Americans celebrate citizen-soldiers as expressing the democratic spirit, but the meaning of the citizen-soldier has changed. In America’s three big wars—the Civil War, the two world wars of the 20th century—conscription created large militaries that reflected the nation. Limited conscription during the Cold War ended in the rancor of the Vietnam War. For 35 years, the nation has had an all-volunteer force that has conducted three large enterprises—the Gulf War of 1991, the invasion of Iraq, the campaign in Afghanistan—and is continuously in being. The all-volunteer force is imperfectly a citizen-military that reflects the nation—and not only because it is 1 percent of the population, compared to the 12 percent that served in World War II. That 1 percent is disproportionately drawn from a “military cluster”—Southern, Midwestern, nonurban, and from families with histories of military service. A great divide is opening between citizens who serve and those who do not.
In blunt truth, upscale citizens are sending other citizens’ sons and daughters into military service and to war. If a democracy contemplates or goes to war, all groups should bear its prospective and real sacrifices. As a faculty member at Columbia, I watched student opposition to the Vietnam War dwindle as the odds of being drafted decreased. Today, I observe the distance with which most students view ongoing wars. Columbia’s students are no different from most of the nation’s educated, privileged, professional classes. They have little skin in the nation’s military service and its wars and little contact with those who do.
To advocate ROTC at Columbia is not to endorse policies or wars uncritically. Opposing the Vietnam War, I sought to be prosecuted for aiding students who refused the draft, and I considered the very idea of invading Iraq deceptive and disastrous. Columbia, institutionally neutral on public policy, faces other issues. It is a civic scandal that those with higher prospects in the society and economy are egregiously underrepresented in military service. This damages the republic because it weakens the ties that ought to bind citizens. Military service should be recognized as a distinctive form of public service. Students’ great distance from those in military service, or preparing for it, diminishes preparation for citizenship. It is desirable that officers be educated in settings where policies and wars are more likely to be challenged.
The military greatly contributes to the problem. After Columbia and peer institutions effectively barred ROTC programs 40 years ago, they were relocated in regions where the military felt comfortable. After the Cold War ended, many ROTC programs in the Northeast and large cities were closed and further regrouped elsewhere. Some in the military still nurse resentments from the 1960s, including Columbia’s crisis of 1968. Long after the divisions of that time, the military continues to segregate itself.
President Lee Bollinger has several times suggested that ROTC is unlikely to return to Columbia because its urban programs are based at central institutions that draw from other campuses. So passive a position creates an impression of reluctance. Harvard’s president recently declared that, once homosexuals are legally enabled to serve, “an ROTC program … ought to be fully and formally present on our campus.” Responding, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that “it is incredibly important to have ROTC units at institutions like this ... and I certainly would do all in my power to make that happen.”
There is every good reason for an ROTC presence in Morningside Heights. Harvard is a short distance from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s several ROTC programs just as Columbia students participate in programs at Fordham and Manhattan College. We should actively encourage ROTC’s return to the Northeast, large cities, and elite universities—all combined in our case. Helping to bind up the nation’s wounds of four decades ago, Columbia would strengthen civic bonds between citizens who choose not to bear arms and those who do.
The author is a professor emeritus in the sociology department.