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Why NYC needs ROTC

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The Yale faculty votes today on a committee’s recommendation that the school again recognize ROTC. Assuming a successful outcome—which seems likely—Yale will join Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford in rescinding its Vietnam-era ban on the program.

However, the ROTC homecoming is not complete.  Even as elite schools reestablish ties, the ROTC program has largely lost its “national” character, becoming increasingly Southern and rural. Its critical civic function—ensuring that the officer corps reflects the nation as a whole—has been forgotten.

Nowhere is this clearer than in New York City, America’s largest and most diverse metropolis. For the past twenty years, New York has been served by just four ROTC programs within its five boroughs—programs that are insufficiently resourced and not centrally located. In a report for the AEI Program on American Citizenship, I consider the consequences of this neglect not only for the city and its students (many of whom are eager to serve), but for military effectiveness and the health of civil-military relations, more generally.

The young men and women of New York City represent a huge untapped pool of talent that could help the military meet the challenges of the post-9/11 security environment. However, expanding the ROTC footprint would have a more significant impact than just improving military effectiveness. An essential aspect of a healthy citizenry, especially in a republic such as ours, is the will and capacity to perform some form of public service—with none being more fundamental than that of putting one’s life on the line as a member of the armed forces. With an all-volunteer force whose members are increasingly drawn from a narrower segment of the American public, that choice is no longer fully available to the whole country, making it less likely that the public can truly appreciate the sacrifices made by those who do serve. These are trend lines that can, and should, be reversed. Reversing the downward turn of ROTC programs in New York City would be an important first step.