Columbia’s Navy ROTC program proceeds apace. As discussed in these pages last Friday, the military has gone from total exclusion to a permanent Lerner office. I and many others opposed ROTC’s return then and now, but (for the time being) it looks like the program’s presence is something we will have to accept. The question then becomes: How do we minimize the damage to Columbia, Columbians, and the unfortunates caught up in America’s military machinery? If ROTC is to be a part of our campus, what can be done to make it less harmful, perhaps even beneficial? To answer these questions, one must first revisit the reasons why ROTC was opposed. Many people made many arguments at the time, but the most compelling to me are these:
First, the U.S. military is still a fundamentally discriminatory organization. “Don’t ask don’t tell” was often cited as the reason ROTC was not welcome on campus; its repeal was often cited as the reason for ROTC’s return. However, the focus on “don’t ask don’t tell” ignores the military’s continued and explicit discrimination against women, who are forbidden from combat roles. The suggestion that women are somehow incapable of combat would be offensive enough, but the prohibition does not even succeed on its own twisted paternalistic grounds: In wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the frontline is impossible to define, women have often found themselves in combat and conducted themselves admirably. The policy serves only to exclude women from more prestigious jobs and combat pay. I restrict myself here to official sexism: I won’t even go into the disturbingly high incidence of rape that commanders seem unwilling or unable to address.
Second, the U.S. military is the world’s largest instrument of imperialism. During the debates over ROTC, advocates of return often said that Columbia was not an inherently pacifist institution and that the administration should remain neutral in that debate. However, Columbia is also not inherently supportive of U.S. foreign policy. By providing education, training, and material support to the American military, the University provides direct support to the reprehensible actions the military carries out overseas and takes the American side in any conflicts. Any semblance of neutrality, any pretense that Columbia is a impartial place in which to debate academic issues of international relations, disappeared when the administration started granting credits and offices to Navy ROTC.
Finally, ROTC is bad for Columbia students. The model of exchanging scholarships for mandatory future service is fundamentally exploitative, tempting high school seniors with money and a rose-tinted, video-game version of military service. Once committed, escape is extraordinarily expensive. If a Columbia education changes a student’s view on war generally or U.S. war in particular, too bad: Unless you can pay back the entire scholarship, you must serve. The career of soldier (perhaps more accurately: professional murderer) is one with weighty moral implications. A system which requires graduates to follow their high-school senior selves into battle is not something the University should encourage.
But these arguments fell on deaf ears. Now that Columbia has committed itself to the Navy, we should try to mitigate the effects of that poor decision. I propose that the University do what it does best: educate. The Navy, or at least the officers we provide to it, must be made to fall more in line with the principles Columbia holds dear. The administration has decided to give course credit for instruction in murder. It should also provide instruction in the consequences and context of that act. The Core provides a good starting point, but a required course or courses for midshipmen, more sharply focused on the military’s special concerns, is also in order. Students in ROTC should be asked to consider, in an academic setting, the sorts of concerns that kept Columbia from having ROTC for four decades. The officers we produce should be the sorts of men and women who will end problems like institutional sexism, imperial interventions, and exploitative marketing of war. They should understand the deep flaws in the organization to which they have devoted themselves and have the tools to fix it. They should leave, in short, with the sort of political education a drill sergeant will never provide. If enough universities required classes of this sort, one can imagine a different sort of officer corps: one that is tolerant and inclusive, one that does not try to sell its morbid duties, one that is unwilling to follow clearly immoral orders into clearly immoral wars.
I am not a pacifist, but the U.S. military as it stands right now is no fit partner for our University or any university. If the administration is determined to support the Navy, it ought to at least provide a forum for discourse with the other side, a slight inculcation against the militarist training midshipmen will surely receive.
Alex Collazo is a Columbia College senior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the president of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I’m Just Saying runs alternate Mondays.
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