Columns

Kroeber ’11: ROTC at Brown: When a statement becomes a policy

By
Opinions Columnist
Friday, February 4, 2011

In a recent Herald column, Chris Norris-LeBlanc ’13 rightly cautioned students against disregarding the political and historical contexts that led to the removal of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps from the University (“The ROTC Question,” Jan. 28). As a history concentrator, I applaud his column on principle. But I think we would be remiss if we did not also examine our current political situation, as well as the way the government is organized today.

In the wake of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I had an interesting conversation via e-mail with one of my professors, from which I have largely extracted my argument.

First off, I want Brown students to have the opportunity to attain officer status within the military, which is hard to do without an ROTC chapter. I do not think that Brown students who wish to serve their country by joining the military should be limited to enlisting. Not many Brown graduates would like a $17,000 starting salary.

I want the military leadership to have Brown students in it. It is the only way the military will ever see the serious reform the left clamors for. As a liberal institution, Brown should be all for change within the military structure. As much as progressives might attack the military, it is here to stay. I think it would be far better to change how our military thinks, is viewed and acts around the world than just complain about it.

Brown does not have the lightest tuition burden, and financial aid does not go far enough for some families. ROTC is the only way many students can attend college, and there is no reason to limit our applicant pool and discourage promising students by eliminating military financial support.

Most importantly, when polled a full year before the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” 41.3 percent of Brown students said they would support reinstating ROTC, while only 25 percent listed some degree of disapproval (“Herald Poll: Students more satisfied with advising,” Nov. 6, 2009). Given that its removal in 1971 was mainly student-led, I think it is appropriate that we should listen to students.

Norris-LeBlanc pointed to student organization around the subject — many more anti-ROTC groups than pro-ROTC — but I would posit that this is most likely due to the fierce feelings about anti-discrimination that Brown students tend to have. Only weeks after the repeal, we cannot expect student groups to change their orientation so quickly. Two months ago, being pro-ROTC was the same as being anti-gay at Brown.

Now, that is not true.

My final point is not a practical point but rather a point of contention I have with many ROTC nay-sayers. Many of them point to the historical context in which ROTC was banned from Brown and so many other schools — the Vietnam War. Where they see an anti-military statement, I see that ban as a sign of protest. Protests are meant to be temporary. They are not meant to be new policies.

The meaning of that protest vanished in the years after the Vietnam War. When ROTC was first banned, much of America was still supportive of the war, but that had changed by the mid-1970s. The fact that it was never reinstated meant that when Brown students were outraged about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” they had nothing they could do as a vehement sign of protest — for example, re-banning ROTC. Instead, we have muddled all these issues together into the ban without positing a viable alternative.

The experiment with not having liberal institutions participate in ROTC and the military is over, and I believe it to have been a failed experiment. We see the same stale leadership today as we have in decades past, and there is little that points to major reform outside of the civilian command. We do not elect our leaders in the military, but we sure do get to decide who can qualify. By hamstringing our fellow students, we are just creating our own future headaches.

The only point that gives me pause is one that my professor reminded me of. We pride ourselves as Americans for having a volunteer army, but most of us know that this is an illusion. The military is a convenient escape from many situations, and often the only escape. Those facing poverty often do not have the means to pursue their education without the financial help that the military provides. I can only hope that a new generation of liberal, Brown officers in the military will bring some sort of change to this situation.

The repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is not the end to discrimination in the military. But I would like to think that it might have happened faster, and that all positive change might happen faster, if the military included more Brown graduates. Reestablishing ROTC on campus is not a white flag of surrender to issues such as discrimination or reducing the size of the military. It is picking up the gauntlet to the challenge of military reform in the United States, and accepting plurality here at Brown.

 

Susannah Kroeber ‘11 would like to thank Professor Michael Vorenberg, whose e-mailed inquiries into this subject helped her attain (some) lucidity.

  • David Braun

    Susannah writes, “ROTC is the only way many students can attend college, and there is no reason to limit our applicant pool and discourage promising students by eliminating military financial support . . . The military is a convenient escape from many situations, and often the only escape. Those facing poverty often do not have the means to pursue their education without the financial help that the military provides.”

    Why can’t the federal government simply pay for more Pell Grants to send more low-income students to college? Let me outline the differences between my plan and Susannah’s.

    My plan:
    Billions of dollars go toward educating smart, low-income students.

    Susannah’s:
    Billions of dollars go toward equipping students with deadly weapons. Then billions go toward sending them to war. After the students come back with PTSD or mild traumatic brain injuries, billions more go toward veteran healthcare.

    Let’s face the truth. The military isn’t meant to be a poverty-reducing machine. It is a WAR machine. If you want to reduce poverty, think about education, taxes, healthcare, and immigration. People think war is great for the economy, but they’re forgetting so many other ways to help the poor. Keep ROTC out.