Student Soldiers

Is There Room for ROTC on Catholic Campuses?

Last year some renegade members of the prolife group at John Carroll University, where I teach, placed signs around the quad that caused quite a stir. One of the signs read: “Vote prochoice-signed Satan.” The resulting uproar led to a university-wide open meeting to air concerns about what is appropriate political dialogue on our Catholic campus.

Although the debate focused on the issue of abortion and was largely predictable, one comment caught my attention. A thoughtful and articulate prochoice student complained that, while the university will not allow a prochoice group on campus, it sponsors an ROTC unit. To this student, it was clearly inconsistent for the university to refuse to recognize a prochoice student group on the grounds that it was anti¬life and at the same time sponsor a military-science program in which students are taught how to maim and kill.

I knew this student to be a passionate advocate of much of the Catholic Church’s social-justice agenda. She knows the tradition reasonably well. Yet she simply assumed that hosting an ROTC program was incompatible with the university’s Catholic mission. The sustained applause that followed her comments suggested that many in the audience shared her view. The fact that the university could host an ROTC program and not host a prochoice group was thought to be evidence of shameless hypocrisy. If a Catholic university is going to ban prochoice groups, surely it should ban ROTC programs.

The antimilitary sentiment on display in this public forum on life issues led me to think more carefully about the place of ROTC programs on college campuses, and so I decided to do some research. If you are interested in learning more about ROTC, a good place to begin is with David Axe’s recent book: Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War. Although Axe’s prose is a little too purple for my taste, the book contains a wealth of information about the Army and ROTC. Most people don’t know that military training on college campuses predated ROTC and was commonplace even when there was no formal relationship between the Army and universities. Although ROTC was not established until 1916, the Land Grant Act of 1862 required that all schools founded under the act offer military training. As Axe notes, “By 1900 more than one hundred universities in the United States offered or required military training.”

Today there are over 270 “host” colleges and universities that physically house ROTC programs and offer military-science courses; there are also innumerable “partnership” schools that have ROTC students on scholarship and send these students to host schools for ROTC courses. There are 116 Catholic colleges and universities that either host or have partnership relationships with ROTC programs. Together host and partnership schools graduate more than three thousand students every year, most of whom are commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army. Although a large number of students graduate every year with the help of Army scholarships, at most institutions the percentage of graduating seniors who have gone through cadet training is very small. The same, however, cannot be said for the percentage of Army officers who come from ROTC programs. Although the popular perception is that most officers are trained at West Point or Officer Candidate School, the reality is that two-thirds of the Army’s commissioned officers come from ROTC programs. If the ROTC were closed tomorrow, the Army would find itself desperately in need of well-educated and well-trained officers.

Cadets typically take all the courses required of any student and then do all their military-science courses on top of that, thus the academic education they receive is comparable to any undergraduate course of study in the nation. What about their military training? Cadets usually take four years of (mostly noncredit) military-science courses, which Axe describes as “the hardest minor ever.” These courses cover such diverse topics as Army custom and traditions, military operations and tactics, codes of conduct, principles of war, military history, computer science, military justice, logistics, and personnel management, among others. All these courses are designed to foster leadership.

The general consensus is that the most important training event for an Army ROTC cadet is what the Army refers to as LDAC, the Leadership Development Assessment Course, otherwise known as “Warrior Forge.” As an Army Web site describes it, this

thirty-three-day training event incorporates a wide range of subjects designed to develop and evaluate leadership ability.... WARRIOR FORGE tests intelligence, common sense, ingenuity, and stamina. These challenges provide a new perspective on an individual’s ability to perform exacting tasks and to make difficult decisions in demanding situations.

Now, as it happens, I have gotten to know the commanding officers of John Carroll’s ROTC program pretty well in recent years. Because I have been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, I have sought out these commanders to make it clear to them that my antiwar views are not directed at the military. Indeed, in my view, had the Bush administration listened to our country’s military leaders, we would not be in the quagmire in which we find ourselves, and we would not now suffer the shame of having treated the prisoners we took in Iraq and Afghanistan in an inhumane manner. The blame for the disgraceful conduct of the so-called war on terror falls squarely on our civilian leadership, not on the military. Perhaps because I have reached out to the ROTC leadership, I have been invited several times to join a group of educators to observe LDAC training. This year I accepted the invitation.

