The Military and Academe

Allan Silver

I joined Columbia’s faculty as tensions rose that later erupted in the strikes and occupations of its students in 1968. I well remember being on alert to intervene in fistfights between students opposing and participating in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Program. As students faced conscription, faculty at Columbia and many other institutions debated whether to send their grades to draft boards, as required by the Selective Service System. I began the successful opposition to this policy because it corrupted the relationship of teachers and students. I opposed the ROTC program because – and only because -- it required exemption from the faculty’s authority to make appointments to teach and award credit toward degrees. In both cases, the state improperly invaded the self-governing prerogatives of universities. In today’s circumstances, actual and prospective, I enthusiastically join with others in urging ROTC’s return.

Why is ROTC today largely absent from selective, private universities? We are familiar with the “BadUniversity-GoodMilitary” narrative. Four decades ago, radical, narcissistic, anti-intellectual students and faculty rebelled against high culture, scholarly tradition and legitimate civic obligations. That disaster’s effects resonate today as identity politics encounters an apologetic, spineless academic liberalism. Today’s counterparts of Joseph Schumpeter’s anti-capitalist intellectuals and of Lionel Trilling’s adversary culture sustain this unhappy turn. They replace old myths about the working class with new myths about global victims of imperialism and capitalism, legitimizing attack on the high culture of the West. In contrast, the military is an exemplar of civic virtue, expressing the tradition of the citizen-soldier, and actualizing ideals of obligation and sacrifice – indeed, the ultimate sacrifice of life and body – in the nation’s service. The military is the more admirable as it strives affirmatively to be a “model employer”, while avoiding the pathologies of affirmative action with notably more success than universities.

This account embraces many truths. However, if our purpose is to understand ROTC’s continuing absence from private, selective institutions, it explains too much with too little. Today, opposition to restoring ROTC programs turns massively on legislation prohibiting the military service of open homosexuals, informally called “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” [DADT]. With others, I have argued in vain that responsibility for this law lies with Congress and the presidency, and that the greater good is served by restoring ROTC. The position of Columbia’s administration is that we cannot have any academic program that excludes students in a discriminatory manner, but that otherwise the university is open to an ROTC program should the Department of Defense wish to establish one. Objections to DADT completely dominated discussion when the university senate voted decisively, in 2005, against the return of an ROTC program. In debates last fall leading to a vote expressing student opinion, DADT was again almost the sole point of contention. It is stubbornly true that reform of this law must precede the possibility of ROTC’s return.

To be sure, the civil rights frame – sincerely or not -- may cover hostility to any program educating future officers in the armed forces. However, cast as a civil rights issue, the question of ROTC ignites the hegemonic culture celebrating equality of rights, nowhere more intense than at universities. As Tocqueville seminally understood, equality is an appetite that -- like its aristocratic predecessor, honor –grows by what it feeds on. Moreover, military service has long and conspicuously validated equality in civic status and dignity. Homosexuals are making a claim as have, earlier, Japanese-Americans, blacks, women and today, less conspicuously, Hispanics. Despite obvious differences among these cases, all are driven by demands for equality of respect and by military necessity. In today’s America, that necessity includes legitimizing the military as an exemplar of democratic equality.

To what extent does fundamental hostility to ROTC persist? Interest in restoring ROTC has arisen, among other institutions, at Yale, Harvard and Columbia. At all, ROTC ended forty years ago. Last November, not quite half of Columbia undergraduates who voted – in turn, half of eligible students – approved its return, despite sustained attempts to define the vote solely as a referendum on discrimination. As best I can judge, the modal attitude of students is a mix of indifference and acquiescent approval. As one student put it:

The most interesting thing is that very few people seem to care very deeply ...I don’t think there's going to be a big fuss either way (and by "big fuss" I mean a group of students occupying buildings or going on strike or whatever Very Angry Students do).... The issue just doesn't have the same urgency on campus I'm told it did forty years ago. These days, it's just one issue among many.

My best estimate is that, absent DADT, student opinion will at most favor, at the least permit, ROTC’s return.

The importance of student opinion is another evidence of American exceptionalism, but the faculty’s attitude is decisive. Contrary to a prevailing usage, ROTC was never “banned” by private, selective institutions. The actual, stated grounds for termination concerned the faculty’s authority over appointments and award of credit. At Columbia, a committee chaired in 1969 by a conservative political theorist – Professor Harvey C. Mansfield, father of the distinguished, conservative political theorist at Harvard who bears his name – unanimously recommended that the

...administration...terminate the present arrangements for the NROTC program and seek instead a relationship in which...any course offered...shall carry credit...only if it is also listed in the offerings of a regular academic department...[and in which] instructors...not hold academic rank unless appointed according to regular procedures.

