In light of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the debate over an officially recognized ROTC program at Columbia has been revived in full force.The Eye sat down with a group of eight professors and students from both sides of the debate to discuss whether or not Columbia should reinstate its ROTC program.
The Eye’s Jennifer Fearon: Why should, or should not, Columbia reinstate ROTC at this time?
Allan Silver: I think it should. I’m disturbed by the undemocratic nature of military service, with special reference to the officer corps, as that is what ROTC is concerned with. The officer corps is disproportionately recruited from other regions than the Northeast: from people whose whole families have a history of military service, and, with exceptions, don’t go to schools like those in the Ivy League, excepting, of course, the service academies, such as West Point. The service academies are military academies.
Only one percent of the population is in military service at any one time. We have a small, volunteer army, as opposed to the large, conscript army that we had in 1968. I think the big problem is: people who have advantages in life, who [receive an] education at a place like this and at comparable schools, should not be segregated from those who serve in military service [because of] other circumstances. I think it’s bad for citizenship, I think it’s bad for education, I think it’s bad for the military, and I think it’s bad for the American polity. I think that it would add to the diversity of the student population in a healthy way, in that those who serve in the military will not be foreigners and strangers to the great majority, [which is] those who don’t—in contrast to the conscript armies of the past. Military service now is a great distance, in an institution like ours, from what you had [before]: in effect, upscale people sending the children of other people into military service and war.
Herbert Gans: Allan and I have been arguing this for decades. Let me begin with [his] last statement: [Columbia] is an upscale school and you’re going to send more upscale officers. However, whenever [that] argument comes up, I always think immediately of “the best and the brightest” of Harvard [who] brought us into the Vietnam War. Those were some of the very smartest people at Harvard. Aside from that, I think the military, as an institution, couldn’t care less about who went to school where. I can’t imagine Donald Rumsfeld or even Mr. Robert Gates or anyone else would pick someone from the Ivy League because they might’ve gotten a better education—that’s all trivial. I think the more important thing is that the military has other priorities.
We profess to be teaching [students] the liberal arts here. There is a lot of rhetoric about the liberal arts and I think much of it is hot air. I happen to believe that the liberal arts ought not be engaged in [teaching] war-making. In fact, I would say specifically that Columbia ought to instead set up a “POTC”—a peace officers training corps. It’s time to start training more people who can figure out how to make peace, which involves the social sciences and the humanities, among other things. It is a badly needed profession because there are a lot more wars of various kinds that need people with the ability to understand them and the people they are affecting systematically. It’s very important and I don’t think anybody is doing it.
John McClelland: I’d like to start out here by taking up your point about an institute of peace. I think we should invest…
Gans: Not an institute of peace. A Peace Officers Training Corps.
McClelland: I absolutely think we should invest more in an institution like the Peace Corps.
Gans: I’m not talking about the Peace Corps; I’m talking about a Peace Officers Training Corps. There are peace officers all over the world right now and they are screwing up [at keeping the peace] everywhere for reasons not of their own making. I think we need to start training people because, the more people that know how to make peace [work on the ground], the better. I’m sorry for interrupting.
McClelland: I do think that one of the benefits of having people come into the military having a liberal education, a Columbia education, who have a knowledge of the Core Curriculum, who have a diverse group of friends, who have a diverse background socioeconomically and also in terms of having friends from all different walks of life. [This background] gives them a unique toolset when I’m going to go over there as an infantry platoon leader running counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. War is going to be there regardless of if I’m in ROTC or not, and whether there is an ROTC program at Columbia or not. At least I will be equipped with many of the tools.
I just got a Facebook message from one of my friends, who is in Afghanistan. He graduated from the Gallatin School at NYU, which is probably one of the last places you’d expect to find an army officer. He’s trying to do the best that he can, he understands the kind of anti-imperialism that he grew up in and, in many ways, believes in. At the same time, he is trying to do the best he can to ensure that the people he’s interacting with see peace. Everybody wants peace. I didn’t join the military to go cause war—I served as a medic overseas. Afghanistan and Iraq is a different story. I think from training the military and producing an officer corps that is representative of the United States that we buy into maintaining our identity within the officer corps.