Thus, with my ITO (invitational travel order) and GTR (government transportation request) ticket in hand, but not wearing BDUs (visitors are not allowed to wear battle dress uniforms-that is, fatigues), I headed off to Fort Lewis, Washington, to spend three days observing the course that every cadet must pass before he or she is commissioned. (I kept a list of the acronyms I heard on my trip. It ran to two pages. The Army clearly loves its alphabet soup.)

To get a sense of the scale of the “Warrior Forge” operation, it is useful to review the summary of the 2006 LDAC program. The numbers alone are staggering: 4,196 cadets trained; 7,496 cadre staff tasked to do the training; 364 buildings used; $4.7 million worth of grenades, pyrotechnics, and small-arms ammunition expended; $4.8 million for food services; 706 chemical latrines deployed; 14,000 laundry bundles washed; 4,468 M-16 assault rifles, 302 M-249 squad automatic weapons, 146 M-60 light machine guns, and 100 flak vests used; and, last but not least, 869 activities provided by chapel services.

The training itself covers a wide range of skills, including: basic physical training, hand-to-hand combat, land navigation, rifle marksmanship, confidence building, water safety, tactical training, fire support, first aid-including the use of chemical and biological HAZMAT suits-and cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Of course, the educators’ visit to Fort Lewis is, among other things, a carefully staged marketing event designed to secure support from generally sympathetic faculty members for ROTC programs. To this end, the Army brings in between 100 and 150 professors and administrators to Ft. Lewis for three meticulously orchestrated days, during which the visitors are briefed by senior Army leaders, observe a variety of training exercises, eat and mingle with the cadets, and (most significantly for winning hearts, if not minds) play at being soldiers by rappelling down towers and shooting various weapons. (I could not get any of the noncommissioned officers to divulge the choice epithets they must use to describe the sorry sight of middle-aged academics handling grenade launchers and shouting “hooah.”)

Despite the fact that the visit by academics is at least partly a marketing exercise, it must also be noted that the training we observed and the activities we undertook did not appear to be selected merely for public-relations purposes-after all, we did have to eat MREs (meals ready to eat). Instead, our schedule seemed designed to expose us to a representative sample of the training every cadet undergoes. And that training is impressive.

First, the procedures for evaluation and feedback are extensive. Indeed, the running joke-typically put in saltier language-is that you can’t go to the bathroom without being rated. In fact, so exacting and detailed is the Army’s system of evaluation that, at the completion of LDAC, every cadet is ranked, from best to worst. So, in 2006, there was a cadet ranked number 1 and one ranked number 4,196. The numerical evaluations are so precise that there is rarely a tie in the rankings. More important, the evaluations are structured to foster continuous improvement. So-called after-action reviews teach cadets the importance of constant evaluation and adaptation to changing conditions.

Second, the Army places enormous emphasis on creativity, teamwork, and cooperative problem solving. For example, the field-leadership training course involves assigning each squad a discrete objective-say, getting containers of ammunition across a trench-with limited tools, under time constraints. The exercise requires leadership and, almost as important, the ability to follow and work with a leader. As my group of aging professors tried one such exercise, I was reminded of the old joke-Question: How many academics does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One, but it takes ten years.

There is an irony in the fact that universities, which typically invoke leadership and service as foundational values, do not recognize that much might be learned from the Army’s leadership training program. The mission statement of my university, for example, states that we “will graduate individuals of intellect and character who lead and serve,” yet we offer almost nothing in the way of formal leadership training programs. One may not like the service to which Army leadership training is put, but there is no denying that the ROTC produces confident young men and women with a commitment to serve their country. “Service before self” is not just a slogan for most ROTC graduates.

If a commitment to produce men and women with the character to lead and to serve is in fact shared by most universities and the Army, why is there such resistance to ROTC programs, particularly on Catholic campuses? Writing in America magazine some twenty years ago, Gordon Zahn provided a very direct answer to this question. “To the extent that the ROTC has as its objective the preparation of future officers committed to the ideals and structures of the military establishment,” he wrote, “its program necessarily involves, indeed must ultimately rely upon, indoctrination from a predetermined and intrinsically nationalistic perspective.” Zahn says it is hard to see how the responsibility to “teach the ways of peace,” a mission the U.S. bishops claim is integral to Catholic education, “can be reconciled with a program dedicated to teaching the ways of war.”

