<< The Body Politic

Making ROTC a National Program Again

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Yesterday, my colleague Gary Schmitt and I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the civil-military divide and how an expanded Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) can bridge that gap. We’ve gotten a lot of great responses, both on the AEI Facebook page and the Wall Street Journal comments section. There are a few common concerns and questions that keep coming up, so we want to address them briefly in this space.

1) We are not arguing for bringing back the draft.

Many service men and women wrote to say they had no interest in serving with a draftee. They’re right. As we wrote in our op-ed, the all-volunteer force has done a remarkable job. Bringing back the draft isn’t necessary and would be a mistake. As Gary put it in 2007:

Converting today’s volunteer military into a conscript force would result in a dramatic degradation of its effectiveness and professionalism, seriously reducing its competence in precisely the areas most urgently required in post-combat operations—policing, training of indigenous forces, and counterinsurgency operations. It is impossible, moreover, to imagine a system of conscription that is remotely fair.

That analysis still stands today. (For more on this subject, see our colleague Tom Donnelly’s excellent discussion here.)

2) ROTC programs are located in the South because that’s where demand is.

Or as commenter Chris Mackenzie asks, “Are they ‘drawn’ from a narrower segment, or does a narrower segment ‘volunteer’?” Several commenters also noted the South’s pro-military culture as a factor, with many citing Senator James Webb’s book on the fighting Scots-Irish.

Southerners are justly proud of their strong military tradition. But our interlocutors seem to be caught in a false dilemma: i.e., that the only role military policy can play in bringing greater diversity to the armed forces is by a draft. This is simply not true. The services can, and should, broaden their reach. What’s more, outreach can make a real difference:

The two remaining New York City programs—at St. John’s and Fordham—are both fragile. Cadets often have long commutes involving buses and trains to reach them. Ms. Jurj says she has to get up at 4 a.m. to make it from Queens to her 6 a.m. mandatory Saturday ROTC class at Fordham. On days when she sleeps late she has to pay $40 in cab fare.

Without aggressive leadership, the programs can also quickly falter. In 2000, the ROTC program at Fordham University in the Bronx was producing about five officers a year and was on the verge of being shut down. The officers, who ran the program, rarely left the Fordham campus to recruit cadets.

Today it yields about 25 officers a year. A key player in the turnaround is Maj. Mike Hoblin, a Fordham ROTC grad and native New Yorker who was assigned to the program at its low ebb. Shortly after he arrived, Maj. Hoblin began offering ROTC classes at Fordham’s campus in Lincoln Center, easing the commute for students who attend colleges in Manhattan, such as Columbia and New York University. Today the Fordham program has nine cadets from NYU, up from none in 2000 [emphasis added].

There are lots of patriots in the Ivy League, the Northeastand the big cities willing and ready to serve. We should not be so quick in dismissing them.

3) So why the South?

Southern patriotism certainly plays a role in allocating ROTC programs. But as several readers noted, budgetary constraints are also a big factor. Programs in the South are simply more cost-effective, producing a greater number of graduates at a lower cost per cadet.

The official History of the U.S. Army Cadet Command largely bears out this supposition. To give just one indicator of the general climate, in 1991, the Government Accountability Office issued the following report: “Reserve Officers’ Training Corps: Less Need for Officers Provides Opportunity for Significant Savings.” The result? In the early 1990s when the Army was downsizing at the end of the Cold War, it shuttered 70 programs, many of those in the Northeast and often over the objections of the schools’ administrations and students.

This is a business model and, to some extent, understandably attractive in a period of declining resources, such as was the case in 1990s. But the ROTC has larger goals than just producing officers in the most cost-efficient manner possible. (If it doesn’t, we should close it—and the academies as well—since officer candidate school is a far cheaper commissioning source.) As a 1996 report on military education by the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted:

As they cut their force structure and troop rolls, the services must realize efficiencies by reducing the number of ROTC scholarships and programs. The [CSIS] panel found compelling, however, arguments that one of the greatest attributes of the ROTC is its diversity in terms of representing a broad cross-section of the American populace. The services should thus strive to retain that diverse character even as they downsize their ROTC programs … This is a national imperative beyond the military scope of this report.

We should be cautious about simply placing budgetary considerations over and above other important goals, even while the services face future cuts to their budgets.

4) The military is a fighting force, not an outreach program.

Commenter Lee Rea put this argument most colorfully: “The military does not exist to provide a test bed for sociological research; it exists to KILL the nation’s enemies.”

Lee is right: Any policy that degrades the effectiveness of our armed forces would be a mistake. Fortunately, expanding ROTC in the Northeast and in urban areas would help strengthen the officer corps. We’re currently fighting a counterinsurgency that demands innovative leadership, language skills, and cultural knowledge. The diverse student body in the North and our big cities has a lot to offer in that regard.

Moreover, as Gary and I noted in our op-ed, many service men and women have served multiple tours of duty in the current fight. This is hard on them, and hard on their families, as the high attrition rates for young officers attest. We can’t keep turning to the same small pool of people and asking more from them indefinitely.

It’s a mistake too to see the ROTC issue merely in terms of the Left vs. Right, or elites vs. non-elites. For one thing, American universities today are not hotbeds of protest and anti-military sentiment. Student opinion is largely neutral and even positive about ROTC, even at the “bad” Ivies.

More importantly, it’s not just elites or Ivy Leagues who are affected by ROTC’s departure from the North—it’s a broad segment of American society. To give just one example, there is not a single Navy ROTC anywhere in New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, or Rhode Island. That means a student from the University of Connecticut or from Rutgers is just as disadvantaged as a Princetonian or Yalie by our current policy.

Consider this powerful comment by Kenneth Benway:

I ran an Army ROTC program in Boston for four years in the mid-80s. Because of the cost of living, I had to travel 3 hours round trip daily to and from home, and did so largely on public transport. I cannot tell you how many times I would sit next to a person on the train or the subway, and strike up a conversation that would end with that person saying: You know, I’ve never spoken to a soldier before. And, at least early in my tour, we would end our conversation with looks of mutual amazement at that revelation [emphasis added].

This is a mistake. If our young people never have a chance to even meet a service member, why would they want to join?

Please keep sending in your questions. This is an important conversation for our nation to have, and we appreciate all the thoughtful comments.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.