Liya Yu: I’d like to take you up on that. You say that you support peace, but, if you look at the curriculum of ROTC, it says things like “Strategies of War,” how to be strategic on the battlefield, which is entirely legitimate, it’s how an army works. However, I think we speak about ROTC as if we needed a sort of ROTC civil rights movement. I think that that is not quite the case and that is painting the picture rather bleakly. Columbia is supporting a lot of veterans through education, through the Counseling Service, helping them to get back into society, and Columbia does not bar people who want to take ROTC classes at Fordham to join Columbia. The issue there is that they just can’t get credits there and so on and so forth. I think that we shouldn’t frame this either in a moral way nor should we use Columbia too quickly as an institution to remedy the social ills of American society. Columbia in the past years has been remarkably internationalized. How does this international outlook actually fit with ROTC, a very national institution?
Paco Martin del Campo: This is a very complex issue for the reasons you just raised. To add to that, the fact of the matter is that Columbia has an image as an elite institution. I think we all can agree that that might be the case, no one’s arguing with that. The fact is that there is a significant minority in the student body that comes from underprivileged backgrounds who would be equally incentivized. This idea of recruitment is something that I think we need to be very careful with because oftentimes we see, in inner-city communities, predatory recruitment if you want to talk about addressing a problem without the proper solution. I mean, we’re 25 years into having Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the three evils that he identified in our society—which were poverty, racism, and militarism—appear to be very with us in an institution like this, an intellectual institution, an institution very much in dialogue with the international community, an international community begging the United States to take a different approach to global politics. One bent on international cooperation, as opposed to militarism, and this does include the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As we’re addressing this, this is not to personally attack anyone who served in those wars. As you have said, those were officers doing their duty. But the war, as we have been discussing, has been a very real part of our society that is affecting American lives every day.
At the demonstrations I go to, we say “Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation!” Americans desperately need this, we desperately need this, my own community needs this. We need better solutions than the military to cure the social ills of our society and we, at Columbia, should realize this. The Manhattan Project started here, the Manhattan Project. Franz Boaz, the founder of anthropology at Columbia, had a lot of courage to stand against the anthropologists at Columbia working with the military. This is a very complex issue and, to not look into it closely, fails Martin Luther King’s dream and it fails this country, it fails all of us in the end, it fails the world. The United States can be a global leader in this society without being militaristic. But we have to start talking about alternatives. But we have to start talking about peace, about stopping the violence.
Learned Foote: I definitely agree with what you’re saying—that Columbia draws students from a wide range of backgrounds. What I think is very important from a student’s perspective is that the University does not prescribe a worldview that they must follow. Columbia students go into many occupations, and they have many dreams and many ambitions, and there shouldn’t be a restriction placed by the University on how they see the world or how they should act within the world. They should be free to challenge any of the wars that exist and I don’t think that that’s what [supporting] ROTC means—that you support any one policy, but that you support Columbia students becoming leaders in one area that is never going to become less than an essential prerequisite to any society, least of all America’s. It’s important for Columbia students to have the opportunity to take leadership roles, if they so desire. They should not be forced to do so, but they should not barred against it.
Jose Robledo: The bottom line is: the fresh college [ROTC] graduate from any American university that is right now overseas—he’s the one making the difference on the ground. America’s best and brightest [are] policy makers. These [ROTC men and women] that are graduating every May and every December from America’s universities [are] actually implementing those some of those hard truths—they have to be out there.
Touching back on those hard truths. True enough, I’m from North Philadelphia. I come from one of the worst school districts in the country. So I’m well aware of what people call predatory practices in the military. But you know what? [With] social mobility, you get it how you get it. I had a full scholarship to Penn State in Dramatic Arts, but decided to go into the military. If it wasn’t for the fact that I [now] have the means to pay for Columbia, I wouldn’t be here having this conversation with you guys. So I’m definitely grateful for that. We keep going back to the “w” word, the war word.
Yu: But it’s in the curriculum. You have to explain how that fits.
