I suppose I should first lay my biases on the table. I am a proud military spouse and a former Supply Officer in the Navy. I am also a doctoral student working on my dissertation in public administration. Because discussions about ROTC on college campuses, at least in the last few months, seem to pit academics against military supporters, I figure I should make clear that I have a foot in both camps.
There is a lot of discussion in both military and civilian spheres right now on the increasing distance between the military and the civilian population in our society. In fact, Bob Woodward termed it “an epidemic of disconnection” on Oprah last month. Mr. Woodward is correct in his assertion of a gulf between our nation’s military families and the larger civilian community. The 2010 Military Family Lifestyle survey by Blue Star Families, where I am the director of research and policy, found that 92% of respondents agreed with the statement, “The general public does not truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by service members and their families.” This statistic has been quoted by many of our nation’s leaders in their own speeches about the dangers we face, as a nation, when our military and civilian populations don’t recognize each other and therefore, can’t understand or trust each other.
Just one percent, one percent of our nation, is bearing the burden of this war. With such a small percent serving in the military, it is easy to see how the sense of shared sacrifice, which was present in earlier conflicts such as World War II, decreases and gives way to gaps in understanding, and eventually alienation. As a student of public administration, I can also trace the encouragement “to go shopping” as was suggested by one public leader as a way to support our nation at the outset of the war, to the very same mentality present in market-led reforms, based on self-interest. When one equates the public interest as individuals doing well independently, but not as something created from individuals working together for a common goal or a public good, it probably seems like a good idea to encourage spending money all the mall as an adequate way in which to support our service members and their families during a time of war.
However, this sentiment only adds to the alienation as a military family member thinks, “My spouse is risking their life…over and over and over again…and everyone else is at the mall?” It actually becomes offensive, to reduce the idea of support to such minimal personal input. Instead of yellow ribbon bumper sticker mentality, the display of support of service members, of the very concept to service to our country whether military or through a variety of other means like the Peace Corps or Teach For America, should be through an individual’s own service. Through making a difference in our own communities in our own ways. Honor service with service. It makes our nation stronger because volunteerism and civic engagement and the diverse interaction they provide, allows us all to focus on our commonalities, which far outweigh our differences.
It is against this backdrop that I see the national conversation of ROTC being played out. You have academics writing pieces in campus papers which say, “In the military, an individual is turned into a tool, a machine that obeys the chain of command.” This kind of attitude, clearly, in its ignorance, highlights a disconnect from the military experience. However, the responses from ardent pro-military supporters of, “you’re (sic) just regurgitating typical hyper-left bias…” and “….isolated from the real world thought of many academic types, that have little experience with every day America,” is just as unfounded and unrealistic. Neither, of course, represent the vast experiences of either service members or academics and only comes from the ignorance stemming from limited knowledge and understanding of either.
This mutual ignorance is exactly why ROTC is such a valuable tool in the strategy of reacquainting these two spheres of our society. Exposure can only grow empathy, understanding, and respect towards the other, knowing and accepting that neither is perfect as an institution. I won’t defend the military as perfect – the treatment of homosexuals and the use of private contractors in war zones are two areas that, again, as a student of public administration, cause me great concern because of threats to the legitimacy, credibility, and integrity of our military and our government.
However, don’t our institutions of higher learning also face challenges to their legitimacy and credibility as defenders of free thought, if they don’t allow even the idea of service to one’s country through the military as an option for their students? I understand the rationale of those who cited Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and discrimination against homosexuals as their justification for keeping ROTC off their campuses as a threat to their institutional integrity. Recognition of the threat to the personal integrity of our service members is also what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, cited in his support for a repeal of the regulation. However, that is a far different issue than assuming, as many of those who support keeping ROTC units off campus do, that military service is the antithesis of the goal of higher education. A far different issue indeed.
In the end, the military plays a vital and important role in our society, and I believe, an honorable one. Many join out of a sense of patriotism, attraction to the esprit de corps and chance to make a difference, and yes, out of a hope for a better life. Many students choose majors and careers for the same purposes. What better way to enhance both institutions than by providing each with exposure to a plethora of ideas, ideologies, and experiences so that our future leaders have the most opportunities for public service available to them as possible? The benefit of well-rounded, diverse, critical thinkers who possess sociological imagination to the public sector and our society as a whole cannot be overstated. To be so parochial, so sophomoric, as to refuse to allow our students to understand, study and yes, even suggest changes within the military, reflects poorly on our nation’s universities.
Vivian Greentree is the director of research and policy for Blue Star Families and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Administration. She is married to a Naval Flight Officer and they have two little boys who enjoy peanut butter, trucks, air shows, and “hummer noise.”