I confess that I am attracted to Zahn’s position. There is indeed some tension between a commitment to free and open inquiry, and an unquestioning commitment to Army values and strict obedience to the chain of command. It is also all too easy to gloss over the fact that LDAC and many other ROTC training programs are designed to teach cadets lethal efficiency. To be sure, military operations often include activities like disaster relief that do not require the use of violence, but cadets must also be taught how to use deadly force. (It was deeply distressing to see how excited many of my colleagues were to handle and fire weapons at Fort Lewis, as if they had forgotten that the sole point of these weapons is to tear open human flesh.)

Why, then, do I not agree with Zahn when he concludes that ROTC programs have no place on college campuses? Two reasons. First, although I would fiercely resist a model of the university that understood education solely in instrumentalist terms (as an “engine of economic development,” for example), I have a fairly pragmatic view of education and of its importance to the pursuit of the common good. In a justly famous address, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, described his vision of what a Catholic and Jesuit education should be. The mission of faculty, he wrote, “is tirelessly to seek the truth and to form each student into a whole person of solidarity who will take responsibility for the real world.” Knowledge is valuable for its own sake, Kolvenback says, but in pursuing knowledge and truth we must always ask: Knowledge for whom? Knowledge for what? It seems to me that the task of helping to prepare students for solidarity in a world where military force is often necessary to protect innocent life may include ROTC programs.

The second reason that I do not share Zahn’s view is that, in the end, and reluctantly, I am not a pacifist. Yet once one acknowledges the need for a military, the case against ROTC largely evaporates, even if one decries the nationalistic or imperialist uses to which the armed forces are too frequently put. This is a point that former Commonweal associate editor James Finn made in the same issue of America. “Unless one wishes to argue that it is immoral for Catholics to serve in the armed forces of the United States,” Finn wrote, “it is illogical to argue that it is immoral or wrong to prepare for such service in the ROTC.” Although the frequent misuse of the military by political leaders obscures this fact, the Army should primarily serve a peacekeeping and defensive function. And Catholic tradition, indeed most moral traditions in the West, affirm the right and responsibility of governments to defend their citizens. Thus, although it is rhetorically satisfying to say with Zahn that teaching the ways of war is incompatible with a commitment to peace, it is also deeply misleading. In short, a commitment to education as a means of pursuing the common good and a recognition that the common good sometimes requires the military to protect the innocent together provide a foundation on which a case for ROTC programs can firmly rest. It should also be recognized that whatever the dangers of “nationalistic” sentiment, historically the nation-state has been the most successful vehicle for popular sovereignty and democracy.

A story is told that when the ROTC building at Berkeley was set on fire in the 1980s, a cadet wrote to the student newspaper to report that the fire had destroyed his copy of Chaucer and all his notes on The Canterbury Tales. The letter was clearly intended to confound the assumption that ROTC students are simply cogs-in-the-making for the military machine. The anecdote is particularly instructive today, because in these cynical and polarized times it is all too easy to dismiss either the role of universities in producing informed and thoughtful citizens or the nobility of students wishing to serve their country. The story reminds us that it is possible to be committed both to the critical and questioning ethos fostered by university education, and to the service of others that may require personal sacrifice.

As much as I would like to think that someone who has read Chaucer (or, say, Augustine and Aquinas) would make a better officer than someone who has not, I recognize that being liberally educated is no inoculation against barbarism. After all, there were Nazi officers in the concentration camps who wept at hearing Bach. Still, there is something hopeful in the fact that young men and women still recognize the duties of democratic citizenship. Even more impressive is the fact that, unlike many of their jaded professors, these students understand that being informed and educated is not enough. They seek to put their education to work in the service of their country. At a time when many students seek nothing more from their education than tools for acquiring wealth, the goal of serving one’s country should not be dismissed lightly.

If I now had a chance to talk to the student who was so sure that ROTC has no place on our campus, I would encourage her to sit down with some of our student cadets. She might just discover that they are kindred spirits-students dedicated to making the world a better place and willing to work hard and to sacrifice a lot to do just that.

Published in the 2007-09-28 issue: 
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