ROTC, colleges need balance
January 21, 2011
One of the most interesting and unintended consequences of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy is its effect on ROTC programs at universities. In the late 60s, ROTC programs began to close at many elite (and mostly northeastern) universities, including the likes of Harvard University and Yale University. These ROTC programs were closed during the height of the Vietnam War protest movements, when violent protesters targeted recruitment offices. To this day, many colleges have resisted the reestablishment of ROTC programs. Until recently the military’s stance on openly gay soldiers was used to legitimize opposition to ROTC. Universities argued that because “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was inherently discriminatory they were justified in their stance against ROTC.
But now that the policy has been overturned, it is at least possible that the ROTC programs can return to the Ivy League. Politicians seem to agree that the reversal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” should be the natural progression — both Senator John McCain and President Barack Obama supported it during their campaigns. However, the complexities of the situation will likely prove a stumbling block to the reestablishment of ROTC programs within the Ivy League.
Antipathy between some elite schools and the military remains strong. On the university side, this comes more from the professors than from student radicals. Our generation seems, for the most part, to shy away from radicalism of all stripes. We have our different views, but we tend not to see the world in absolutes — protesting or dissent has become a uniform and civil affair, and true believers and zealots are rare. However, last generation’s radicals are represented in the faculties of elite universities and still view those involved with the military as soulless warmongers.
Nor is the military establishment overexcited to return to elite universities. There is still plenty of resentment on the military’s part about the anti-war sentiment that could very easily become anti-military hatred. This results in the military regarding academia somewhat dismissively as the refuge of the elitists, the naive and cowards. This difference in culture is the real reason for the continued separation of ROTC from the Ivy League. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” served as a useful point of opposition, but it was not the underlying cause. Furthermore, just because ROTC could return to elite campuses does not mean it would be successful. Even before Vietnam, the military began having trouble recruiting cadets from the northeast and ROTC programs began to migrate to the South and West, as students at elite universities increasingly chose to forgo military service.
It is a shame, since dialogue between the two cultures would prove beneficial to both. The military always has a place for the best and the brightest, and elite institutions could produce a more vibrant intellectual life within the military. At the same time, the value of sacrifice and a duty to something greater than oneself could constrain the rampant individualism present in much of academia, which in its extreme form is profoundly detrimental to a society.
As it stands, however, both parties remain standoffish. In a recent opinions column in the Washington Post, Coleman McCarthy called on the Ivy League not to reestablish ROTC programs because its “warrior ethic [would] taint the intellectual purity of a school.” Such a belief that the scholar and warrior classes are inherently distinct is flawed. Both groups need each other. Without a powerful military, peaceful bastions of learning could not exist and without intellectual thought and debate, the use of force cannot be adequately constrained and directed. It is interesting to note that even Socrates, the quintessential thinker, fought valiantly for Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
For our part at the College of William and Mary, we seem to have struck a good balance, as an elite institution with a strong and respected ROTC program. It is a good sign that the divide between warrior and scholar is not absolute in American culture.