Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Op-Ed: The Civilian-Military Divide and ROTC

Much has been made of the so-called civilian-military divide (henceforth CMD), including in a recent letter that Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz wrote to the ROTC committee. Such a discussion begs three questions: (1) what is this divide? (2) is it a problem? (3) if so, what is the remedy?

The CMD means, as far as I can tell, that civilians remain ignorant about the gruesome realities of war. This is surely a true characteristic of American society. Few are aware of the damage that conflict does to American soldiers, especially the psychological damage that drives many to suicide. Rare is the civilian who knows the extent of the terrorism that the U.S. military regularly perpetrates on civilian populations, as in the drone strikes and night raids in Afghanistan. And how infrequently the media broadcasts that incidents like the “Collateral Murder” exposed by WikiLeaks are not exceptions, but commonplace.

Now, is this ignorance a problem? It certainly is. Because the population thinks of an aggressive war more as a grand adventure than a criminal act, ideologues like Rice are able to brazenly take the lives of Americans, Afghans and Iraqis to advance their rapacious political agenda. It is for this reason that administrations take great pains to ensure the truth about war does not reach the domestic population. Images of dead or captured soldiers are essentially banned from U.S. airwaves, ugly stories about killed NFL stars are meticulously covered up and unembedded reporters like Tariq Ayoub are murdered by the US for the heinous crime of trying to penetrate the vast shroud of credulity and deceit. Much better to have embedded reporters who are effectively told what to report by the military and who might, coincidentally, lose their access or even their lives if they utter a word of criticism.

How should we as a society shatter this ignorance about the U.S. military? If one takes the arguments of the pro-return crowd to their logical conclusion, a great way to eliminate the CMD would be a draft. This, however, has the unfortunate side effect of making the public take an interest in politics. This terrifying prospect must be avoided, our leaders reason, lest the American populace take a cue from the Tunisians and Egyptians and try to participate meaningfully in their so-called democracy.

Rice et al therefore advocate that we invite the military into our school to learn from its members. But we will learn about the military from ROTC affiliates the same way that the public learns about the military from embedded reporters. That is, without a word of principled criticism. Which is, of course, the whole point of embedding the military inside an institution whose individuals are most likely to take an objection to the armed forces’ present constitution — to normalize youngsters to a military presence and apologetics for its violence early.

It is tough to sway any cadet with these arguments. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” All the more reason for Stanford to refuse to legitimize an institution that obstructs critical inquiry. To anyone not nursing an axiomatic belief in the supreme inherent goodness of the U.S. military, however, I say the CMD should be bridged with education, not embedding. This column is a step in that direction.
Rebecca Young’s Wednesday op-ed also touched on the CMD. She begins by stating, “ROTC’s absence from this campus has removed a critical mode of discourse between the military and the civilian population it serves,” as if a military base on campus would finally allow cadets to critically probe their beliefs and actions. In fact, cadets have shunned the opportunity, withdrawing from a January discussion with Stanford Says No to War and others before it happened. Is it the supposed “intolerance, xenophobia and isolationism” of SSNW that worries cadets most, or an honest examination of what the military means for Stanford, American society and victims of conflict?  Whenever Young or a comrade wants to explore that question, the members of SSNW (who, I promise, are very friendly! No need to be afraid!) would be glad to talk.

 

Danny Colligan

President emeritus, Stanford Says No to War

  • Robin Thomas

    “But we will learn about the military from ROTC affiliates the same way that the public learns about the military from embedded reporters. That is, without a word of principled criticism.”

    Interesting article. You’re saying that American civilians have no real idea of what war and the military are like, right? But, Mr. Colligan, aren’t you yourself a civilian? Unless you’re also a veteran, then presumably you don’t have any idea as to what war and the military are like either.

    How many ROTC classrooms have you been in? My guess is none. Although I was only in ROTC for one year (if who’ve seen me in these comments before, sorry I repeat this so much), I was surprised and impressed by how open our officers were to talking about both the military’s many strong points AND its many flaws. And I always felt free to have the same discussions with people outside the military.

    You seem to imply that ROTC is capable of brainwashing its members into never saying a bad word about the organization. Ask anyone who knows me personally, and they’ll tell you that ROTC hasn’t shut me up at all.

  • Danny Colligan

    Robin,

    “What the US military is doing is fundamentally wrong and immoral. It should be stopped immediately and apologies should be made and reparations paid to the victims. There are no threats to US security that the military could prevent now or in the foreseeable future. In fact, the military is decreasing US security by inflaming tensions around the world. The military and its supportive apparatus are an undemocratic resource drain on the country that is exacerbating the economic problems America faces. The mere fact that such a body exists virtually guarantees its use for future imperial conquest, exactly as it is being used at present.”

    You never heard that in an ROTC classroom.

    What I am saying is that civilians are fed a message by the media, politicians, army recruiters and history books that mythologizes and glorifies war. Only someone who looks beyond this mirage can call themselves informed about war. Have you read the recent news about the Afghanistan kill team that was collecting body parts for fun? Or the one about the wood-gathering Afghan children gunned down by US air power? Most civilians haven’t. Which is why these wars can continue. If Americans knew what was actually going on in their name, they would be appalled.

