The Forum | Intellectual Diversity

Reflections on ROTC

July 29, 2006

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Second Lt. John Renehan argues that it is not enough simply to have ROTC on campus–campus leaders must also set a tone that encourages undergraduates to register the importance of serving your country:

…for a swath of affluent and educated young people, the idea of military service is completely foreign, and was so before September 11, 2001, or the war in Iraq. That, more than risk aversion or political beliefs, is what is fundamentally at work in low service rates among college students. Military service is just not something that most college students–particularly those at elite campuses–seriously consider, and it has not been for some time.

The Selective Service once imposed the hardness of the wider world upon the mind of every male student (and upon the bodies of many). No more. Since the abolition of the peacetime draft in 1973, duty has become “duty” strictly a matter of personal choice, for men and women alike. And many now choose to see military service as, frankly, bizarre.


Such broad absence from service on the part of the country’s elite cannot be justified by its opposition to the Iraq war. The wisdom of invading Iraq is irrelevant to the question of what we should do there now–and many people in both main political parties agree that a U.S. military presence in Iraq remains critical. What we have here is a bona fide national burden, and the privileged classes have largely excused themselves from it.

No recruiting effort, however heroic, can fundamentally change that. It can only be done by individuals, influenced by ideas, choosing to influence others–by persuasion or (most persuasive of all) by example.

The Solomon Amendment and its litigious aftermath have effectively framed the question of campus ROTC as a question of access (though much of the controversy surrounding Solomon has focussed on military recruiters at law schools, it’s important to remember that the law covers ROTC as well). There are good, practical reasons for this–when access is what’s being denied, as was increasingly the case before the Amendment became law, then access is what must be reinstated.

But access is not everything, and campus climates are enormously powerful, if amorphous, things. On many campuses today, a strong anti-military bias is fed by the faculty and is underscored by administrators’ deep reluctance to allow the military to set foot on campus (Rumsfeld v. FAIR testified powerfully to the depth of that bias and to the breadth of that reluctance). Student-led anti-military protests abound, while campus-wide discussions of citizenship, civic duty, and service are virtually absent (in their place we find speech codes, sensitivity training, awareness education, and a host of other rituals and rules designed to encourage individuals to see themselves not as Americans with a duty to their country, but as members of more or less aggrieved groups that deserve reparation and special protection from those in power).

Are administrators likely to take up Renehan’s challenge? No. But that just emphasizes the importance of his larger point.


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