Robledo: Everybody wants to put the “reality of war” under its own brackets. [Carl Von] Clausewitz had the idea [that] war [is] completely under social law. He said [that] military is [an instrument of] policy. When you look at the military as an instrument of policy, you’re looking at Afghanistan. You’re also looking at Haiti. You’re also looking at Louisiana. You’re also looking at humanitarian missions and international missions. There’s a lot more to the military than war making. There’s also the peacekeeping aspect of it. Now it’s up to the civilians who are in charge of this tool [to determine] how it’s implemented overseas. But the tool exists, and the tool is something that [ROTC is] feeding into.
Bruce Robbins: I think you just said two contradictory things. You said the military is a tool of civilian policy, and you said it’s the young lieutenants who are making the policy.
Robledo: I have to correct myself. [I meant] enforcing that policy.
Robbins: I have to say, I think “tool” is right, and “making” is wrong. One of the things I hold on to is the image of Colin Powell addressing the United Nations. Colin Powell is someone who is a military [official] and someone who has a great deal of moral authority in the U.S., who might in fact have been president. But as a military [officer], he had learned to obey the Commander in Chief. When he got up in front of the UN, he lied about weapons of mass destruction. [He] helped get us into a war I think we should have not been in, because I believe he was trained to obey. I don’t think it’s a civilizing thing to be trained in that way. Even the best people under circumstances like that will do what they’re told, because what they’re trained to do is to do what they’re told. Here [at Columbia], we teach free inquiry. We’re not supposed to teach obedience. I don’t think this is any part of our university mission.
Robledo: I really want to address this. The military teaches obedience, but there is a system in place in the military where we do dissent. There is whistle-blowing in the military. There is no such thing as “drawing the line or a firing squad meets you in the morning.” You’re supposed to follow every single lawful order. If a commander tells you “Raid that building, kill everyone inside,” and you know there are no combatants inside that building, you don’t have to do it. And as a squad leader—which is my job, leading nine men to raid buildings—if my commander had ever given me that [order], I would be able to say no.
Yu: But that is the exception.
Robledo: It is not an exception. The system is in place.
Silver: I frankly think we’ve gone astray. If ROTC were to come here, there would be no credit for ROTC courses. That’s exactly the situation at MIT. MIT is a land-grant institution, and therefore is required under law, if requested, to have an ROTC program. There’s simply no credit for ROTC courses—zero. The only credit you get [at MIT] is a phys ed, which obviously they do much better than we do. Any ROTC courses will be extracurricular.
Secondly, I think that what goes on in the military is our concern as faculty and as citizens, but we’re concerned here about the institution. I must say this with a large amount of agreement with some of what has been said about policy preference. No single policy preference can eschew, dominate, or take hold of the University. Columbia, like many American universities, is steeped in the tradition of public service. In the old days, it was agriculture. Now, we relate to the larger world: schools of medicine, schools of business. I happen to teach in the Core—enthusiastically. I’m all for the liberal arts. I want our future officers to have that kind of education.
But the policy preferences that have been described here are not hegemonic over the institution. We need to have, for reasons I stated at the outset and others, an officially recognized ROTC program on this campus that’s highly compatible with everything we’ve said in terms of policy preference.
Gans: I’m going back to the discussion about Columbia and war and peace. We talk about Columbia having a leadership role. And if that is important, it seems to me that Columbia ought not to bring back ROTC but to set aside more for peace, symbolically and otherwise. The decision not to bring back ROTC would be a decision that would indicate that Columbia is, in at least a small way, advocating for [the cause of] peace. This country has been carrying on unnecessary wars since the end of WWII, one after the other. We destroy other nations, we destroy ourselves. We could have eliminated poverty and most major diseases by now if we had not spent the money that we’ve spent killing people, killing soldiers and other civilians [on those issues]. Why do we have to continue a series of unnecessary wars?
Second, Columbia students don’t seem to care. They’re not being drafted. …[Some even] think pacifism is some sort of leftover from the 1960s. If you say you’re against war, they say, “My God, get rid of those 50-year-old beliefs.” I think we have to educate Columbia students to understand that they’re living in a society that is seemingly dedicated to unnecessary wars, and we have to change it. Otherwise, the country won’t survive. We can’t afford this anymore, financially. We’ve never been able to afford it morally—our position in the world deteriorates. And the thought of bringing more [ingredients for] war onto this campus seems to me utter madness.
