BERKELEY, Calif. — As the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq neared the 2,000 mark, nearly 500 university and high school students, military resisters, veterans and peace activists gathered on the UC Berkeley campus Oct. 22-23 for “On the Frontlines: Options for Youth in Times of War.” While most participants were from California, some came from as far away as New York state.

The conference, co-sponsored by Military Out of Our Schools-Bay Area (MOOS-Bay) and the Campus Antiwar Network, brought together program participants from over two dozen antiwar, educational, cultural and political organizations. Nearly 50 workshops ranged from detailed how-to’s on topics like getting recruiters off high school and college campuses to lessons from earlier struggles like the anti-Vietnam War movement and exploration of the role of theater and art.

A theme throughout the gathering was the urgent need to win economic and educational opportunities for youth, especially working-class youth of color, in the face of economic crisis, lack of jobs and educational opportunities. “Though solving the problems of youth, finding the alternatives to the military, is not on the agenda of this conference, it is the underlying context,” said Kevin Ramirez of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors.

Another theme was the importance of reaching young people before they take the step of signing a contract.

“The issues is getting at the ideology before the contracts are signed,” eight-year veteran Joshua Castillo told the opening plenary. Castillo, a former interrogator at Abu Ghraib who won conscientious objector status last May, added, “It’s building communities of solidarity, providing alternatives so that a kid like me — who signed a contract 38 days after he turned 17 — has other ways of funding college, of finding identity.”

The program also reflected new developments including the increasing ability of counter-recruiters to resist the military presence on campus, at the same time the services are consistently failing to meet their monthly recruiting goals. “The military isn’t prepared for resistance,” Navy resister Pablo Paredes said in a brief conversation between sessions. “While the movement is still mostly in colleges, more high school students are getting involved. Now they are targeting parents,” he warned. “We need to target parents, too.”

That concern was echoed in a workshop led by members of military families, where three mothers told how their sons were courted in a variety of ways, sometimes over a period of many months, and often without the parents’ knowledge.

“Youth join because of their dreams,” said Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose son, Jesus, died in Iraq in March 2004. “Perhaps one percent join for the military action,” he said, but nearly 90 percent join for college money, and many Latino youth join for acceptance and for immigration papers. “We need action,” Suarez declared. “How many more lives must be lost?” See related story, page 10.