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ROTC on Campus Is a Good Thing

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Last night, Columbia University's Task Force on Military Engagement released its findings. ROTC -- the Reserve Officer's Training Corps -- is welcome back on campus. Harvard followed suit. Both pro and con voices at these Ivy League schools have legitimate feelings about a uniformed presence on campus. The recent difficult conversation was important. The next challenge will be to keep it going.

Many people, both in and out of uniform, hope that Columbia's initiative will lead a national discussion about the role of the military in American democracy. Even better, a candid acknowledgment about the limits of force in our security policies. Maybe then, we'll get a modern sense of who we Americans are, where we're going in the world, and how we plan to get there. National security geeks call this big picture guidance "grand strategy".

From World War II until 1991, the key strategic principle was "containment". It denoted a simplistic "us vs. them" struggle against communism. Yet today's world is a confidence game. Our most dire threats -- from disruptive climate to contagious violent extremism -- are not containable. Building credible influence for ourselves is now the key to U.S. security and prosperity.

Given that militaries are meant to kill people and break things, the uncomfortably large role that the military occupies in U.S. policymaking today is not desirable. It is, however, explainable: 20 years ago we failed to dramatically shift our priorities when the Soviet Union disappeared. We privatized and diminished our non-uniformed personnel. Illustration: 2000 economic development officers served in Vietnam. Today we have that number worldwide -- and 700 of them were added in the past 4 years. America has a great deal of catch up work yet to do. So now, as we move strategically from containment to confidence -- the military will be an important player. More Americans must be informed about all these choices. Having ROTC on campus may well catalyze this self-education.

Love the Warrior: Hate the War

On March 20, 2003, I went to my job in the House of Representatives. Congress was a cranky and bitter place -- having recently authorized the use of force against Iraq. Over 60% of the Democrats voted against the resolution that passed 297-133. Reps. Lee and Spratt each introduced amendments to extend the UN process. They failed. We all felt the blast furnace of misinformation coming from the Bush/Cheney White House. That day, I attended a staff briefing by two Army academics. They spoke with us about the lessons of occupations past. I still remember it, a list of 140 tasks, from waste disposal to criminal justice systems. These guys were sober. Their voices grave. They were the ultimate professionals. They did not advocate nor opine. They simply laid out their expert advice. I and the others could see that Congress and the president had made a terrible, rushed and thoughtless decision. When I walked back out onto Pennsylvania Avenue, we were invading Iraq.

That's when it became clear to me. Somehow -- in the din of fear and propaganda -- the voices of the people who had the most at stake -- the U.S. Army's own strategic thinkers -- were lost. I could understand Congressional Democrats getting rolled. I knew that right wingers always picked on the State Department. But the Army?

That's when I understood how disconnected our entire society was from the military -- as an institution and as a public service. And how Congress simply reflected the indifference of the nation. In 2003, military officers had for years been testifying in front of Congressional committees, conveying their experiences: the Balkans, Kosovo, Haiti, East Timor, Afghanistan. For years, they pointed out that these modern fights have no military solution. But we continually failed to hear them. We have not heard them yet.

70% of Americans declare that the military is the most trusted institution in society. ROTC on campus gives everybody more chances to interact, to socialize and to learn about this belief. ROTC detractors should take comfort: an ongoing dialogue is the best defense against militarism. It is vital for Americans to maintain a healthy skepticism of their military, its practices and behaviors. Those who wear a uniform know that they are, ultimately, completely dependent on the public keeping their eyes wide open and focused on national security spending, war-policy and legitimate use of force. This is "checks and balances" in the best of the American tradition. Who better to discuss it with than cadets and veterans?

The Defense Industry does not represent the military

We're in the midst of a terrible brawl over budget priorities. You may have noticed that all "security spending" is off the table. Congress just told children, the middle class, poor people and communities across the nation to bug off. The USDA has reported that more Americans are on food stamps today than ever before in U.S. history.

The defense industry -- desperate for the status quo -- keeps the fear soundtrack playing while they purchase more and more relationships on Capitol Hill. The end result of their efforts is to pit our nation's survival against Amtrak.

This state of affairs will not move us from containment to confidence.

The military is emblematic of how vulnerable public interests have become in our political process. Despite its formidable presence, the military is often not able to protect itself in the domestic policy process. The armed services' professional ethic forbids interference in political decision making. Hence their fate is often influenced most by those poised to gain in the short term, either financially or politically, and who encounter no similar professional barriers (i.e. politicians and lobbyists).

Somehow our society has become so coarse, it seems, that the only people who may unabashedly talk about serving the public are wearing uniforms. The common good is under attack in Wisconsin and the fight is sure to spread. Understanding the idealism that motivates individuals who serve is inspiring... and it could provide some impetus for returning our government to one that serves citizens -- not clients.

I predict that ROTC on campus will lead to more and better understanding of what is at stake at our current crossroads. Already, veterans on campus talk about their war experiences -- usually an unanticipated blend of relationships, situations, skills and outcomes. They tell a compelling story of change, firsthand. These individuals know the difference between force and strength. And its just in time. Because what we need as a nation is a new understanding of how to be strong.

What you can do next: ROTC and Peace Studies programs across the USA should develop some kind of joint public conversations, curriculum or ways to demonstrate this new chapter in civil-military relations. A free publication on how to create this venue is here. See chapter 3.