Several students have written to me about the ROTC debate recently, and in particular about my decision to sign the faculty statement in support of an ROTC program at Columbia. I told them it had something to do with my upbringing, but left it at that. This is what I would have liked to tell them.
I grew up in a working-class Detroit neighborhood where military service was common—not because people there were more patriotic than elsewhere, but because their sons were being drafted to fight in Vietnam. No one in my family had ever been to college and less than half of my high school class would go, and certainly no one in my neighborhood got a deferment. Up and down the streets you saw illuminated stars in the living room windows, indicating that families had (or had had) a son on active duty. If the star was blue the boy was still alive, if it was gold he had been killed.
My family and I were completely opposed to the war, and in the mid-’60s that put us in a minority. But once the war escalated after the 1968 Tet Offensive, the mood changed. More young men were being drafted, more were dying. Our next-door neighbor had three sons, and the first two finished their tours of duty without incident. (We used to watch their 8mm films sent back from the front.) But the youngest was among the first troops sent secretly into Cambodia in 1970, and among the first to die, shot to pieces while leading his men over a suspension bridge. Hundreds turned out for the funeral. My strongest memory of that day is of the wake, which was held in a friend’s backyard. Neighbors crying, and young men in dress uniform sitting on folding chairs, staring at the ground and drinking themselves into oblivion.
Opinion in the neighborhood then turned against the war, not out of high principle but out of experience. But paradoxically, or so I thought then, they also turned against the anti-war movement, whose stance struck them as contemptuous of the United States, of working people, and of their children’s military service. It was a class thing. In 1972, this once solidly Democratic area rejected George McGovern and voted for George Wallace for president instead. I thought it was madness, but when I got to college, I began to understand their reaction. I was as opposed to the war as any of my classmates, but I also understood the conflicted feelings of pride and betrayal that families affected by the war experienced. The students I knew were upper-middle class kids who had never met a soldier, yet had baroque theories about the military-industrial complex, and totally unrealistic views about war. I had no respect for them.
It’s true that in the Vietnam Era detachment from military life led the upper-middle class to oppose a war that did not affect them directly (though dogmatically and without much thought given to the consequences for Southeast Asia). In 2003, though, the tables turned and that same class acquiesced to the foolhardy Iraq war, for the same reason: it did not affect them. Their detachment played right into the hands of the war’s planners, many of whom escaped the Vietnam War with student deferments at places like Harvard and Cornell and Princeton. We mustn’t forget that the military officer corps was skeptical of the war’s purported justifications—they knew battle first-hand. But the civilian pro-war faction counted on the fact that so long as the conflict didn’t enter the consciousness or affect the daily lives of middle-class Americans, they would be free to conduct it as they wished. All they had to do was invoke 9/11, outsource much of the fighting to private firms, and hire dirt-poor kids in need of a paycheck to do the fighting. They guessed that such a war would face no serious opposition, and they were right.
This appalls and worries me. I’ve heard some persuasive arguments being made against reinstating ROTC in American universities, but also one very bad one: that keeping the military “bacillus” off campus helps to resist militarism. Just the opposite is the case. Historically, democracies with strong civilian control of, and wide participation in, the military are less likely to conduct wars than countries with a distinct military class. We are quickly developing such a class today, with uneducated soldiers drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of the country, and officers drawn heavily from areas of the South and West that are narrowly religious, suspicious of educated elites, and without access to our best universities. At the same time we are shielding students at our best institutions from any contact with military life, which only deepens their ignorance of political realities and encourages their single-minded focus on getting rich. It’s a very unhealthy situation.
This is why I signed the statement. In democracies you do not control the military by holding soldiers at arm’s length. You do it by holding them close.
Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities.