<< The Body Politic

ROTC returns to the Ivies

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

We recently covered the return of ROTC to Yale and Harvard, both of which have welcomed back the officer training program following the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Indeed, the only Ivy League institution that has failed to do so is Brown University.

Jonathan E. Hillman, with whom the Program’s Cheryl Miller wrote about ROTC and the Ivy League in December, writes this week in the Wall Street Journal about his experience attending the first ROTC class at Harvard this fall. He notes:

Attending that first class, I was reminded of literary scholar Paul Fussell’s observation that “Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.” Like Vietnam, the ROTC debate became a proxy war, a contest of oversize ideas and imagined consequences.

For some, the debate was about civic duty; for others, nondiscrimination. While disagreeing about everything else, both camps agreed that at stake were values and ideals fundamental to American democracy. Lost in the din were the students considering military careers, the people most affected by these sometimes angry, often abstract exchanges.

In retrospect, even recent claims by ROTC opponents were nothing if not melodramatic. In February 2011, a group of 72 Columbia and Barnard faculty members wrote: “The militarization of the campus represented by ROTC’s uniformed presence is at odds with what we, as educators, hold sacrosanct.” Yet at Harvard, daily life continues unchanged for the vast majority of its community. The football field hasn’t been converted to a parade ground, or the dining hall into a mess hall.

ROTC’s return to elite campuses is a tectonic shift in civil-military relations, but one that hasn’t dramatically altered either the university or military landscape. The military never left most college campuses, and the fraction of Ivy League students who choose to serve is relatively small, constituting roughly 1% of commissioned officers in 2010. That number is likely to rise with expanded access, but regardless of future trends, the change for students who choose to participate is real and immediate. No longer are they treated like second-class citizens, forced off campus to pursue their interests. […]

I was there to witness history, but the students making it were there for many reasons. During a round of introductions, one cadet explained that he chose Harvard for its academic rigor but wanted “to challenge both body and mind.” A first-generation American said that he felt compelled to give back for all his family had received. Echoing this sentiment, another said simply, “I love my country.”

Read the whole article here, and learn more about the state of ROTC on college campuses with our “Making ROTC a National Program Again” project.