Human Rights

The Pentagon's Long-Term Plan to Get Back on Campus

The military wants to integrate itself into campus life and therefore gain routine access to rank-and file students to recruit regular soldiers

If the wrestling entertainment conglomerate, WWE, tried to set up a "wrestling" curriculum on a college campus, replete with course credit, training in how to become a professional wrestler, special graduation ceremonies, with Hall of Fame wrestlers Bobo Brazil and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin as featured faculty teaching the history and strategy of the sport, it would be hilarious. But when the military says it wants to purchase a piece of the university and use it to recruit and train its officers, with full certification as a legitimate university curriculum, we are expected (even by the New York Times) to speak with reverence about how honored we are to host them.

A recent and chilling article in the New York Timesspoke hopefully about the possibility that ROTC may return to campuses that banned it in the 1970s and/or have never before allowed it. According toTimesreporter Michael Winerip the "attitude toward the military began to shift after the 9/11 attacks," especially in elite schools like Harvard, with administration, faculty and students lined up in favor ROTC. The article reads like an advocacy document, resting on the unexplored assumption that there are no negative consequences to the Department of Defense setting up shop on a university campus. The sole remaining barrier, according to the article, is the unfortunate (and hopefully soon-to-be ended) "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which violates academic values.

The article is distorted on so many levels that it is hard to catalogue them all. The most profound distortion is that it fails to mention that the pressure for new ROTC chapters originates in the military itself, a part of their extremely expensive and not-very-successful campaign to overcome the chronic shortages of soldiers.

Moreover, like so many articles in the Times these days, reporter Winerup failed to undertake even rudimentary investigative reporting, which would have revealed this larger context. Like partisan advocate, Winerup made sure to interview military leaders, college administrators, faculty who support ROTC, ROTC members, veterans who support ROTC, and other students who support ROTC. But he failed to interview faculty who oppose ROTC, students who oppose ROTC, and veterans who oppose ROTC. What kind of reporting is that?

One tell-tale sign of how shallow the research was is that article offers only one reason why ROTC is not already re-ensconced in campuses that earlier banned it: the statement by President Drew Faust of Harvard that she might invite ROTC back if the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy were repealed. Later, Winerip hints that this statement might conceal other reasons, but never explores what they might be. It is clear to the careful reader, however, that Faust offered "DADT" because it was an easy reason to offer without arousing controversy. (Her statement is reminiscent of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz tellingVanity Fair back in 2004 that that the there were many reasons for invading Iraq, but WMDs became the public justification because they were "the one issue that everyone could agree upon." ) So the article's optimism about the return of ROTC is certainly misplaced: at Harvard and elsewhere, if "DADT" is repealed, the ten or so other reasons why it ROTC might not be welcome on campus would rear their ugly heads.

Here are a few of them.

The real energy behind this push for ROTC is that the military is suffering from an ongoing inability to fill its ranks. (The problem has been temporarily eased by the economic crisis, but it is still there and will return with a vengeance if and when the recession ends). The military leadership thinks that placing ROTC on high profile campuses will ease the recruitment crisis by sanitizing the image of the military. Since the endless war began in late 2001, the military budget for recruitment has more than doubled (from the already inflated $3.4 billion in 2004 to $7.7 billion in 2008), and many service branches still cannot meet their quotas. So the $263 million cost of the 30,000 ROTC scholarships is chump change. Moreover ROTC registers about the same cost per-recruit as the rest of the effort), so it is a cost-efficient system.

But the push to get ROTC back on campus at Harvard and other elite schools is not mainly about recruiting more officers, because moving ROTC back onto elite campuses will result in a minute increase in the number of officers -- and besides the officer shortage is not where the big problem lies. In fact, as the article makes clear, setting up ROTC on campuses is not a way to substantially increase the size of ROTC units. There are lots of students who currently get ROTC scholarships at campuses without formal programs. For these students, their ROTC training is a lot like an outside job; like a multitude of other college students who work off campus, they handle this obligation as part of their daily routine. Some are inconvenienced by the commute to their training, but this inconvenience is no more odious than the problems faced by other students with outside obligations. For the military, in fact, this off-campus system is less expensive, since consolidated training at a single large location is far more economical than a large number of smaller facilities.

So the military is not putting pressure on campuses to initiate ROTC in order to make training more accessible for cadets or less expensive for the military. The training function is, in fact, a small part of a much larger project. A highly visible presence on (especially a high prestige) campus, they hope, will provide the opportunity for the military to integrate itself into campus life and therefore gain routine access to rank-and file students, who can potentially be encouraged to enlist as non-officers, where the real shortage lies. An especially attractive group is the students who are struggling in school, academically or financially. The daily access to them is a golden opportunity to siphon them off into the military, either as an alternative to school or as a temporary detour that can build up financial resources.

Beyond direct access to the officers-in-training and the enlistees in waiting, ROTC programs on the campus allow the military to burnish its image while presenting its distinct point of view about national and global issues to the campus. The most outrageous aspect of this is that the university gives students credit toward their degrees for learning military discipline and absorbing military propaganda, but the military's self promotion extends well beyond their formal classrooms. Officers are given "tours of duty" on the campus -- with all the rights and privileges (however meager) attendant with faculty status -- where they serve as instructors of for-credit classes, participate in campus intellectual and social life, and present viewpoints dictated by the Department of Defense in various forums that confer upon them the imprimatur of scholarly respect.

