Comments on Prof. Ruth Wisse's article "Gliberalism"

Allan Silver, Professor of Sociology, Columbia University
January 28, 2007

It is hardly necessary to mention those aspects of Prof. Wisse’s statement with which we all, I think, readily agree. Other aspects of her statement divide us, limit our ability to form a broad coalition, and offer a distorted, highly partisan interpretation.

To expect “elite centers of learning” in 1973, when conscription ended, to have mobilized in support of student military service is evasively unhistorical. As one who lived through that period at Columbia, I have first-hand knowledge of the many absurdities, and worse, of campus life at that time. However, primary responsibility lies with a national leadership that started, and conducted so badly, so unnecessary war as that in Vietnam. Others will not agree with that assessment, but despite that we can all cooperate in our present endeavors. Prof. Wisse’s error lies in not mentioning the question at all, thereby putting all the blame for the alienation of “elite centers” from military service on the universities. She ignores the costs imposed on the nation by the grievous errors of our national leadership.

That was then, this is now. “The president took the war to the enemy”, according to Prof. Wisse, and the elite universities alone among major institutions have failed to play a role. Was the enemy in Iraq? Was al-Qaeda in Iraq? Was Hussein developing nuclear weapons? Was military, political and cultural intelligence honestly evaluated and honorably reported to the public? Did the president raise taxes in a time of war, or call upon the citizens for efforts other than to continue to shop and travel? Did the administration propose new, expanded forms of national service, including a military component? Did it undertake programs, involving sacrifice and inconvenience, to lessen our dependence on oil from the Middle East? Did the administration seek to enlarge our military forces and make clear the obligation of students at the most selective institutions to offer their service and talents in the new, subtle forms of war? Has the Department of Defense indicated to selective private universities an interest in establishing ROTC programs, out of current need and to bind up the cultural wounds of forty years ago? Or, rather, has it continued to be content in its red state and land-grant college enclaves? The universities have certainly been laggard – but so has our national leadership. This tango, like all others, requires two.

Prof. Wisse seeks to perpetuate the cultural wars of the 1960s. However, as she rightly says, undergraduates have repeatedly indicated their support for fellow-students who wish to serve in the military – this is true at Columbia as well as the other universities she mentions. There is no accumulation of counter-cultural tensions ready to explode as four decades ago. It is always possible to seize upon some immature and unacceptable act by students to link the counter-culture of yesteryear with the current, very different situation. But this is a new time, to which neither our national leadership nor the universities have thus far adequately responded.

Whether we agree or not with Prof. Wisse’s perspective, or mine, we can, should and must all cooperate in restoring ROTC to Columbia and other institutions. However, I dissent from the assumption that her perspective defines our shared endeavor.

Prof. Silver has been one of the leading faculty supporters for return of ROTC to Columbia.