After the Vote:
Why ROTC Belongs At Columbia

Prof. Allan Silver
Department of Sociology, Columbia University
May 8, 2005

The Senate’s vote on restoring ROTC was decisive numerically but not substantively. One concern dominated the rejection of an ROTC program – congressional legislation prohibiting military service by homosexuals makes the program categorically unacceptable. It is difficult to question the force and sincerity of this objection. Indeed, to propose another policy risks seeming hostile or indifferent to homosexuals’ claims to equality in civic status and dignity. However, while it may seem wholly virtuous to reject ROTC, this is not the only virtuous choice. Considering both the university’s educational and civic responsibilities, and an optimal strategy to extend the civic dignity of homosexuals, the hard choice is to restore ROTC.

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 – three, on one count – 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.

Conscription is a policy of the past. With it 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?

A myth persists that the military grossly exploits the poor and disadvantaged. However, the enlisted ranks exclude the 20% of the population without high school degrees or its equivalent, and their profile is comparable to that of similar occupational skills in the civilian labor force. Certainly, limited opportunity induces some to enlist. 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% -- to name the institution solely because this figure is at hand would be unfair. 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 concerning one -- the aggregate avoidance by graduates of selective, private universities from the civic duty, now voluntary, of military service to the nation.

Military service has played a key symbolic role in struggles for equal citizenship and civic dignity, struggles 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. Women continue to join the military despite problems ranging from the annoying to the grievous. Each group’s experience is profoundly different and the integration of homosexuals in the military is attended with distinctive difficulties. However, all are struggles for equal citizenship and social dignity.

The classic reference is to President Truman’s order of 1948 to racially integrate the armed forces. However, despite his personal commitment, Truman’s order was very weakly implemented due to the military’s resistance and prevailing popular prejudices. Racial integration proceeded rapidly only after the Korean War, starting two years later, began to require intense mobilization – by 1954 no segregated units remained. 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 enthusiastically accepted the presence and role of blacks and women out of practical necessity and moral imperative – two strands blending into one civic bond. Successful changes of these kinds are mediated through practical military imperatives and cultural changes in civilian society, and given effect by political decisions. Rejecting an ROTC program because of the current policy on homosexuals does not advance, and may well impede, this broad scenario, grounded in the experience of eight decades.

This historical pattern indicates Columbia’s proper course. Opinion in society and the military continues a long-term movement towards extended tolerance. In the society, the current backlash is a tribute to its strength. In the military, the proportion accepting of homosexuals, steadily rising, has reached half, and the Pentagon’s legal office is proposing to adopt protections in civilian law for consensual and private homosexual relations. As strains on military manpower persist, discharges of homosexuals decline and limits on their service are increasingly anomalous. The long-term situation presses toward policies that better meets manpower needs and reflects an increasingly tolerant society. At the campus level, can anyone doubt that ROTC programs at institutions like Columbia stretch the terms of current policy to its expanding limits?

Restoring ROTC has stronger claims because graduates of selective private universities have so largely abandoned military service, leaving it to others who risk becoming like paid employees rather than fellow-citizens sharing a key civic responsibility. Columbia should provide an institutional basis for students who wish to enter military service through ROTC. There are no civic utopias, only continuing strivings towards them. In that space of striving, Columbia should join other private institutions – among them Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, MIT and Johns Hopkins – which have ROTC programs while making it emphatically clear that they object to legislation prohibiting service by open homosexuals.

Sole focus on the clash between the university’s policies on discrimination and current law evades substantive discussion of the university’s broader responsibility. 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.