The Left Divided on ROTC

In recent weeks and months, the most talked-about political issue at Stanford has been the potential return of an integrated ROTC program to campus.  The debate has taken a variety of forms – in classrooms, in editorials, in faculty meetings, and even in town hall discussions – but there is a common misperception that the opposing sides in this issue fall solely along traditional political lines, that is, those on the Right in favor and those on the Left opposed.

These traditional bounds have begun to fade away however, with many left-of-center students and faculty recently backing the return of ROTC, and even President Barack Obama supporting the idea in his State of the Union Address: “I call on all of our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and the ROTC. It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”

The Left on ROTC

At Stanford, two groups have been particularly involved in opposing the return of ROTC to Stanford. Stanford Says No to War, led by Danny Colligan, has argued against ROTC on various grounds and has developed an anti-ROTC website.

Another group, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL), has become more vocal about the military’s position on transgendered students since the initial repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Janani Balasubramanian, a member of SSQL, stated that as long as ROTC continues its de facto discrimination against transgendered students, SSQL cannot support its return to campus, as that would be “a fundamental endorsement of something that is exclusionary to a particular marginalized population of students.”

Alok Vaid-Menon, another SSQL member, argued, “This is a very symbolic debate more than anything.” He explained that because some Stanford students already participate in ROTC programs at nearby universities, it may be a stretch for ROTC to put a training ground on Stanford’s campus. This would make it entirely possible that an official ROTC program on campus would be not so far off from the current system in place.

But not everyone on the Left opposes ROTC at Stanford.

“[I don’t think] that this breaks down on a strict left-right spectrum in the way it perhaps once did,” remarked Zev Karlin-Neumann of the Stanford Democrats.  While Karlin-Neumann personally supports the return of ROTC, he does not speak for the Stanford Democrats, which has taken a neutral position.

“There are a number of lingering issues,” he continued, “the fact that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell still has to undergo a review and certification before being officially repealed, the continued discrimination of transgendered individuals…I generally see these issues as reasons to bring ROTC back, not keep it out,” Karlin-Neumann said.

Daniel Khalessi, another Stanford Democrat, commented, “I do not think it’s an issue that has support and opposition along stringent party lines.” He, like Karlin-Neumann, stressed the importance of the transference of diversity between Stanford and the military.

But some do not consider Stanford Democrats as part of the “Left.” Colligan gives his view of someone on the Left: “I would say someone is Left if they are committed to peace, justice, human rights, law, egalitarianism, internationalism and all that good stuff.” He continued, “Sadly, these principles cannot be found in the Democrats’ governance.”

Balasubramanian also has qualms about the Democrat’s inclusion in the Left. “If we see Stanford Democrats as a subset of larger Democratic policy, I’m not sure if I personally would view Stanford Democrats as a party of the Left,” she stated.

Chris Chelberg ’10 commented on this division in liberal politics at Stanford: “The ‘Left’ encompasses such a huge set of viewpoints that parts of it easily take up stances that block or interfere with other sections of the Left.” When asked about the actual opposition to ROTC, Chelberg stated, “I don’t think there’s as much opposition as there might seem, in terms of numbers.”

A recent Stanford Daily poll suggests that approximately two-thirds of respondents support ROTC’s return. As Stanford, like most college campuses, has a strong left-of-center presence, this underscores the notion that left-leaning students might be split on the issue.

The interesting caveat of this particular political debate over ROTC, especially considering the tone of most political rhetoric in the past few years, is that it is not a pitted battle of Left vs. Right.  Rather, it is a far more complicated issue of ideology and practicality that does not so comfortably fall along traditional lines of political identity.

Unifying the Left on Campus

Just how prominent then is the activist Left on campus? Chelberg stated, “I’d say that the activist Left does not make up a large portion of the students on campus. At least if you’re counting groups that actually go out and do things, then they’re not that big at all.”

Vaid-Menon believes that the level of activism on the Left at Stanford is disproportionately low considering what one would expect of the number of students who identify with progressive or left-leaning ideologies on campus.

But some liberal activists are trying to reshape the presence of Leftist activism on campus. Donni Wang is working to organize a “Grand Left Coalition,” a group that will provide a forum for discussion and organization among liberal-leaning groups.

Wang sees issues besides ROTC on which the Left can unify, like “the staggering economic, racial, gender and other divides in the U.S., the environmental crisis, the ongoing violent wars, [and] the financial malaise of global capitalism.”

Vaid-Menon is also trying to create a “community of the Left” with a new email list for progressive group leaders. “I think that we’re starting to see more of a need for unifying among the Left, because what’s happening right now is that we are focusing too much on our own specific issues.”

When asked about the difficulty of creating a unifying banner for a political cluster that ranges from moderates that are left-of-center to socialists, Wang argues, “Our work at the GLC is precisely to bridge differences that might arise by invoking our common core values of justice, equality, and emancipation.”

The true prominence of the activist Left and the general sentiments of the student body will have a chance to be exhibited in the coming months as the debate over the return of ROTC reaches its climax.

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