For ROTC at Columbia

Prof. Allan Silver
Department of Sociology
Columbia University

April 29, 2005

For most of its history, the United States had small, socially marginal military forces. In its three very big wars -- the Civil War and the two world wars – America created large, temporary militaries of citizen-soldiers. Unlike much of Europe, America enjoyed an “inheritance of free security”, not requiring large forces in being and in reserve. Sixty years since the Second World War, fifteen since the collapse of the Soviet regime, and the few since the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, have successively carried us to a new phase of American history. Military institutions are now a central feature of the American polity and will continue to be so for an indefinite future. We may wish it otherwise, and we may differ sharply on the purposes and uses of military forces. These are urgent matters for public debate, but the question of ROTC bears on us in terms specific to the university.

An ROTC program at Columbia does not signify the University’s militarization. The classic idea of “militarism” stems from periods when military and civil values were radically opposed. The 1960s were such a period. A deeply contested war exacerbated a cultural crisis and the effects of both were amplified by conscription, culminating at Columbia in the crises of 1966-70. In 1966 I started the opposition to reporting grade point averages to draft boards -- deferred students below class averages were vulnerable to conscription. Can any problem seem more remote? In 1969 I opposed NROTC because the program egregiously refused to form a proper part of the university. Today all understand how urgently we need the most intelligent officers possible, educated in history, politics, culture and the social sciences. The policies, priorities and passions of the 1960s are a warning, not a guide, for our present and future.

There is a long-term, growing “democratic deficit” in how America deals with war and peace. Consider the vastly expanded powers of commanders-in-chief, the capacity of Congress to meet its responsibilities, the quality of public information and -- of concern to institutions like Columbia – the shameful absence of socially advantaged citizens, and the universities they attend, from the military aspects of citizenship. Sharply declining numbers of social, professional and political elites face the direct consequences of military service. Of the Congress that authorized the war in Iraq, very few had sons or daughters on active service. Many high officials in the current and previous administrations, whether opposing or supporting the Vietnam War, avoided military service at the time. I well recall how protest against the Vietnam War rose and fell, in part, in response to the chances of being drafted.

Conscription is a policy of the past, both for political and military reasons. With it has passed the widespread obligation of citizens to share in the risks and consequences of military endeavors. This poses a serious issue for the civic health of American democracy. Should Columbia adopt the same posture toward military service, as do privileged elites and their institutions – namely, take a free ride, while cheering or deploring from a distance? Or will it enter into an educational relationship with the military profession as it does with others?

Among reasons offered for rejecting ROTC are hatred of war, opposition to current policies, and aversion to military culture. American citizenship requires serious engagement with issues of military policy no less in time of peace than war. Columbia must decide whether ROTC is properly among its educational purposes in this phase of American history – not temporarily during particular administrations, Congresses, foreign and strategic policy, “bad” or “good” wars, or times other than war. Military institutions require a distinctive culture, different from those of civilian society and even more from that of universities. However, ROTC students are not in the military, credit is not given for purely military requirements, and the academic status of students in ROTC does not differ from that of others.

Some reasons for favoring ROTC have merit but are not controlling – for example, it increases scholarships for needy and other students, and ends discrimination against students who wish to serve the nation in uniform. However, ROTC is not a scholarship program – its subsidy of a college education entails an obligation to serve in the military. ROTC funds would, in principle, make an equal amount available for scholarships, but financial incentives should not shape basic curricular decisions. Many from disfavored groups successfully use military service to improve their positions in society, but that is not a compelling educational reason to restore ROTC. Though students wishing to participate in ROTC programs are frustrated in their absence, no university is required to provide all possible programs of education.

Some reasons for rejecting ROTC had some merit in the past, but are exaggerated, distorted or misleading. There is a persistent myth that the military grossly exploits the poor and disadvantaged, who bear a disproportionate share of war’s risks – it follows that ROTC, as part of this unjust pattern, must be rejected. This conclusion is animated by the profoundly American ideal of equality of opportunity. It is nourished in the collective memory of the “last good war”, when more than 10,000,000 people were mobilized with minimal regard to social status. It is also nurtured by clashing memories of the 1960s – some accurate, others not, most by now mythological.

However, like most paths in life, military service is a mix of constraint and choice. Indeed, the enlisted ranks are tilted down in terms of social class, but this profile is comparable to that of similar occupational skills in the civilian labor force, which the military’s occupational structure has come increasingly to resemble. The military is selective in recruiting from the general population -- as of the 2002 fiscal year, 99% of the armed forces had high school diplomas or the equivalent, compared with less than 80% of civilians aged 18 to 44. Eighteen percent of the military is black, compared to 13% of the population, but this figure has been declining -- in FY 2002 it was 16% of those entering service. About ten percent of officers are black. No civilian institution approaches the military in the extent to which blacks exercise authority over whites. Military “affirmative action” programs combine maintenance of standards with extended opportunities; civilian institutions – including universities -- rarely match this performance. Hispanics are the fastest growing group in the military as in the population but remain at two-thirds of their proportion in the nation – respectively, 10% and 14%.