As far as I know, ROTC is the only program on university campuses that gives credit for courses that are not designed by qualified scholars and not taught by qualified scholars, and whose instructors are selected by an outside organization who also pays them and controls their lives. The instructors are under orders to teach specific content that has never been validated through any scholarly process and which would fail any such test. And the students subjected to this indoctrination are told by the University that this content is co-equal to other courses and given credit for taking them. And, unlike other courses of study, they are honored for completing this alien curriculum with high profile ceremonies on the campus which are attended and validated by the top officials of the University.

And let's not forget the impact of a military presence on the campus upon the ever-growing population of student veterans, whose experience in the military has been one that will likely determine their physical, emotional, psychological, occupational or political trajectories for years or decades to come. When ROTC arrives on a campus, it seeks to saturate campus culture with its bloated and distorted version of military reality -- where service in the armed forces confers glory and comradeship upon its members without any negative blowback. A large part of this effort is the creation of a set of acceptable "narratives" about trajectory and experience of military service that are consistent with the goal of recruiting soldiers on the campus. Veterans, who have actual experience in the military, are fully aware of the mismatch between image and reality. As they begin to exit from the armed forces (many have attenuated affiliations while they are in school), they face the incredibly complex and often very difficult transition to civilian life, that includes varying degrees of alienation, bitterness, and overt hostility to their armed forces. Public or even private display of these attitudes and issues can become highly visible contradictions to the accepted military narratives, and thus undermine the energetic image the ROTC presence seeks to cultivate.

Veterans, many of whom have residual affiliations with they branch of service, are therefore required (explicitly or implicitly) to fit themselves into the narrow range of acceptable narratives. For a large number of veterans, this constraint ranges from unpleasant to oppressive to intolerable. Instead of a "safe rear area" where they can find themselves and make necessary adjustments that often include explicit criticism of their military experience, the campus becomes yet another location where they are required to play their appointed military role--this time as the proud veteran uplifted by her/his service experience and prepared by this service to accept the new challenges ahead.

Moreover, a host of services that veterans may need can interfere with the image building effort. Visible services on the campus such as treatment for PTSD or help with extracting benefits from the Veterans Administration are inconsistent with the accepted narratives and can therefore become targets for the military officers who inhabit the campus who are motivated to make them invisible or even disappear.

One example from Stony Brook University can illustrate the ways in which a university presence of ROTC could inhibit the ability of the campus to be a safe rear area for a veteran. A vet that I was talking to about attending Stony Brook told me that the military had voided his college fund because his attempted suicide resulted in a less-than-honorable discharge. I sent him to the vets office on the SBU campus, and they offered institutional resources to help challenge this ruling. A thriving ROTC on campus would inevitably have an institutional relationship to the veterans office, and this it make it at least uncomfortable (and maybe impossible) for the vets office to challenge the military establishment. In fact, were he to arrive on campus after successfully challenging the decision, his story might be covered by the campus newspaper; but this sort of coverage would be far less likely with an ROTC unit on the campus seeking to protect the image of the military. But perhaps even more significant is the possibility that the veteran I spoke to might be reluctant to even enroll in SBU if they was a visible ROTC on the campus simply because the military atmosphere created by its presence would make his adjustment to civilian life ever so much more difficult.

People in universities are committed to establishing a "veteran friendly" campus, and some believe that bringing ROTC onto campus is a way to make veterans feels more comfortable. This is simply not true. ROTC does not serve veterans, it is a training tool and a recruitment device -- and it will inevitably seek to mold veterans to advance these goals. Bringing the military onto the campus, with all its aggressive self-promotion, will therefore exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the transition to civilian life. ROTC makes campuses less friendly to veterans.

One argument, emphasized in the Times, focuses on ROTC scholarships as an important source of financial aid for students otherwise unable to afford a university education. If our government wants to give full scholarships to certain worthy students, no one would oppose such a program, though many would say that there should be no strings (i.e., four years of service in the military) attached. But offering such scholarships should not be used as blackmail to force campuses to integrate the Department of Defense into campus life. The scholarships, even with the strings attached, can be offered with no presence on the campus.

In fact, the military regularly sends large numbers of already commissioned officers to universities for advanced degrees. (A recent SBU graduate was paid to obtain a Physics PhD while on active duty in the Navy.) These military-affiliated graduate students do not perform any military duties on the campus; they commute to nearby bases to fulfill these obligations. This is a sensible and economical way for the military to obtain the educational human capital that universities have to offer. They should do exactly the same with undergraduates. In fact, it would be cheaper.

The military does not want to use this straightforward and economical approach to educating and training its future officers (letting the cadets go to school while getting their training at a military base) because their advocacy of ROTC rests on ulterior motives. They want to use officer training as a way of penetrating college campuses, where they can market the military to college students while diffusing their view of the world into a difficult-to-influence sector of American society.

Michael Schwartz is a professor of sociology and faculty director of the Undergraduate College of Global Studies at Stony Brook University.
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