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Columbia University’s ROTC Debate

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Here’s a sneak peak at what the ROTC debate at Columbia will look like once the university senate task force meets. Eight Columbia students and professors met with the Columbia Spectator to discuss whether or not Columbia should reinstate its ROTC program.

The good news is that Columbia ROTC has some knowledgeable and persuasive advocates in student Learned Foote and Army cadets Jose Robledo and John McClelland. (Full disclosure: I’ve met all three when they hosted me at a conference at Columbia on the military and civil society.) Their interlocutors were much less impressive. There are serious objections to be made about returning ROTC to campus—these are not them.

At one point, English Professor Bruce Robbins, while allowing the U.S. military is “cool” to welcome openly gay men and women into its ranks, shared his “research” about America’s “immoral wars” (he has a list!) and then asked, “From the point of view of the planet earth, what is it exactly that you are doing when you are part of the U.S. military? Do you want to encourage this?” Meanwhile, graduate student Liya Yu’s main objection seems to be that the ROTC curriculum includes a class called “Strategies of War.”

On the one hand, this kind of silliness is helpful in revealing the anti-military (and anti-American) sentiment that motivates much of the opposition to ROTC. One can only hope that as more ROTC opponents come out into the open, the student body will be so disgusted by such rhetoric they will vote en masse for ROTC to return.

One last item: I was struck by this exchange between Jose and Professor Robbins:

Robledo: When you look at the military as an instrument of policy, you’re looking at Afghanistan. You’re also looking at Haiti. You’re also looking at Louisiana. You’re also looking at humanitarian missions and international missions. There’s a lot more to the military than war making. There’s also the peacekeeping aspect of it. Now it’s up to the civilians who are in charge of this tool [to determine] how it’s implemented overseas. But the tool exists, and the tool is something that [ROTC is] feeding into.

Bruce Robbins: I think you just said two contradictory things. You said the military is a tool of civilian policy, and you said it’s the young lieutenants who are making the policy.

Robledo: I have to correct myself. [I meant] enforcing that policy.

Jose was making an important point (one that Foote also made later in the conversation): that U.S. military policy is made not by the military, but by civilians, namely the president and the Congress. If Robbins and Yu have a beef with the war in Afghanistan, they should be arguing with President Obama—not Columbia’s ROTC.

That said, Jose reversed himself a little too quickly. Military officers—especially young lieutenants in Iraq and Afghanistan—implement civilian policy, but they have wide latitude in doing so. Their ability to understand the situation they’re in—and make the right decision—is crucial. Just read John Dickerson’s extraordinary story about General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, in Slate:

For Mattis, the teaching didn’t stop once the Marines got to the fight. He constantly toured the battlefield to tell stories of Marines who were able to show discretion and cultural sensitivity in moments of high pressure—the Marines who greeted an Iraqi funeral by clearing the street and removing their helmets, or the ones who diffused a street protest by handing out water rather than raising their rifles. He told of a platoon attacked by insurgents in Al-Anbar who, after suffering brutal losses, showed kindness to the civilians caught in the crossfire. “They had just finished scraping up their buddies off the deck but showed the people respect,” he says. “Those were Marines the enemy didn’t succeed in turning into racists who hated everyone.” In other words, Mattis called on his troops to accept more immediate risks—to not shoot, to remove helmets—in order to plant seeds for future peace.

Later, General Mattis explained that none of the new technologies and weapons systems “would have helped me in the last three years [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. But I could have used cultural training [and] language training. I could have used more products from American universities [who] understood the world does not revolve around America and [who] embrace coalitions and allies for all of the strengths that they bring us.”

Whether Columbia restores ROTC or not will have no influence on President Obama’s decision-making about Afghanistan—as Professor Robbins and his supporters concede. However, it will affect the ability of the American military to find and recruit the kinds of officers General Mattis needs—the kind who understand when to stand down and when to fight.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.