Campus and Armed Forces–Too Far Apart

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Alienation between the military and the society it serves has grown in recent decades. There are several reasons, including the advent of the All Volunteer Force and the relative abandonment of military service by the upper and upper-middle classes (the so-called AWOL of the elites). Other factors are the military’s redistribution of resources for ROTC and military bases to more pro-military regions of the country and marginalization of the military at many major and elite universities.

Such alienation is unhealthy for a lot of reasons. It can compromise both sufficient civilian control of the military and the long-standing ideal of the “citizen soldier.” Furthermore, in recent times, alienation has led to justified resentment on the part of many members of the military, who feel that the significant sacrifices they and their families assume are taken for granted by the civilian population–after all, we have been asking less than 1% of our population to bear virtually all the burdens of our wars and military engagements. And the alienation has weakened citizenship by removing many citizens from a tangible connection to the military and the missions it serves.

Perhaps nowhere has this alienation been more prevalent than at many major universities, which began turning their backs on the military at the height of the tensions generated by the Vietnam War. Several institutions severed their ties with ROTC at that time, while many of the numerous institutions that maintained ROTC relegated its presence to the shadows of university life. Eventually the study of military history and strategic security studies also declined–especially the former–as the study of the military and war became marginalized on campus.

ROTC–A Check on Elitism and Militarism

The alienation of higher education from the military and study regarding the military is most unfortunate for at least two major reasons. First, universities have historically served as important vehicles for bridging the military-civilian gap. For example, the classic justification for ROTC was to produce officers from civilian institutions who would provide a balance to officers produced by the academies or the military itself. At the Continental Army Command’s annual ROTC Conference in 1971, Dr. Lee S. Dreyfus, then president of Wisconsin State University at Stevens Point and chairman of the Army Advisory Panel on ROTC Affairs, captured this rationale, proclaiming that the ROTC “is not the presence of the Army on the campus” but rather “the presence of the university in the Army.” He went on to express his fear of the “elitism” that would tighten its grip on the officer corps if ROTC were abolished, for ROTC is “the key anti-militaristic check balance in the Army.”

But there is another reason that a lack of appropriate military presence on campus is harmful to the nation: the lack weakens the civic and liberal education of non-military students. Though we pay significant heed to the classic or traditional argument for ROTC and related programs as expressed by Dreyfus, Ilia Murtazashvili and I add a new twist on the military-university relationship in our new book, Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students (Cambridge University Press) We argue and demonstrate through surveys and personal interviews the ways in which ROTC, military history, and strategic security studies can contribute to the civic and liberal education of non-military students. Appropriate military presence is good for the military, but also for universities and the students they serve. It is a two-way street.

After discussing the nature of the civilian-military “gap” and how universities can help to bridge it, Arms and the University develops a theoretical model of civic and liberal education. The model incorporates the importance of understanding and grappling with the dilemmas posed by national security, including the difficult moral and political choices that national security deliberation and the deployment of force entails. Dealing with national security and military-related issues compels students to think about the proper and improper uses of power in a liberal democracy, a difficult reckoning for such citizens, as Reinhold Niebuhr and others have taught. Drawing on the thought of the great international politics scholar Hans Morgenthau and other thinkers, we show how exposure to military-related courses and personnel can help students to think more broadly and responsibly about such vital matters as citizenship, power, justice, responsibility, duty, and such universal themes as the meaning of life and death–all contributing to the type of thought that Morgenthau called the “higher practicality.” We argue that such thinking broadens students’ minds and horizons, broadening and deepening the intellectual diversity of campus life; and our surveys of students show this effect in action.

In addition, Arms and the University addresses the history of ROTC, with a special focus on the politics of ROTC in the Ivy League. Among other things, we provide the first in-depth account of the recent return of ROTC to Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Stanford, with special attention devoted to Columbia, where ROTC returned after a decade-long struggle that began in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We also chronicle the historical and contemporary status of military history as a discipline, and give detailed attention to the status of military history in top-ranked departments.

We conclude with a discussion of strategic security programs. In addition, we conduct nationally-based survey findings of the status of military history and security studies, as well as interviews with leading scholars in these fields.
In addition to discussing the history, status, and impact of ROTC, military history, and security studies, we also note a significant trend that was taking place before our very eyes as we researched and wrote the book: a noticeable comeback of regard for the military in higher education. It does appear that many institutions have become aware of the military-civilian gap and their involvements in perpetuating it.

This reconstructive process has only begun and is encountering some blowback, but the trend is noteworthy: ROTC has come back to some institutions that were once strongly opposed to it, and even military history appears to be enjoying a comeback of sorts in a variety of ways that we examine. Meanwhile, promising programs involving the military and national security are either going strong or are sprouting around the country. Accordingly, we end Arms and the University on a note of guarded hope.

Donald A. Downs is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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One thought on “Campus and Armed Forces–Too Far Apart”

  1. Hopefully it isn’t military history according to Howard Zinn. Unless the gap between the university and the military is closed, we may yet end up with a society of citizens and civilians, as was described by author Robert Heinlein in Starship Troopers.

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