Thoughts on ROTC, Stanford, and the "Two Cultures"

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Last time on ROTC, I wrote about the apathy of Stanford students on the movement to remove the ban on ROTC on campus.  Along the way, I presented a handful of views which generated a healthy exchange in the comments section.  [Definitely check out that article and its responses](

Rather than responding to the criticisms of that article (many of which are fair and well-argued), I want to take a more encompassing look at the cultural differences between the military and elite universities.  It is my fundamental thesis that the military’s culture today is largely independent of the culture that exists at places like Stanford, a disconnect that did not exist until the last few decades.

I will start by looking at how the military culture has evolved since the end of the Vietnam War, and what the causes of that change might be.  Then, I will look at the current attitudinal differences that I believe are the most striking differences between the armed services and elite student bodies.  Implicit in an article of this type is the risk of generalization, so I disclaim upfront that no discussion of groups as diverse as the U.S. military and elite students can possibly encompass everyone.

Where did the culture change come from?

Most commentators focus on the draft as the crucial difference between the pre- and post-Vietnam armed services.  The argument is that the draft ensured a level of equality of service in the military, and thus, military culture was not so different from civilian culture since the two were essentially the same group of people.

The problem I have with this analysis is that it makes two broad assumptions that I don’t think are accurate.  The first is that the draft pulled equally from all parts of society, which is false given the exemptions and deferments offered to many (especially the upper echelons of society).  The military in Vietnam was simply not a mirror reflection of America.  The other assumption is that the military was primarily built around citizen-soldiers until the draft ended in the early 1970s.  America did not have a standing army for most of its history, but if we narrow our look to post-World War II, we find that a professional army was already coming into existence.

Indeed, it is this theme – professionalization in a sociological sense – that I think is the most compelling source of the military/elite university culture gap.  Increasingly after the Vietnam War, joining the military became a commitment to a career instead of a means of serving the country.  The military already had the prerequisite tools of professionalization like its own cultural norms, its own methods of discipline (the UCMJ) and its membership was controlled by a standards-driven process.  The military was a path in life, and not necessarily a short event.

Of course, the draft played a major role in this professionalization. However, I believe that it played a secondary accelerating role of the trend, and that the real cause was the continued development of complex weapons and C&C systems.  Members of the military were not just trained to point-and-shoot, but required extensive training in these new systems – a burden that is infeasible in a non-professional military.  Furthermore, compensation changes encouraged members to return for multiple tours, reducing the need to find new recruits from outside a few target communities.

Beyond professionalization, the second source of the military/elite student culture divide comes from the extensive media access granted to reporters during the Vietnam and later, the Gulf War.  For the first time, Americans had a window on the realities of modern-day, frontline warfare.  The violence and brutality was shocking.  The romance of warfare is strong in many societies, including our own, and this footage viscerally destroyed that heroic image.  For students who kept abreast of these developments, the new images provided many reasons to avoid military service.

My final source is the increase in opportunities available to young people.  Many enlisted men in World War II have discussed joining the military to leave the dreary ennui of their communities for the valor and grandeur that came from fighting the enemies of the Allies.  The rise of mass media helped to solve this problem.  Suddenly, one could see the rest of the world through television, and the “golden era” of the American economy provided new opportunities for engaging work.  Mobility continued to increase, and potential recruits suddenly found that they had other options besides the military to begin life outside their communities.  Even today, the military targets hard-pressed communities – those areas for which the military may very well provide the sole means of escape.

These changes created a very different military.  As the military professionalized, it attracted a certain type of solider, one not necessarily representative of the nation.  The three changes above created the culture gap that we now witness between elite students and the military, and I believe little can be done to change it back.  While there are occasional calls for a return to the draft, few truly believe such a policy will be created.  Therefore, we live in a society where the military cannot truly be reflective of society, and thus, we must evaluate what this culture gap actually is to better understand these dynamics.

What is the culture gap today?