Foote: In response to your comments on the average Columbia student, I agree that many students are disconnected from the problems of war.
Gans: I was speaking more generally. Students everywhere.
Foote: Generally, in American society, students are not connected to those who serve in the armed forces, and I think that’s a very damning indictment of our society, that we’ve allowed this to happen.
I’m grateful to know a lot of people that I do who work in ROTC and our veterans at Columbia’s campus. The same thing is not true for many of my peers at Columbia. If you believe that the wars were or are unnecessary, what’s important to acknowledge is that they are coming from the Commander in Chief, who is a civilian.
It is directed by civilians, and it is our responsibility as Americans and as a democracy to make sure that we are intimately aware of what is going on in our armed forces—that we think about those who are serving and fighting in the armed forces as not distant figures, but our peers, and people who we’re standing with as brothers, as sisters. The distance that exists between those in the armed forces and the typical American student is a grave problem. It’s one that could be remedied by having a program at Columbia where we’re getting to know the future leaders in the armed forces.
Robbins: I’m a little worried about the way we take it back to the student body each time, even the case for a global view of this, [which is] presented out of loyalty to the newly international student body. Should we worry about the ROTC policy because people’s feelings will be hurt? I don’t think we have the luxury of only consulting the feelings of the student body. It’s not just a diversity question, like: Is everyone going to feel represented? I personally think that the US military has been in some ways ahead of other institutions in American society vis-à-vis questions of race and gender. There have been some very, very wonderful things, in fact, if you only think domestically. I think DADT could not have been repealed if there had not been strong support within the military for repealing. That is very cool about the military.
But we don’t have the luxury of just consulting how democratic [this move would be] domestically. There is a world out there. I personally think there should be a referendum on the morality of the wars we have been fighting, and the people we’ve been killing elsewhere.
The first question is the one [Gans] just brought up about unnecessary wars. Unnecessary is a really weak word for the things the US military has been doing since 1945. Go back as far as you want. I did some research. I brought a list of US military interventions with me. I realize I look like McCarthy when I do this. [laughter from room]
I’m happy to show you. Thirty-two interventions between 1890 and 1910. Three of them against Indians, three of them against minors, and the rest basically invasions of foreign countries. Invasions. It’s not just unnecessary wars: immoral wars. I think you really have to say: this may be democratic domestically. From the point of view of the planet earth, what is it exactly that you are doing when you are part of the US military? Do you want to encourage this?
The Eye: Is there demand in the undergraduate population for ROTC?
Foote: I’m in the Undergraduate Recruitment Committee, and we are sort of interviewing students who are looking at Columbia. I don’t think it’s fair to look at the numbers as they exist now as a forecast into the future because of the current stance that Columbia has and its relationship with the military. I am frequently asked by students on tours and during phone calls what the situation is on campus, and many very qualified students, very bright, students who may otherwise have attended will not apply to Columbia because of its current policy. So if that were to change in the future I don’t think you could say that the current number—it’s nine students I believe—would exist in the future, necessarily, because that’s a product of students, as they’re deciding, looking at what options are available to them. Columbia is not the most accommodating school for those students wishing to pursue becoming an officer through ROTC.
Gans: I thought we only had five, we’re up to nine already. If all this happens, we’ll get 15 maybe. I think you started by saying that this was a symbolic issue, and I think that’s what it really is. It’s not of any great importance to the war, to Columbia, to anybody. It’s a symbolic issue. If Columbia admits ROTC, people are going to say ‘So what?’ If Columbia says we’re not going to admit ROTC, we’re a liberal arts institution, we’re going to raise the issue of what liberal arts can do for peace, then. I think, we are making an important, symbolic statement. There’s nothing inherent in liberal arts that says it should be for war or peace, but I believe it should be for peace and I think we should start arguing in that direction.
The Eye: Final remarks?
Robledo: I don’t look at this as the return of ROTC to Columbia, if that were to happen. I mean, cadets have not left. John and I are both cadets in the program; there have been plenty of cadets before us. [The issue is what] I think everybody agreed on—what [officially participating] means to the university and what it means about who we are. This is trans-political. This is not about being liberal or being conservative, this is about calling our identity to what it is and I guess we’re going to find out in a couple months, right?