raise issues, ideas and questions in an environment where each person speaking is treated with respect. We provide resources to both prepare for and follow up on our visit/s.

This year, many students have returned to school with an increased consciousness of the systemic injustices towards people of color in this country. That awareness, while important in its own right, should be built on to include recognizing the injustices of empire and the US military in particular – and why it is neither in their interests nor those of the people of the world for them to enlist.  The wars for empire continue and are at the heart of the flood of refugees risking their lives to escape the war zones of the Middle East and Africa.

As stated in the Common Core State Standards on critical thinking, students have an opportunity to integrate information from diverse sources. Students can delineate and evaluate the arguments and claims to which they are exposed.  They can “analyze how two or more (sources) address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the (sources) take.”

The We Are Not Your Soldiers program has the potential to convince a lot of youth not to join up as well as exposing them to the anti-war movement.  Not only do we do the presentations described above, we also provide access to tools to discuss these issues with other students, such as flyers and links to information on-line to empower them to help friends avoid the trap of fighting, killing and possibly dying for a cause that is not in their interests or those of the people whose countries the US is attacking.  While we certainly recognize the difficult economic situations the students face, we present the moral issue of what these students are going to be doing with their lives – providing the context in which they can deliberate and make their own decisions.

Want to get involved with We Are Not Your Soldiers?

Email us:

Call us: 646-807-3259


Debra Sweet is the Director of World Can’t Wait.

Stephanie Rugoff coordinates the We Are Not Your Soldiers project.

Jay Becker works actively in the Chicago chapter of World Can’t Wait.


Speaking Events



August 2-6: Peace and Democracy Conference at Democracy Convention in Minneapolis, Minn.


September 22-24: No War 2017 at American University in Washington, D.C.


October 28: Peace and Justice Studies Association Conference

Find more events here.


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