In 1969, ROTC left Columbia’s campus. Massive student demonstrations protesting Columbia’s involvement in the Vietnam War had created an atmosphere on campus electric with anti-war fervor and radical idealism, and under such massive anti-military pressure, Columbia dissolved its ROTC program. Forty-two years later, however, with the U.S. Senate’s repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which the University administration had consistently cited as the major reason behind not allowing ROTC back on to Columbia’s campus, it is imperative that the University formally invite ROTC back to Morningside Heights. While ROTC’s initial banishment from Columbia’s campus may have been an earnest reaction to the real anti-war sentiment that permeated throughout the University in the late 1960s, its continued absence has instead become a harbinger of the growing disconnect between the education of students at elite universities and the realities of the American society in which they live.
For some members of the Columbia community, however, ROTC remains fundamentally incompatible with Columbia. In his letter to the editor, Columbia University sociology professor Herbert Gans wrote that Columbia’s goal of a liberal arts education and ROTC’s goals are “incompatible” because “ROTC is in part a leadership training program for the killing of other people and the destruction of their societies.” If a substantial portion of the Columbia community was truly committed to the message of non-violence that Professor Gans is espousing here, as the student protesters of the 1960s were, Columbia’s decision to keep ROTC off of campus would make sense. Gans is opposed to the mission of ROTC, which is why he does not want Columbia to support this mission.
However, there is very little evidence to suggest that this message of non-violence pervades the Columbia community in any significant way. There are no large demonstrations protesting the military as an institution. The editorial page of Spectator is not filling up with arguments against U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Indeed, if there is a vein of anti-war fervor in the community, it is completely silent. There is not much pro-military sentiment on campus either. Instead, the campus community seems largely unaffected by questions of war and the place of the U.S. military in American society and in the world at large. In a recent New York Times article, two Columbia students were quoted as saying that they did not morally oppose the establishment of ROTC on Columbia’s campus, but that they did not believe ROTC would be a good fit because “most people come here to have a specific career,” and “aren’t focused on military service.” I heard this sentiment echoed the other day while waiting in line for a bagel at Nussbaum & Wu. “We all hate the war and stuff,” said a girl in front of me, “but why? It’s not like anyone here knows people in the military.”
This kind of unaffected apathy toward the military in one of the nation’s most elite universities is perhaps the single most dangerous and irresponsible attitude that the Columbia community could take toward matters of war. Essentially, by refusing to allow ROTC on campus but simultaneously refusing to speak out against the mission of the U.S. military or the wars that it conducts, Columbia is benefiting from the service of the U.S. military without being forced to see what actually goes into making war. This creates a massive class divide, desensitizing the people who will most likely be calling the shots in political matters in future decades from the realities of war—which legitimizes claims that elite universities are out of touch with mainstream America. While bringing ROTC to campus would certainly not fix student apathy overnight, it would bring people who are interested in military careers to the campus through full scholarship programs, forcing students to meet the people who fight wars for them. This way, members of the Columbia community could see at least a slice of the real-life implications of war, which would perhaps provide a real motivation behind either supporting or opposing a war.
It is therefore imperative that Columbia brings ROTC back to campus, particularly now that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has removed the last legitimate excuse for keeping the military outside of Columbia’s gates. So long as Columbia continues to implicitly support the wars conducted by the U.S. military by refusing to speak out against them in any significant manner, the campus community must be made aware of what it means to raise an army and fight a war. Until this is done, Columbia is educating a generation of students who are aloof and out of touch with the realities of the country in which they live.
Nick Bloom is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English with a History concentration. He is a programmer at WKCR. Bursting Bubbles from the Inside runs alternate Tuesdays.