Identifying the aspects of culture that are at odds between elite students and the military is a difficult task, considering that no one can objectively look at both cultures and compare them.  The military culture is based around membership, and thus, joining the military effectively means joining military culture.  And since elite universities can be quite hostile to that culture, it is difficult even for ROTC cadets to feel as though they belong to both communities.  The gap is already too wide.

Thus, I must write this part from one perspective, but hopefully with a level of self-awareness that can provide a reference point on the terrain of this topic.  I identify five elements – global citizens versus patriots, conceptions of work and talent, war wariness, health and a feeling of futility – as the primary elements of the cultural divide.

Global Citizen vs. Patriotism

The biggest gap comes from the conception of elite students as global citizens instead of patriots.  By global citizen, I don’t mean a desire to make the United Nations a world government, but rather an open perspective to consider the narratives of different cultures other than our own.  This in opposition to the conception of the patriot, which is a person who generally agrees with the narrative of their country.

An anecdote early in my career as a Stanford student vividly displayed this difference.  Sitting in a class that discussed social movements in the Middle East, the topic of suicide bombers came up.  A veteran (one of the few at Stanford) spoke out about the topic, arguing that suicide bombers are fundamentally irrational people.  The professor of the course responded by discussing the motivations of suicide bombers, including the financial payment their families will receive as well as their inability to find a purpose in life (due to low employment especially among youth) and thus, a desire to join a cause that will let them transcend their current situation.  The veteran was frustrated at this response, reemphasizing the irrationality of suicide bombers, and eventually walked out of the seminar room in anger.  Those of us still in the room looked around, and the eyes were clear – we all simply disagreed with his point of view.

This is merely a microcosm of the debate that constantly surrounds terrorism – is America the root cause of terrorist anger?  If we removed military bases from Saudi Arabia, or reduced our aid to Israel, would terrorism disappear?  The difference between elite students and the military is not the answers to these questions, but rather that such critical questions are asked in the first place.  Elite students reject the idea that America is always right, but neither do we believe that we are always wrong.  There is a balance between the narratives of other countries and our own that we simply cannot ignore.  That is the divide between global citizens and patriots.

Conceptions of Work and Talent

This topic was the main source of criticism of my last article, and I wish to expand this subject slightly.  At issue is the gulf between how the military handles its soldiers and the experience that many elite students will receive after graduation.  The military is hierarchical and top-down, while modern day management is flat and bottom-up.  I am not arguing that decentralization is a good thing when conducting close battlefield maneuvers (although it is interesting that the Petraeus plan in Iraq is largely a case study of decentralizing military units).  However, elite students today brand themselves.  They want to feel empowered to make changes, including organizational ones, and they want a level of autonomy in their workplace.  These desires are simply not ones the military appreciates, or even quite frankly desires.

Conceptions of talent also deals with recruitment, and especially, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Discrimination against gays still exists in the private sector, but it is muted and almost never happens at a systematic, institutional level.  Elite students simply don’t understand how the military is still discriminating against a class of people in the twenty-first century.  I think students can grapple with the marriage issue, we can understand the forces behind Prop 8.  But the issue of don’t ask, don’t tell is about who the military recruits to do a job.  For us, it is almost like reading a history book in real-time: are we really watching Sen. John McCain fight against efforts at repeal?  It’s like the 1960s (or heck, the 1940s) never happened.

It is that conservatism that elite students just cannot handle, and thus, joining the military is just not seen as an option.  We cannot understand the desire to stay the same, to be a decade or two behind society.  This may not be the military’s goal, but it is certainly the perception that it gives off.

War Wariness

The students in my class have grown up with war almost their entire aware lives.  9/11 happened in seventh grade for me, and we have been in Afghanistan ever since (oh, and we also visited Iraq).  For almost half of our lives, we have seen America attempt to solve its terrorism problems through war, and yet, what do we have to show for it?  From the perspective of elite students, an Iraqi government that cannot agree on dividing political power, and continued attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  This war wariness is further enforced by the media, which shows every attack in vivid detail.

