Last Saturday, the Hamilton Society invited professors, members of think tanks, and other speakers to a conference on "Education, Society, and the Military," during which they discussed the possible return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps to the Columbia campus. Professor Alan Brinkley—who as provost oversaw two student surveys and University Senate votes on this issue in 2005 and 2008—naturally focused his remarks on the issue of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," widely accepted as the principal obstacle to a reversal of Columbia's ban on ROTC. The military's prohibition on LGBT citizens serving openly is a serious issue, and I would never criticize people for working to have that policy reversed. Indeed (full disclosure), I have lobbied for that very change in my involvement with the College Democrats over the past two years. Yet, Columbia students' focus on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and on the question of ROTC in general reflects a problematic mindset that permeates both our campus and our national discourse: that war has to "hit home" to matter. In 1917, the year the United States entered World War I, Columbia instituted a class on "War Issues" as part of a program of the Student Army Training Corps. The University administration was so impressed by this course that it chose to continue the class after the war ended. In 1919, "Peace Issues," a class that would evolve into Contemporary Civilization, became a required course for all freshmen (yes, that's what they were called then) in Columbia College. In his address opening the academic year in September 1919, President Nicholas Murray Butler declared, "The war forced us all to think a little; it suggested at last what might happen if we all thought a great deal." I'm not suggesting we should think about war and education the way Butler did—he supported the firing of three professors because they opposed American involvement in the war. This isn't the sort of thing that gets libraries named after you (oh, wait)—but I think Butler's advice that we should think about war remains valuable. Right now, the United States has 50,000 troops and 100,000 contractors stationed in Iraq, and almost 100,000 troops and 150,000 contractors in Afghanistan. Some of them are future or former Columbia students, but most are not. Some of them are in constant fear of being discharged because of their sexual orientation, but most are not. Should we care about what happens to these future and former classmates of ours and to the individuals disqualified from service by a homophobic policy? Absolutely. Should these issues be the only—or the primary—way we approach the issue of war in our society? Absolutely not. The way America fights its wars has changed since 1917: There is no draft, fewer and fewer members of the middle and upper classes are enlisting, and the ideal of the citizen-soldier has disappeared from the national imagination. Anti-war commentators have seized upon these facts and argued for the reinstatement of the draft to "wake the country up," just as pro-war commentators have used these same facts to claim that "liberal elites" don't sacrifice enough for our country. But both of these arguments rest on, as Susan Sontag said, a "breathtaking provincialism": ignoring war because it does not directly and immediately affect your family or your friends is one of the most narrow-minded positions a person can possibly take. We need to think about war and peace because they matter: not only have they shaped the world we were born into, but also because they continue to shape the world we live in, whether or not we see ourselves as "affected" by them. This "breathtaking provincialism" on questions of war and peace extends to the Columbia campus. By always addressing war and peace issues through the lens of ROTC and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," we crowd out broader questions about the wars we're fighting, why we're fighting them, and what we gain and lose from them. Contrary to the assumptions of many modern students, the original instinct behind the Core Curriculum was to make the Columbia education more, not less, relevant. Almost 90 years later, the Core has moved away from its framework of war and peace—but the world hasn't. So, the next time you see a poster hanging in the Blue Java Coffee Bar in Butler advertising a forum on ROTC or a protest of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," take some advice from the guy the building was named after and "think a great deal" about the broader questions that frame our current debates. Sam Klug is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He serves on the executive board of the Roosevelt Institution. Core Matters runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff