Why ROTC is Important for Stanford

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ROTC deserves a chance to return to campus.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing news about those who support and oppose ROTC. Interspersed in that coverage, I’ve tried to refute some arguments against ROTC’s return. However, what’s been missing from what I’ve written, I believe, is a piece devoted to serious, positive arguments for why ROTC’s return would benefit this campus. It is with this objective in mind that I’m writing this piece. Let’s get started.

To begin with, let’s define ROTC. ROTC stands for Reserve Officer Training Corps. It is a program designed to encourage top students attending colleges and universities across the country to enter the military. After completing college, Army, Air Force, and Marine ROTC cadets become second lieutenants, and Navy ROTC cadets become ensigns. All of these positions form the basic officer corps, the leaders who directly command enlisted troops. From the second lieutenant position, officers can advance up through the ranks or leave after their period of service is up (this period ranges from four years of active duty (and four years in the Reserves) for Army ROTC to a full 10 years for Air Force pilots from ROTC). In exchange for this commitment, most ROTC cadets receive scholarships that finance their education, as well as provide a small stipend. The ROTC training process includes classes on leadership and the military, physical training (PT), as well as summer activities designed to provide ROTC cadets with the leadership experience they need to lead troops in war.

So, having defined ROTC, what value does its presence on campus provide?

There are a few key arguments that I’d like to make here. The first is regarding ROTC’s ability to close the civil-military divide. The next is about ROTC’s role in changing the army from the inside. Finally, I’d like to make an argument about the burden on current ROTC cadets of not having official programs on campus.

The civil-military divide is an important problem that we face as a result of having a professional military. I have gradually been convinced that a professional military is a good thing. Our military today is much more effective than it was during the draft. The drug and discipline problems that plagued it during Vietnam are not entirely gone, but they are orders of magnitude smaller. Our soldiers are better educated and trained than they were previously. Moral is higher. However, there is also a serious consequence of having a separate military: a divide between civilians and the military that defends them.

The military does not look as different from civilians as we might imagine. But it does look different. There are some basic demographic differences: the South is overrepresented, unsurprisingly fewer are college educated (it’s tough to be in the military as an 18 year old and in college at the same time), American Indians are overrepresented, etc. However, I think that the largest difference between people who join the military and those who do not is a question of beliefs: people who join the military believe certain things that people who do not join the military don’t. These beliefs are not monolithic. Not every recruit or cadet feels the exact same way. But they do feel different from those who do not join. They may feel that joining the military is a civic duty. They may feel that the military offers them the best way to change their life circumstances. They may want the early leadership experience that being a military officer can offer. And they are willing to go to a war-zone where they know that they may die or be badly injured.

Increasing the interaction between people who have chosen a military path and those who have chosen a civilian path offers is crucial, perhaps not to closing this gap, but rather to increasing understanding between the two groups. Danny Crichton, a contributor to this blog, has written a great piece on this gap. I think that bringing ROTC back and into the campus conscious is important to helping to close this gap – and to train a generation of leaders that understand the US military. The fact that ROTC classes would be open to all students, not just ROTC cadets, would allow a variety of Stanford students to get an understanding of the military and the leadership skills that it emphasizes.

The second argument is almost a corollary to the first. If Stanford is going to learn from the culture of the military, the military will also learn from Stanford. The most obvious thing that the military can learn from Stanford is, well, the caliber of leaders that Stanford produces. Stanford’s entrepreneurial spirit can help the military (arguably, America’s largest bureaucracy) become a more effective institution. Stanford can help cut military waste and save American lives in battle.

However, it can also help change policy from within. Here, I think that it is important to separate two arguments against ROTC. One is an anti-military argument: the military is a negative institution with permanent in-built discrimination, war is always wrong and thus we should not have a military, etc. Stanford’s participation in ROTC is not able to change this. Stanford is not going to dismantle the military from within. However, it might have other effects. There is another argument that the military is currently discriminatory and as a result should not be allowed on campus. Here, encouraging Stanford engagement with ROTC can make a difference and, I believe, it would make a larger difference than a continued boycott. If the goal of activists is to make the military more open to including transgender students or students with mental health issues, then those activists should ask themselves whether a boycott or engagement is a more effective strategy.

In my opinion, the answer is clearly engagement. The military does not much care whether or not Stanford has ROTC or not. As our peer institutions reconsider ROTC’s return (see Harvard, but also the fact that Columbia student-faculty panel recommended considering ROTC’s return, Brown students favoring ROTC’s return outnumber opponents and their committee mentioned isolation as a potential issue, etc.), the marginal value of being part of a boycott falls further. On the other hand, having champions of causes like transgender rights or better mental health enter the military will have a positive impact. Let’s not forget how important Admiral Mike Mullen’s opposition to DADT was to eliminating it. Nor should we forget how the resistance of the Marine Commandant James Amos almost derailed the elimination of DADT. I think that almost all Stanford students would prefer more Mullens than Amoses. Stanford cadets can one day fill those roles. If we want to see the military change, I firmly believe that injecting Stanford into the military will be much more effective than walling it off.

The final argument that I’d like to make is one of consideration for the current ROTC cadets. Stanford cadets are not numerous, but the burden of traveling for almost every ROTC activity is real. Making the life of ROTC cadets even somewhat easier would help they engage in more “normal” Stanford activities and thereby improve their engagement with the Stanford community. This would have the effect of amplifying my two prior arguments. To be sure, I do not expect this engagement to be the difference-maker for most people considering this debate, but it remains important to think about the ROTC cadets who are currently among us, especially given that they are not allowed to speak publicly about the ROTC debate themselves.

There are certainly other good arguments for ROTC’s return, but I hope that this serves as a basic outline of some of the core value that ROTC’s return might add to campus.

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