From any perspective on American citizenship, the military is not just another employer -- persons in the armed forces are prepared to risk their lives as servants of the nation’s political will. Whether that will is wise or foolish, risk of death and injury in combat is not an incidental occupational hazard. The distribution of military risks is now shaped by considerations of equity as well as changes in the nature of war. When black soldiers suffered disproportionate battle casualties in the early years of the Vietnam War the military, responding to political pressures, altered its procedures so that casualty figures became proportionate. Of deaths to date in Iraq, casualties among blacks are a third under their proportion in the armed forces service (respectively, 11% versus 18%).  While 18% of whites are in combat units, the comparable proportion of blacks is 12%. In limited combat, as currently in Iraq, the participation of whites in point-of-the-spear units is elevated, and casualty rates among whites correspondingly higher. In warfare of larger scale, as earlier in the Iraq campaign, casualty rates among all groups tend to converge. Among combat-related deaths to date in Iraq, graduates of high schools below the poverty line comprise about 30%, the same percentage of such graduates in the population. The Hispanic casualty rate is slightly elevated, in part because Hispanics’ voluntary service in the Marine Corps is a third higher than their proportion in the armed forces.

The modal combat soldier is white, working class, and from modest to limited circumstances. Some enlist in the military for patriotic reasons, some for lack of alternatives, some for educational benefits, some for adventure and in search of maturity, many for several motives. This pattern reflects the mix of military standards and needs, and of constraint and choice in American society. Certainly, limited access to opportunity plays a role in inducing some to enter the armed forces. If this is a scandal, set it next to the egregiously meager presence in the military of graduates from elite universities. In one Ivy League university, the percentage of graduates in 2004 entering military service was .08% -- it would be unfair to name the institution solely because this figure is at hand. That number represents a broader truth: America’s elites much prefer to have other people’s children in military uniforms. Professional and social elites select themselves out of the military. Of these two scandals, Columbia University has immediate responsibility with respect to one -- the aggregate avoidance by graduates of selective, private universities from the civic duty, now voluntary, of military service to the nation.

The current policy on service by homosexuals means that to restore ROTC is a hard choice between values having a claim upon us. Life is full of hard choices between competing goods. At this time, at this place, one good should displace – not replace -- another. The case for restoring ROTC despite the current policy is not apologetic. We cannot promise that officers from Columbia ROTC, and their counterparts from other institutions, will transform the military world. Were the 40% of currently serving military officers from ROTC – almost 60% in the Army – to include more from selective private universities, this will not have discernible effects in the short or medium term on policies affecting homosexuals. However, liberally educated officers would have important roles in the larger political and cultural dynamic that has historically shaped the military in accordance with American values of civic equality and dignity.

The classic reference is to President Truman’s order of 1948 to racially integrate the armed forces, despite the military’s resistance and prevailing popular prejudice. For more than two years, his order was weakly implemented. When the Korean War, two years later, required intense mobilization and yearly rotations in and out of Korea, racial integration proceeded very rapidly, and by 1954 no segregated units existed. After conscription ended in 1973, the proportion of women in the military rapidly rose to its present level, an indispensable 17%, driven in part by the powerful and continuing movement towards gender equality. The military has long enthusiastically accepted the presence and role of blacks and women out of practical necessity and moral imperative -- two strands blending into one civic bond. The American military derives legitimacy from subordination to civilian authority, and in reflecting the nation’s evolving values.

How may Columbia best contribute to the further expansion of civic respect? The military’s policy on homosexuals, required by Congressional legislation, was an improvised attempt to compensate for President Clinton’s hasty, failed attempt in 1992 to imitate Truman’s great gesture of 1948. The top military rebelled and General Colin Powell, then chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over-reached in challenging a presidential decision. The result was a patchwork, irrational and unstable policy to get past the crisis. Opinion in society and the military has since continued its long-term movement towards broader tolerance -- the current backlash is a tribute to its strength. As strains on military manpower persist, limits on homosexuals’ service are increasingly anomalous. Discharges of homosexuals decline during periods of combat that strain manpower resources, including the post-2001 period. Currently, over-deployment of the National Guard and Reserves, and the return of units to Iraq for two, prospectively three cycles of service, places enormous strains on the military. The long-term security situation presses toward a policy that better meets manpower needs and also reflects an increasingly tolerant society.

Rejecting an ROTC program because of the current policy on homosexuals will not hasten this scenario, grounded in more than six decades of experience, and may well delay it. When the military claims that it is not a place for social experiments, it is half-correct and more than half wrong. President Truman’s order became effective only with the rapid mobilization that followed, and was later sustained by improving attitudes to racial equality. In contrast, “Project 100,000”, a program launched in 1966 to improve the condition of poor and otherwise unqualified men through specially designed military training, was a failure. Successful changes of these kinds are mediated through practical military imperatives and cultural changes in civilian society, and given effect by political decisions.

Military service has played key symbolic and substantive roles in struggles for equal citizenship and civic dignity, but they must be conducted from within as well as without. More than half of Native Americans were ineligible for formal citizenship until their exemplary service in World War I. Japanese-Americans accepted conscription and volunteered in World War II, even as their own government shamefully imprisoned their families. Blacks did not avoid segregated lunch counters, refrain from seeking to vote, or not enter the armed forces, until laws and regulations fully ratified their presence and rights. Blacks, women and the newest military minority, Hispanics, continue to have multiple difficulties in military service. Every group’s experience is profoundly different, and homosexuals have unique difficulties, but all express the struggle for equal citizenship and social dignity.

The resonance of 1960s lingers a generation later – Vietnam is not forgotten, cultural issues persist. Reciprocated misunderstandings, resentments and distrust – originating in that time – abound between military and many cultural and professional elites. Mutual alienations of the military and elite educational institutions damages American democracy. ROTC is a contribution that universities like Columbia may make to a more representative armed service.  This course has stronger claims on us because graduates of selective private universities have so largely abandoned military service, leaving it to others who risk seeming like paid employees rather than fellow-citizens sharing a key civic responsibility. Columbia should not stand in the way of students who wish to serve. The hard choice is to accept ROTC despite the current policy on homosexuals. It may seem wholly virtuous to reject ROTC in present circumstances, but this is not the only virtuous policy. There are no civic utopias, only continuing strivings towards them. Facing this decision, there is no morally free ride.

The distinction between peace and war prevailing in American history has eroded. Questions of war and peace, and of military enterprises of varying scope and substance, are central for the indefinite future. Citizens need to be continuously literate in military matters. Correspondingly, new kinds of military missions, from combat in complex settings to tasks suffused by political and cultural considerations, require broadly educated military leaders. We are summoned as citizens to sound our voices on these great matters in the national arena. However, the national arena and the university are not one and the same. Columbia University, site of one of the great upheavals of the 1960s, is distinctively placed symbolically, and excellently equipped intellectually, to make an important contribution -- indistinguishably civic and educational -- to America.

Selected References

Rogers Brubaker, “In the Name of the Nation: reflections on nationalism and patriotism,” Citizenship Studies, Vol. 8 (2), June 2004, pp. 115-127

Josiah W. Bunting III, “Class Warfare: it is wrong that America’s most privileged families have abandoned military service,” American Scholar, 74(1), 2005, pp.12-18

Center for American Progress, “For Soldier and Country: saving the All-Volunteer Army”, Washington DC, 2005 –

Department of Defense, Population Representation in the Military Services Fiscal Year 2002, Washington DC: Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, 2002 --

Duemere, Lee S., “The History of the Reserve Officer Training Corps Among the Association of American Universities from 1992 to 1992,” Educational Policy Analysis Archives, Vol. 5 (9), March 21, 1997 –

Feaver, Peter D. and Richard M. Kohn (eds)., Soldiers and Civilians: the civil-military gap and American National Security, MIT Press, 2001

Gifford, Brian, “Combat Casualties and Race: what can we learn from the 2003-2004 Iraq Conflict?”, Armed Forces & Society, vol. 31 (2) Winter 2005, pp. 201-25

Korb, Lawrence J and Nigel Holmes, “Two Years and Counting,” New York Times, March 20, 2005, sec.4, p. 13,

Krebs, Ronald R., “Rights and Gun Sights: military service and the politics of citizenship,” PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2003

Krebs, Ronald R., “A School for the Nation? how military service does not build nations, and how it might,” International Security, 28(4), 2004, 85-124

Moskos, Charles and Sibley Butler, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way, NY: Twentieth Century Fund, 1996

Segal, David R. and Mary Weschsler Segal, “America’s Military Population,”. Population Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 4, Washington DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2004

Silver, Allan, “Democratic Citizenship and High Military Strategy,” in Frederick D. Weil (ed.), Research on Democracy and Society, Vol. 2, 1994, pp. 317-49.

Silver, Allan, “America’s Wars, Perfect and Imperfect,” unpublished paper presented to Columbia University Seminar on Political and Social Theory, September 2004

Woodward, Carl van, “The Age of Reinterpretation,” American Historical Review, Vol. 60(1), 1960, pp. 1-19