Elite students in my generation are inherently more skeptical of war, and thus, there is just less desire to join the force that fights it.  There is little enthusiasm for continuing the wars, even if there are few to no protests.  For many, we have reached the point where the wars are simply irrelevant – interesting perhaps to follow, but difficult to feel connected to.  Obviously, soldiers are wary of war too.  But there is an underlying eagerness to continue to fight for gains and ensure victory.  Elite students are simply willing to let it go – the price of victory, in casualties if not dollars, can at times be too high.


We had little knowledge of the mental damage of war until our most recent conflicts (the idea of shell shock certainly existed, although not as clinically defined as today).  Now, we understand things like PTSD much better (or at least understand their existence), and we can see first-hand the damage done to soldiers from non-stop threats and attacks.

Elite students deify the brain.  Mental prowess is the primary means of receiving admission to top schools, and our success is largely a function of brain power and work ethic.  Generalizing, our very identity comes from how we engage society mentally, and thus, we are extraordinarily concerned about an environment that may do lasting harm to our conceptions of who we are.  PTSD deprives us of our meaning, as it does for the many soldiers who currently fight against it.  This point came from a friend who considered military service until he had read a story about the effects of PTSD.  Obviously, no soldier wants PTSD, but I would argue the culture gap here is the risk that each group is willing to make for the mission.  Elite students are by and large not willing to accept the risk of such health problems for a few years in the service.  Whether that is selfishness, cowardice or just rationality, I will let the reader decide.

Feeling of Futility

I know students who have joined the military, as well as those who considered joining.  The Marines recruited at Stanford this year, as they always do.  Despite the issues noted above, there are still a strong subset of students who would join the military at Stanford today.  So, where do they go?

My last analysis of this culture gap is that many of these students have bright ideas to improve the military, the capabilities to do so, but widely feel that it is futile to try to innovate in the military setting.  There is a feeling of helplessness, that experience and years of service matter more than the talent that a person brings to the table.  I already discussed part of this issue above, but all of the issues connect around futility.  Whether one is brilliant, liberal, atheist, global-minded, elite, or some combination of the above and other adjectives, there is an immediate sense of ostracism in joining a culture that fundamentally disagrees with your own worldview.  The perception that military culture doesn’t change quickly increases this feeling of futility.

Thus, the former four points lead to the fifth point, and it is this futility that I believe fundamentally divides soldiers from elite students.  Soldiers join for a variety of reasons, ranging from funding for college to avoiding their environments to wanting to serve their country patriotically.  Elite students, by and large, don’t join because they don’t see how their talent can be used in a productive way in a culture that encompasses their own.


Where does this leave us?  I think it is unlikely that people will be successful in efforts to reverse time and make the military less professional (again, in a sociological sense of vocation).  Military culture may move slowly forward, but it most definitely doesn’t move backwards.  I also find the notion that a handful of students from top schools can radically make a large difference in an organization as large as the U.S. military to be rather naive.

Instead, I think we need to come to terms with what the military has become.  It is no longer a citizen army, but a standing, professional army composed largely from a handful of specific demographic groups who are by and large more conservative than the culture they defend.

Instead of attempting to change military culture or punish students and universities who don’t commit to service, let’s build a new dialogue around the issue of the modern military.  The need here is education, and I think universities are an excellent site of this.  Having soldiers discuss their experiences with students in an intimate seminar setting would be an excellent first step.  The process, though, has to be bidirectional.  Students will have to be open-minded to the very different experience that soldiers face from their own lives.  Concomitantly, soldiers will need to be able to debate their actions to an audience that is diversely skeptical, but highly rational.  Such an open discussion, including the one in this article, will allow us to grapple with these cultural differences, bridge them, and build a strong basis for a civil society that continues to hold power over military decision-making.  I am looking forward to that conversation.

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