Ladies and Gentlemen of the ROTC Task Force,
I would like to say a few words about the possibility of returning ROTC to Columbiaís campus. There are several issues here that have been ignored or poorly addressed, and I think that I can help clarify some of them. Just to put my background on the table, I graduated from GS last spring, and am in my first semester at Harvard Law School. I joined the Army right after high school, spending five years as an Army Military Policeman. I was stationed in Germany for several years and spent nine months patrolling the Bosnian/Croatian border in 1996 enforcing the Dayton Peace Accords while attached to NATO. Much of what I have to say in this letter will be covered in an opinion piece that I submitted to the Spectator, but I am not sure if they will print it. I apologize for any redundancy.
First of all, I think we should question the wisdom of getting rid of ROTC in the first place. I know that many at Columbia view the schoolís history of protest with pride, and I largely agreeómy father is a Vietnam veteran, and I appreciate the effort of the thousands of people who worked to help bring people like him home and to end the war. However, I think some skepticism is in order. I know that during the last few years of the war there was increasing pressure to end the college deferment, an action which would have put privileged Ivy-Leaguers on the front lines with high-school dropouts. I think it is legitimate to ask to what degree radical Columbia students were protesting out of principle and to what degree they were protesting to save their own skins. Having seen the fear, confusion, and anger exhibited by Columbia students when faced with the mere possibility of a draft in the wake of 9/11, I can only imagine that a real draft funneling men to an ongoing war would have a similar, compounded effect. Again, I am not questioning the legitimacy of Vietnam-era protests in general or even on Columbiaís campus, but I think the possibility that the motivation behind ROTCís banishment was less (perhaps far less) than noble or well-reasoned should factor into considerations of whether to return the program to the campus. Besides the motivation, I think it would be relevant to look into the actual and potential benefits of kicking ROTC off campus. I canít think of any off the top of my head, but that is really a research project that I havenít looked into and donít have the time to read or write about. As it appears on the surface, an administration caving in to angry students out of fear seems to be one of the least sensible reasons for doing anything at a university.
Iíd also like to address some of the common arguments against ROTC. One that really has no logical basis is the idea that the majority of Columbia students would rather not see ROTC return to campus. In the first place, there is the familiar idea that simple majority rule is not a fair governing principle. The same logic that would prevent a return of ROTC because a majority of students are opposed can also be used to argue for the ďgood old daysĒ of Columbia of not allowing Jews, women, blacks, or any other minority to attend Columbia as long a majority of students donít want them there. A more analogous example would be to argue that the Columbia Republicans or the Ayn Rand Club should be kicked off campus because most students disagree with their politics. The majority is not always right, nor should its will always be enforced. I find it interesting that activists who routinely protest majority views never seem to mind using majoritarian arguments when those arguments work in their favor.
Another reason this argument fails is because it is simply unsupported. Iím sure everyone is aware of the 2003 student council poll showing that 65% of students supported the return of ROTC. I donít remember the exact wording of the question, but I didnít get the impression that it was misleading, as some people claim. Regardless, I would suspect that most students understood what was being asked and that if there is any difference in the outcome due to confusion it is statistically insignificant. As I mentioned, I donít think majority opinion should be the primary concern, but if it is, the only data we have shows support for ROTC. If one chooses to look at this from a common sense perspective, it seems most likely that a small group of students highly favors a return of ROTC, another small group highly disfavors such a return, and most students are either in the middle or simply donít care enough to have an opinion. If that is the case, the existence of a few hard-line opponents to an activity that other students want to participate in should not preclude that activity. Although it lacks the political dimension, I suspect that most students have no interest in Ultimate Frisbee either, but that is not a reason to prevent those students who have such an interest from participating.
