The Culture Gap is Real: Not much attention paid to ROTC debate

The faculty committee charged with considering ROTC’s return to Stanford has recently requested comments from the university community.  The response has been a little underwhelming: less than 20 emails and 6 phone calls according to an article by the Stanford Daily.  The contact information has been published fairly widely, both in the Daily and in the Stanford Review, as well as here on Fiat Lux.

Interestingly, it was noted that the majority of responses have been positive toward ROTC, a possible surprise given the recent spate of negative editorials condemning its return.  It seems that students are quite apathetic about the issue – from both sides of the debate.

This low turnout is disconcerting.  History professor David Kennedy kicked off this introspection on ROTC with a speech to the faculty senate in which he noted strong concern over the growing divide between civilians and the military.  Since our military is accountable to civilian political leaders, a division can increase tensions and unrest regarding military actions.  One only has to look to last year’s debate over Afghanistan policy to see the stirrings of this divide in action.

That cultural divide may or may not be wide throughout most of America, but it most definitely is at elite schools.  There are just very few people at Stanford who appear interested in joining the military, as the numbers above suggest.  The absence of ROTC is partly to blame, as there may be students who are unaware of the benefits of military service.  But I am willing to venture here and say that those students are relatively few and countable on a hand or two.

The issue, in my analysis, is already one of culture.  The qualities that Stanford inculcates in its students are in many ways the antithesis of the military culture.  The military honors the rank, not the person.  Yet, this is Silicon Valley, where a 26-year-old currently runs one of the most innovative and arguably powerful companies in the country.  We honor the person, not the rank.

Arguments against ROTC seem to be proxies for this fundamental culture difference.  Whether it is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, gender discrimination, militarism, or academic quality, what these perspectives are pointing toward is a vast difference between the reality of the average Stanford student and that of life in the military.  Kenendy’s gap is already present.

Bringing ROTC back to campus is unlikely to dramatically increase the number of Stanford students becoming military cadets, but it may bring Stanford’s culture into the military.  Given the massive changes that warfare has experienced (such as the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles or highly-networked soldiers), maybe that young innovation is precisely the change needed to help America in future conflicts.

Do I support ROTC’s return to campus?  Absolutely.  No argument I have seen has convinced me otherwise.  However, we cannot expect the opening of a unit here to be the panacea for already-existing culture gap – that work will be a never-ending process of connecting the lives of the military to those of citizens and students and ensuring that the best practices of civilian organizations are translated into the military context.  Bringing ROTC back is but an element of this most important mission.

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