After 18 years, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was finally repealed by a Senate vote of 63 for and 33 against. This historic legislation marks the end of an almost two-decade period when gay and lesbian members of the armed forces had to face a dishonorable discharge if they divulged their sexuality to their comrades, forcing them to live in secrecy while trying to perform a highly stressful and dangerous job.
The magnitude of this decision has sent reverberations nationwide; however, I would like to talk about how it has reached us here on College Hill. In light of the repeal, President Simmons has decided to form a committee tasked with reevaluating the 1972 ban on all Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at Brown.
To once again allow ROTC on our campus would be to completely ignore the social, political and historical contexts of its original expulsion. My personal feelings about the military aside, the repeal of the policy was a huge victory for human rights and has set an important precedent for future anti-discrimination laws; that being said, discrimination against queer folks in the military will not necessarily die with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and ROTC divestment was an act informed by the sum of many other crimes against humanity perpetrated by the United States military.
Officially, the University instituted the ban on ROTC as a result of the program’s unwillingness to rescind its status as an academic credit-bearing entity. However, as we all know, the 1960s were a time of significant student protest, especially at schools like Brown. Starting as early as 1967, there was a “Brown Committee to Abolish ROTC” taking action on campus.
To try and remove Brown’s expulsion of ROTC in 1972 from the context of the United States military’s violence in Vietnam and at Kent State University is akin to taking any other action out of its historical context. In order to truly achieve a coherent analysis about the initial decision to remove ROTC, we must look at the cultural position of the United States military between the years of 1967 and 1972.
By the official end of the Vietnam War in 1975, an estimated one million members of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had died defending their country from U.S. invasion. Women, although allowed in the military in the 1960s and ’70s, were not given the same job opportunities as men, regardless of their ability or technical proficiency. On May 4, 1970, at Kent State University, four students were killed and nine others were injured at a rally protesting the United States military’s foreign involvement.
Although this summary paints just a small picture of the cultural milieu in the ’60s and ’70s, it helps us to reconstruct the socio-political climate at the time ROTC was expelled from our campus. So, where do we stand now?
The United States military is currently involved in many foreign conflicts, the most prominent of which are taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, an estimated 99,000-108,000 civilians have been killed as a result of U.S. occupation. A 2003 survey of female veterans showed that 30 percent were victims of sexual assault while serving in various branches of the military; furthermore, a 2004 study of female veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder found that 71 percent had been victims of sexual assault while in the service. Meanwhile, the National Guard has been called in on numerous occasions to help suppress protests during G-8 and G-20 meetings held all over the United States. To add insult to injury, the starting pay for a member of the Air Force, Navy, Marines or Army is only 17,604 dollars per year — not very good compensation for risking one’s life. Although officer positions certainly pay more handsomely, they are mostly available to students coming from military colleges like West Point.
Given this comparison between the situation in the 1960s and that of the 2000s, I see no reason why ROTC would be any more welcome on our campus than it was 50 years ago. If we look at the two student groups at Brown organizing around this issue, Students for ROTC and The Brown Coalition Against Special Privileges for ROTC, our campus’s opinion on the issue is fairly clear; the coalition has 173 petition signatures (including students, faculty and alums) and 10 student groups allied with their position, while Students for ROTC only has a handful of members and virtually no visible support.
In The Herald this week, Undergraduate Council of Students President Diane Mokoro ’11 was quoted saying that in regards to the committee members’ personal opinions about ROTC, she wants “somebody who’s relatively in the middle.” Although our instinct at Brown is to always attempt to create a level debate, I think it is critically important that whoever gets chosen for this committee is both invested in the issue and has opinions which reflect those of the larger student body.
My suggestion: Tell Ruth we don’t want a committee, and all hail community referenda.
Chris Norris-LeBlanc ’13 is from Rhode Island. He can be contacted at chris.norris.leblanc (at) gmail.com.