For the most part, opponents of ROTC seem not to be opponents of the program as such, but usually people who despise the military in general (which many are quite open about) and those who choose to serve (which most are not so open about). These attitudes spring from a fundamental misunderstanding about what kind of people choose to join the military and about what life in the military is actually like. I think that it is important to point out that people who serve in the military are not the ignorant, violent homophobes that many of the educated class seem to think they are. They are young men and women with a wide spectrum of interests, intelligence, and talents, just like young people in our society at-large. This is an important point, because it speaks to the issue of discrimination in the military, particularly concerning gay men and women. As homophobia is falling out of favor in society in general, so is it falling out of favor with the men and women of the military. It is not, as many would think, acceptable in most circles in the military to be a vitriolic homophobe, although I do think that most people I served with were marginally less comfortable with the idea of homosexuality than New York intellectuals. But then again, so is most of the country. While people in the military may joke about the topic more than most Columbia students, most people that I served with disagreed with the ďdonít ask, donít tellĒ policy, or at least would not have objected to working with gay men and women in a professional setting. Indeed, I served with several men and women who were openly gay, and almost nobody in my unit seemed to care. It was rarely mentioned, and by that I mean once or twice. The few people who made nasty and derogatory comments about our gay co-workers were viewed much as they would be at Columbiaóas idiots. This is not to paint an idealistic picture. Iíve had friends dishonorably discharged for being gay, and I suspect that there are many units, particularly combat-arms units, that are less tolerant than my own. The point Iím trying to make is that while there is an objectionable, discriminatory policy in place at the moment, the military as an institution is neither a steamroller of discrimination nor an engine of bigotry, despite the way it is portrayed by many at Columbia who have no military experience. Allowing students to participate in ROTC on Columbiaís campus would not be tantamount to endorsing the ďdonít ask, donít tellĒ policy. They are two separate issues. Just as you can support the troops in Iraq without support the governmentís policy in Iraq, Columbia can allow students to participate in ROTC without supporting every policy of the military or every use of the military. To conflate ROTC cadets with every military policy and action is simple-minded reductionism. It is neither logical nor fair.
Additionally, in the interest of intellectual freedom, Columbia has stated more than once that it is not the administrationís policy to punish or exclude those who hold controversial opinions. At least, thatís what the school claimed when it stood by the comments of Prof. DeGenova when he publicly applauded the deaths of American soldiers by fratricide and called for more of the same. Although I obviously disagree with his comments, I do agree that intellectual freedom means allowing viewpoints that one doesnít like, and indeed may find abhorrent. Intellectual freedom does not, or at least should not, mean freedom only for people we like or who agree with us. Should Columbia kick a conservative student organization off campus if they support the war in Iraq? If they support the ďdonít ask, donít tellĒ policy? How about an individual student? As previously mentioned, I strongly disagree with certain military policies, but again, this is not sufficient reason to exclude ROTC from Columbiaís campus.
Another common criticism of ROTC and of the military in general is that it takes advantage of poor people and turns minorities in particular into ďcannon fodder.Ē Statistics and experience belie this idea. Statistically, the number of casualties in Iraq among whites is approximately three times the number among blacks and hispanics combined. From experience I can tell you that the combat arms units that are on the frontlines are disproportionately white, so much so as to seem nearly exclusively white. On the other hand, blacks are disproportionately represented in most administrative units that I saw, so much so as to seem almost exclusively black. Iím pointing this out to put to rest the idea that the military drags poor minorities from their homes to put them on the frontlines to protect the business interests of rich white men. If the military is used to protect business interests, it is more accurate to say that it drags poor minorities from their homes to do the paperwork for the poor white kids who will die on the frontline.
Which brings us to class issues. Here people will argue that the military exploits the economic conditions of lower-income men and women in order to fill the ranks. This is largely true. However, this is nowhere near as bad as it sounds or as most Ivy-League intellectuals would have you believe. First of all, it is flat-out arrogant and condescending to contend that poor people have no say in their own life-decisions or that they are incapable of making informed choices about what is best for them. Do we really think that these people would be joining the military if they didnít think it was a better option for them than staying where they were? Most people that I have met at Columbia look with pity upon ďthose poor peopleĒ who donít know what theyíre getting into and are swept up into Uncle Samís gory killing machine. Believe me, these people know what theyíre doing. For the most part theyíre leaving a town or a region that has few economic prospects for stability or mobility. Many of them know that they are not intellectuals destined for academia or realize that they have other skills that can propel them though the ranks of leadership in the military. Still others use their time in the military to set themselves on an intellectual or professional path. Again, it is nothing more than common elitism to assume that the military is not a legitimate career path and that those who follow that path are ignorant, dull victims. Another point that needs to be stressed is that most people who serve in the military never come near combat. The military consists largely of support and intelligence personnel, and even most people in combat arms units never face combat, although obviously that risk is substantially higher during a war or an occupation. But most careerists I knew in the military were not combat veterans, which demonstrates that joining the military to escape your upbringing does not necessarily, or even in most cases, mean that you have to kill or be killed in order to benefit from military service.
I am discussing these issues to illustrate both my personal experience and how ROTC scholarships can be of great service to lower-income students. I think that most people, even opponents of ROTC, accept the proposition that these scholarships would allow access to a Columbia education for some students who could not otherwise afford it. Yes, I too wish we lived in a world where people didnít have to make such hard choices to make their lives better. Unfortunately, reality is not abiding. I am personally highly irritated by people who would deny lower-income students this opportunity because ďit shouldnít have to be that way.Ē Well, yes. It shouldnít. But it is that way. And I find it infuriatingly simple-minded and unjust not to allow students this sort of opportunity simply because one is frustrated that life is so unfair that some peopleís only opportunity to get an education lies through the military. I always find that an interesting, ironic argument, to protest inequality by perpetuating inequality. Simply put, ROTC scholarships will bring people to the Ivy-Leagues who could not otherwise afford it, affecting their lives and perhaps the lives of their families for generations. This is an enormous social benefit that in itself justifies returning ROTC to Columbiaís campus.
The ideas from the last three paragraphs, besides strongly refuting some of the common criticisms of the military and ROTC, are very important to me on a personal level. I was born in a trailer park to a black mother who never went to college and a white father who broke his back in Vietnam and who now lives off of his disability checks. This being the case, I think I know a bit more about the costs and repercussions of military service than most Columbia students. The Army literally was my ticket out of a life with limited options and few prospects. I didnít go to a prep school that prepared me for an Ivy-League education, so I had to learn discipline in the Army and apply it to my education at a state school when I was discharged. The fact that I received straight Aís at a state school and had an interesting experience allowed me to transfer to GS at Columbia (whatever some may think about that) on a probational status, an opportunity that would not have existed for me had I not joined the military. Additionally, I would never have been able to afford my time here without the help of the G.I. Bill. I can frankly say that without the military, I would never have set foot on the campus of either Harvard or Columbia. I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunities that Iíve been given. Yes, I grew up poor. No, I didnít have any better options. College was not on the horizon, and there are just not many jobs in the mining town that Iím from. So I did what I had to do in order to get out and make my life better. I made an informed decision about what to do with my life. Every person Iíve met who criticizes the military for recruiting poor people does so from the perspective of a privileged outsider whoís never had to make hard choices in order to make their life better and escape poverty. To deny the opportunity that the military and ROTC can provide is to tell me that my life isnít possible, or shouldnít be possible, and to deny the social mobility that both liberals and conservatives pay so much lip-service to. Many people use the military as a springboard for improving their lives, and no one who hasnít been there is in a position to criticize that decision. I am grateful for the opportunities the military has provided me, and I would gladly take the same risks again in order to have a chance to make something of myself. It is a disservice of the highest order that Columbia had not been more amenable to helping provide these sorts of opportunities, and it is high time to correct that error by bringing back ROTC.
I hope that I have presented both well-articulated reasons for returning ROTC to campus and well-reasoned rebuttals of the most common criticisms of the military and the arguments that Columbia should not allow ROTC. For me, it simply comes down to an issue of live and let live. Everyone at Columbia is free to either love, hate, or not care about ROTC, but this program and the military serve many useful functions in our society, and a student who wishes to pursue ROTC at Columbia should be free to do so if he or she chooses. If you have any questions about my letter or would like to discuss this issue in further detail, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with the Task Force in the future. Please feel free to contact me anytime.
Harvard Law School
Class of 2007
shachey at law.harvard.edu