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Explaining US Military's Cultural Divide

By Paul R. Pillar
October 28, 2010

Editor’s Note: The Vietnam War – and especially President Richard Nixon’s decision to extend it four years after secretly sabotaging President Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks – opened a cultural rift in American society that has never fully healed.

Anti-war protests, especially at elite universities, also drove many reserve officer training programs off campuses, widening a social divide between Americans likely to serve in the military and those who aren’t, an issue addressed in this guest essay by former CIA officer Paul R. Pillar:

An op-ed by Diane Mazur, a law professor at the University of Florida, addresses an infrequently discussed aspect of civil-military relations in the United States: the status of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs, which are missing from a good many elite colleges and universities in the Northeast, and specifically in the Ivy League.

Mazur points out that the exodus of the military from those schools beginning about 40 years ago was not the result, as often believed, of universities banning the program. Instead, the military services determined that maintaining ROTC on those campuses had become too much of a hassle and decided to decamp in favor of friendlier territory in the South and West.

The hassles included disagreements with university administrations over the application of academic standards to ROTC courses and instructors but also had much to do with student protests, faculty petitions, and a generally unwelcoming environment.

I am a graduate of one of those ROTC programs at an Ivy League school (Dartmouth) in the late 1960s, before the exodus occurred. The unfriendly climate was all too apparent, and it was quite understandable why the military services would be inclined to believe that the benefit they gained from the program simply wasn't worth all the problems and animosity.

During that time the Vietnam War underlay the strong emotions, but the presence of ROTC was the prime immediate target. During my senior year, a demand to expel the program was the professed reason for a student takeover of the college's main administration building. One of my roommates spent a month in the county jail for participating in the takeover.

Wars have come and gone, and popular causes linked to the presence of ROTC on college campuses have changed. A more recent issue that may soon go away due to judicial and executive action has been the “don't ask, don't tell” policy regarding gays in the military.

But a lasting effect of not having the program readily available to students at some of the country's leading universities has been an accentuation of a civil-military divide in the United States that has become wider over this same 40-year period.

The abolition of conscription in the 1970s has probably had more to do with this than the status of ROTC programs (although the two are hardly unrelated, because the specter of getting drafted was a major motivation for many students to join ROTC). The restoration of ROTC on campuses where it once was and no longer is today, however, would be a useful way to reduce the divide.

Mazur points out that by not having ROTC at some of those outstanding schools the military is missing the benefit of a more diverse corps of officers with an impressive range of skills. The benefits to the nation of a restoration go well beyond that. The aforementioned divide is one of culture, attitude, and perceptions of important national security issues.

Research by scholars such as Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi demonstrates significant differences in views between either active or former members of the military on one hand and those who have never served in the military on the other.

In particular, those who have been in the military express greater caution about the use of force, suggesting an experience-based understanding of costs and complications that may be less apparent to those without the experience.

Anything that blurs the attitudinal divide and diffuses the perspectives that come from different backgrounds and experiences would be good for public understanding of issues of national security.

Putting ROTC back at the universities from which it has been estranged would help to do so in three ways. One is to impart to a portion of the serving military officer corps the insights, knowledge, and critical thinking that those universities impart to any of their graduates.

A second would be to provide more of that understanding that comes from military experience to graduates who do not make the military a career but after a few years in the uniform return to civilian life, some of them becoming political, civic, or business leaders.

The third is the cross-fertilization of perspectives that comes from the military and civilian communities being exposed to each other on campus.

Some of the issues that divided university administrations and the military services in the past would still need to be addressed.

A university's proper concern for preserving academic standards probably argues in most places for making ROTC an extracurricular activity rather than an integrated part of the academic curriculum. But this does not mean a physical exclusion from campus. Such issues seem easily resolvable.

Paul R. Pillar, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, worked at the CIA for 28 years including a stint as chief intelligence officer for the Middle East. When Pillar criticized the Bush administration’s handling of intelligence on Iraq, the Wall Street Journal’s editors and other right-wing opinion leaders denounced him for supposedly trying to undermine President George W. Bush. Pillar is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University. [This article originally appeared as a blog item at The National Interest Web site.]

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