The faculties, administrations and trustees of fifteen institutions, including some of the most prestigious, adopted essentially the same position. Of course, passionate opposition to the Vietnam War drove this policy. However, it was not then, nor is it now, a merely formal pretext. I cannot imagine ROTC’s return if this matter is not resolved.

            Its difficulty is amplified by legislation, the ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964, in very plain language:

No unit may be established or maintained at an institution unless (1) the senior commissioned given the academic rank of professor... [and] (2) the institution adopts, as part of its curriculum...[a program] which the Secretary of the military department concerned prescribes and conducts...

These provisions require amendment or creative negotiation. Forty years ago, many understandably considered this matter to rationalize political perspectives embracing an anti-military posture and opposition to governmental policies. Like concern with DADT, it may cover unconditional opposition to ROTC programs, whether sincerely or conveniently. However, to impute motives rather than take the substance of the matter seriously is to prolong a culture war now happily ebbing. Every profession claiming prerogatives risks scorn if it does so from mere pride, simple self-interest, or hidden motives—but the prerogative of faculty authority over appointments and curriculum touches the essence.

            Some members of Professor Mansfield’s committee admitted that if  

“...sufficiently extreme conditions should arise – a situation similar to World War II, for example – we would be willing to grant...exceptions from normal academic control over... curriculum and faculty.” They considered their recommendations to cancel

...exceptions from normal [academic] procedures which were granted to the Navy during or immediately after World War II. We regret that we did not take such action before the present mood on campus...but we cannot refuse to take steps to correct an academically irregular situation merely because that mood arose.


This position means that faculty authority over curricula and appointments is to be maintained in the future during times of peace and of military engagements that are legitimately open to democratic political contestation.

This offers a broad context in which to consider the vicissitudes of ROTC – that of American society shaping, and being shaped, in successive experiences of war and of peace. From 1942 to 1946, Columbia housed a Midshipmen Training School that graduated 23,000 naval officers. In the next quarter century, its Naval ROTC program produced 1000 commissioned officers. This trajectory runs through three distinct phases – the consensual case of World War II, sustained semi-mobilization in the Cold War, and the inflamed moment of the war in Vietnam.      

            American memory embraces the myth of the “good war” – waged for an unambiguous moral good, sustained by voluntary consent and fought by citizen-soldiers. The Civil War and World War II are exemplary. To the moral passion of ending slavery, patriotic memory adds that of vast and fierce combat by volunteer citizens. So strong is this theme that, twenty-five years after Gettysburg, Lt. Benjamin F. Rittenhouse, 5th US Artillery, Battery D, who commanded devastating fire on Pickett’s charge from Little Round Top, could write: “I felt proud of that charging column of Americans, even though they were rebels... They were citizen-soldiers, American volunteers.” The Second World War is the nation’s closest prototype of a war remembered as virtuous in all respects. Our subsequent experience of war is largely lived in comparison and contrast with it – whether its myth and memory is misplaced, manipulated, or solemnly and authentically celebrated.

            The normative setting of ROTC programs after World War II formed in the first twenty years of the Cold War. For the first time in its history, the nation was continuously semi-mobilized during peace for large-scale combat. Conscription, intensive during the Korean crisis, was retained at levels that, by design, permitted the unwilling to avoid service. It was indeed a selective service – its official title during World War II – intended to influence, by a pattern of deferments and exemptions, the distribution of manpower in a growing economy. That economy, in turn, sustained a growing military at 4% of GNP. Some, perhaps many students preferred participation in ROTC at prestigious, private colleges to conscripted service in the ranks, but a positive or acquiescent attitude to service in the armed forces was pervasive.

            A term of military service was normal in the biographies of many American men coming of age after the universal mobilization of the Second World War.

A divide gradually emerged between those whose citizenship embraced a term of military service, and younger cohorts who define the obligations of citizenship wholly in terms of civilian activities. That divide sharpened with the maturation of generations after conscription ended in 1973. In 1956, Princeton graduated 400 students who went on to serve in uniform. For the class of 2004, that number was nine.

            The war in Vietnam was too long, too indecisive, too intense, too bloody, its strategic rationale to unpersuasive, its conduct too unlike the last “good war” to be sustained at necessary levels of conscription and political consent. ROTC ceased to be a normal, if marginal aspect of campus life in a semi-mobilized polity, and became a vivid, immediate manifestation of an illegitimate war. In the following decades, it became anomalous, indeed alien to the customs and practices of academe. Politically and intellectually radical positions were not requisite for this posture – it was normative for routine academic life.

With the end of conscription, active citizen-soldiers shrank to a revolving one percent of the population. The All Volunteer Force is comprised of citizen-soldiers in the sense that a small proportion of the one percent in service at any one time are career professionals. The citizen-soldier is exemplary, but celebration of this ideal is broadly vicarious. As the eminent military historian Michael Howard put it, the democratic social compact no longer includes the legitimate obligation to risk death for the nation.

