Thoughts On ROTC

We have received a variety of correspondence recently related to Oberlin's stance on ROTC, some of it urging the college to reconsider its position in light of the repeal of DADT. I've given this a lot of thought in recent weeks, and still don't really have a clear opinion. There are compelling arguments on both sides, which we hope to explore in depth in a future issue of the magazine.

In the meantime, some personal reflections.

When I was a student here -- and throughout the decade that followed -- I was adamantly against the idea of an ROTC presence on Oberlin's campus. DADT was a major factor, but not the only one. I'd been indoctrinated (by a variety of sources, not just Oberlin friends) to see the military as primarily a war machine, a concept that didn't resonate well with the peace-loving pacifist Oberlin kid I'd always been.

A big part of me still feels that ROTC doesn't belong on this campus. Even with the repeal of DADT (a definite step in the right direction), the military's policies continue to discriminate against subsets of the LGBT community, and equality is an all-or-nothing deal as far as I'm concerned. And stories like this one (penned by fellow alum and Oscar-winner Mark Boal '95) don't help with the image of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

But 9/11 made things less easy to compartmentalize, for me and for many of my Oberlin friends as well. For the most part I think we clung to our idealism, but the cracks were now there.

The years in which my opinions entered significant grey territory were the years in which I worked at MIT, which has several branches of ROTC on campus. I had the privilege of getting to know several ROTC kids and was pleasantly surprised by their motivations and passions. These were not people who were driven by a goal of heading into combat. These were people who were excited about engineering, science, and policy -- and able to explain eloquently and in great detail how those things were far more important to the future of national security than waging war in the name of peacekeeping. These were people who wanted to be leaders, people who absolutely understood the relationship between power and responsibility.

To paraphrase their pro-ROTC argument: what is the cost of not having Oberlin-minded people in the upper levels of military decision-making?

At some level, we must accept that the solution to policies such as DADT must be pursued from the inside. Sure we could boycott ROTC until those problems have been resolved, but that would really be letting someone else fight the good fight. And that's not the Oberlin I know.

I guess that last paragraph makes it sound like I'm advocating for us to bring ROTC to campus. Let me clarify: I'm not advocating for either side of the argument. But I do think it's a discussion worth having, and one that is far less black and white than I once believed.

Responses To This Entry:

I grew up in a community that encouraged and highly valued military services. Every high school I attended had an ROTC program. I had a good deal of friends and teachers from home who enrolled in the National Guard because of all of its benefits, and many of them were sent overseas.

Since this is the only personal experience I have with ROTC (and my only associations with military presence on Oberlin's campus come from the stories from my dad's time), I'm concerned in the ways that Oberlin students (and our prospective students, and alumni, and faculty, and staff) would react to an institutional embrace of the program here. Even now, we are greatly stigmatized by what has happened in the past on this campus, and while you manage to explain ROTC in a manner that Obies could and would consider (the intellectual, the life-changing, the making-a-difference-in-the-future-of-the-world positions that you describe), there would always be an overall aversion to this idea.

(Do you recall the uproar when the National Guard ran ads in the Oberlin Review, or was that before your time? I envision that on a much grander scale if this were proposed.)

Posted by: Ma'ayan on April 10, 2011 9:33 PM

Especially interesting in light of President Obama's call, during the State of the Union this year, to open up all campuses to military recruiters.

I have never served in the military but I've known some pretty stand up ROTC folks over the years and none of them are what I would call "war-mongers." ROTC can be a great way for someone without a lot of income to pay for a really good education, do their 6 or so years of service and then go out in the world. Plus, there are good things to be learned from military service - duty, responsibility, perseverance, to name just a few. If anything, the friends I have who have served - in any branch of the military - all have a very high regard for life and the preservation thereof. They do not value it cheaply or take it for granted.

An excellent point to raise and certainly one worth discussing.

Posted by: Ruth on April 11, 2011 4:31 PM

I teach at a high school that has ROTC. I think very highly of the kids who go into that program. Many need the high degree of structure that they lacked in their home environments. For the most part I have seen kids turn their lives around using the rigor and high expectations built into the discipline that is at the core of their participation. I also might add that very few of these students use this experience as a springboard to enlistment. Rather, they "get over it" and move on with their lives, having added highly usable tools to their skill set.

This is not to deny the powerful effect that ROTC had on my Oberlin years having attended during the heart of the Viet Nam war. I too associate ROTC most strongly with that heavy time in my life where only half of my entering class seemed to graduate as the war tore asunder all our hopes and fears of the idyllic childhoods of the 60's.

Ultimately ROTC does represent the DOD (Department of Defense) at its core and the main reason high schools like mine embrace the program is because of the big bucks it brings to our school in the form of paying for teachers, the latest tech, regular off island field trips, riflery competitions, etc.

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