Issue: Are the cultures of the university and the military compatible on questioning authority?

Instance of the issue: “Columbia and Barnard Faculty Opposed to ROTC's Return” wrote that they “hold it to be a matter of the most profound principle and educational philosophy that the idea of a university and the ethos of the military are incompatible”.  Their key reason was that the military “trains people for obedience to the chain of command, whereas the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness”.

Facts: They are correct that there is a culture of following orders in the military, as there should be. But training that a university provides in “critical and constantly questioning” thinking is often exactly what is needed to prevent disastrous application of military force.  Such failure to question was the crucial flaw in interactions of subordinates with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, argues Major General Robert H. Scales.  Rumsfeld, he suggests, came across as so confident that his thousands of “snowflakes” messages, meant to stimulate thought, were interpreted by subordinates as orders, and the subordinates failed to engage Rumsfeld and provide proper feedback. 

But some subordinates understood exactly where Rumsfeld was coming from. As criticism of Rumsfeld was mounting in April 2006, then Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told two leaders of Advocates for ROTC that he felt comfortable in discussions with Rumsfeld.  Petraeus said he had to be on his toes, but the give and take reminded him of rigorous discussions at Princeton, where Petraeus did his PhD, and where Rumsfeld was an undergraduate. Petraeus and Rumsfeld were both playing by Princeton rules.  They understood each other and Petraeus got promoted and was able to put in place a plan to turn the tide in Iraq. 

Implications: If we took the advice of “Columbia and Barnard Faculty Opposed to ROTC's Return” and built a high wall between military thinking and academic thinking we’d have civilian leaders and military leaders who don’t understand each other. This is what people mean by the “civil-military gap”.  It is not an abstract problem – it is a cultural difference that could lead to disastrous consequences if not bridged by military leaders who understand both the culture of following orders and the spirited give-and-take of the academic world. 

We need more such military leaders, and ROTC at top colleges is a great way to train them. And since those same top colleges train many of our civilian leaders, we need those future leaders to grow up knowing others who serve in the military.  We need civilian leaders and military leaders who can communicate well enough with each other to get results that end wars, not prolong or lose them. 

The professors at Columbia are correct that they offer an atmosphere different from that at the service academies. They should be proud of their atmosphere of give-and-take, and confident of instilling that spirit in a new generation of leaders in all areas of society, including the military. Columbia has stepped up to such challenges in the past, having instituted its signature Contemporary Civilization core course in 1917 as a discussion of war and peace issues for the Student Army Training Corps. 

As Columbia University considers whether to ask for an ROTC program, it should build on its proud tradition of educating leaders and its record of having over 200 veterans as undergraduates, far more than other Ivy colleges. It should aim for an ROTC program that preserves its values of academic freedom and high quality, and it should aim to transcend the civil-military gap, not surrender to it.

Similar points have been made in these articles:

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