            Some lament this as a decline in political virtue. However, it is consistent with the mutation of militaries into small, adept voluntary forces in which the semi-skilled, short-term labor of the citizen mass army has no useful place. The nation’s military endeavors after September 2001 do not require extensive mobilization, in terms of taxation, manpower and popular enthusiasm. Indeed, extensive mobilization is inconsistent with their prosecution, and contributes to flexibility in concluding them. President Bush was widely mocked for defining contributions to the very misnamed War on Terror as continuing to shop and travel, and sacrifice as reflected in long waits at airports. However, the basic point survives his awkward rhetoric. The routine functioning, indeed flourishing of civil society and the economy is not only compatible with the new form of mobilization, but among its central requisites.

            The private, selective universities reflect this broad picture. Students are culturally and personally distant from the military, a distance informed more by incomprehension and distaste than hostility. Their sense of citizenship turns solely on voluntary activity in civil society, and prevailingly they do not know people in military service. To be sure, some faculty and students claim that ROTC programs illegitimately invade academe, and oppose them for political reasons. However, these voices are often amplified in conservative comment, itself sometimes animated by resentment of the liberal hegemony in the humanities and social sciences. If the necessary legislative reforms are achieved, I do not believe that they can block ROTC’s return. It is a sign of their weakness that opponents to ROTC have thus far argued entirely in terms of civil rights frame, not a substantive case. When the debate on the merits is properly joined, I believe the case for ROTC will prevail.

            However, is the Department of Defense interested in returning to institutions that required ROTC to leave forty years ago? The military has made its own contribution to the present, unsatisfactory state of affairs. The BadUniversity-GoodMilitary narrative selectively remembers the convulsions of the 1960s, but takes no notice of the military’s long-term response. According to the Army Cadet Command’s official history,

the abolition of ROTC units at elite institutions along the eastern seaboard was more than offset, quantitatively at least, by the creation of additional detachments in the South and West... Some...officials...feared that the average quality of ROTC students would drop and that the social balance of the Army officer corps would be upset.... Other officials and officers were glad to see the Army sever relations with schools which, in their opinion, had never been avid supporters of the military...

This division persists in all the services. Their withdrawal of ROTC programs from the northeast and diverse, urban areas, accelerating in the drawdown of the 1990s, is driven in part by budgetary constraints. More young officers can be procured for less expenditure at large institutions located in culturally conservative regions with pervasive “pro-military” cultures. To take but one illustration, Virginia, with a population of over 7,500,000, has twelve Army ROTC programs while New York City, with a population of about 8,500,000, has two.

            In one respect, the budgetary imperative is the military’s counterpart of academe’s concern with DADT and faculty autonomy. All three are both real concerns and offer plausible cover for an underlying attitude – in the military’s case, a preference for regions with uncritically “pro-military” cultures, and aversion toward ROTC programs in large cities and institutions of the Ivy League type. The uneven distribution of ROTC programs amplifies invidious distinctions in American society.

            Three changes are required for ROTC to return to selective, private universities. Legislative prohibition of military service by homosexuals must be repealed or reformed. This is among the new administration’s second-order priorities, to be addressed halfway through its term of office. The second requisite – dealing amendment of legislation invading faculty authority over appointments and curricula -- is not now on the agenda. However, the issue will surely arise as the prospect of ROTC’s return grows nearer. Third, the military must overcome the remainder of its lingering “Vietnam syndrome” -- the cultural residue of upheavals from a time when the parents of today’s undergraduates were themselves students. Government and military must invest in a more balanced officer corps. Accepting the cost of recruiting small numbers from the selective, private universities is one, but a key aspect of this broader reform. President-elect Obama has explicitly regretted the mal-distribution of the armed forces. His administration’s Department of Defense should accord priority explicitly to restoring ROTC to private institutions of higher learning.

            The Department of Defense should no longer avoid placing ROTC programs in places where the nation’s future military endeavors may well evoke criticism and opposition. It is the historical norm that the nation's wars are politically contested. World War II and much of the Cold War were exceptionally consensual and, in recent experience, the war in Vietnam exceptionally rancorous. In the most likely proximate future, some or many military endeavors will result from policies properly subject to democratic criticism and dispute. To apply the consensual model of World War II to the future is to damage democratic debate on the wisdom of military policies. Reciprocally, and in contrast to the experience on campuses during the Vietnam period, faculty and students at campuses with ROTC programs must understand that responsibility for military policy rests not with the military but with civilian government.

          It is a corrosive civic scandal that those with privileged backgrounds and high prospects are egregiously under-represented in military service. This inflicts both symbolic and substantive damage on the Republic. It weakens the ties that ought to bind all citizens, and deprives our military of broadly educated offers needed now more than ever. I hope that new leadership, civilian and military, will act to bind up the nation’s cultural wounds and reach out to the splendid young men and women, at my institution and others like it, who will wish to serve the nation under arms.            



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