  • Robin Thomas

    You’re wrong there, Danny. I had several discussions exactly along those lines with my fellow Midshipman. Military officers aren’t sheep. Sure, sometimes you have officers who never want to hear a word of criticism, just like you would find in any organization anyplace. Look, I only had a year’s part-time experience with the military, but again, I really appreciated the candor with which I could speak with other officers and enlisted people about their honest views regarding the military. A year of part-time experience with the institution is far more than you seem to have had, anyway.

    I don’t know what media sources you’re talking about; the tenor of war-related articles on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC rarely seem particularly favorable toward the war or toward servicemembers. Sure, occasionally there’s a sob story about such-and-such a soldier being killed. But more often than not, the stories highlight the bloody conflict going on overseas. I’m aware of both the stories to which you’re referring, and CNN and Reuters are my primary news sources. I would argue that it is the media that was primarily responsible for the dramatic negative shift in attitude toward the military between the end of World War II and the end of the Viet Nam war.

  • Masaru Oka

    I think regardless, Danny is right in saying that the civilian population at large just “doesn’t get” what war and the military really means. Even if we do occasionally see on the news that another ONE servicemember was killed yesterday, or that a dozen civilians were accidentally killed (but it was another isolated incident), that’s all it is to a lot of us. It’s just not something most civilians take to heart. I think it’s a national feeling kind of thing, and the last time the country really understood what it meant to be at war was WW2. That kind of personal investment in the military.

  • Danny Colligan

    Robin,

    I find that incredibly hard to believe that you ever heard that in a ROTC classroom. I can believe that perhaps something approaching that kind of questioning was expressed in private. But show me someone who holds those views, and I’ll show you someone that will be leaving ROTC really soon.

    And not just ROTC… I think you recognize that this principle holds more generally. It’s quite difficult to remain a cynic, to not believe in the task you are doing every day and perhaps even risking your life for. Those people are quite few and far between. So one has to be of the mindset, if one is in the military, that it is a “global force for good,” to quote the recruiting pitch. I don’t think that opinion withstands a rational look at the situation, but military affiliates believe it nevertheless. And they have to, or they quit… or they try and find some other way to evade the situation.

    “I don’t know what media sources you’re talking about; the tenor of war-related articles on CNN, MSNBC, and ABC rarely seem particularly favorable toward the war or toward servicemembers.”

    The mainstream media never expresses principled criticism of the military. Period. Read Manufacturing Consent if you don’t believe me.

  • Cisco

    “…I say the CMD should be bridged with education, not embedding…”
    What would that education consist of?

    “… a great way to eliminate the CMD would be a draft…”
    Egypt has had mandatory military service for a long time and it had nothing to do with starting their protests.

    “This terrifying prospect must be avoided, our leaders reason, lest the American populace take a cue from the Tunisians and Egyptians and try to participate meaningfully in their so-called democracy.”
    Your Egypt example is just atrocious. Regarding “meaningful participation”, if we had a draft, it would have a HUGE impact on draftees and many other people. This would lead to a pissed off vocal minority that would push its agenda of e.g. not having a draft anymore, at the expense of every other issue. I think it’s moronic to call out politicians for not wanting to create a vocal minority out of thin air (not to mention the million other reasons not to have a draft).

  • Danny Colligan

    Cisco,

    “What would that education consist of?”

    Forgive me, but 700 words was just a bit too short to spell out a comprehensive educational program.

    “Egypt has had mandatory military service for a long time and it had nothing to do with starting their protests.”

    Perhaps, but it did 1) engage the entire population in politics, insofar as the draftees and their families were concerned 2) have a lot to do with the soldiers not firing on the protesters.

    “I think it’s moronic to call out politicians for not wanting to create a vocal minority out of thin air (not to mention the million other reasons not to have a draft).”

    Yes, why would politicians want to engage people in politics, when they are happy running the country without any bother? That was exactly my point.

  • Cisco

    “Forgive me, but 700 words was just a bit too short to spell out a comprehensive educational program.”
    No kidding. I think 700 books would be too short for something like that. There are some things that education can’t do. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

    “Yes, why would politicians want to engage people in politics, when they are happy running the country without any bother? That was exactly my point.”
    There are better ways to engage people in politics than implementing bad policies just to piss them off.

  • I agree with what you say, except…

    ‘…I say the CMD should be bridged with education, not embedding.’

    Education is good but embedding is far more powerful. There are good reasons why Stanford stresses the importance of admitting diverse classes.

    ‘This column is a step in that direction.’

    My god, the narcissism.

    ‘Is it the supposed “intolerance, xenophobia and isolationism” of SSNW that worries cadets most, or an honest examination of what the military means for Stanford, American society and victims of conflict?’

    I don’t have anything to do with SSNW or ROTC cadets. As an outside observer, “intolerance, xenophobia and isolationism” seem like pretty accurate words to describe SSNW. You present a very negative public image of yourselves. For example, there were “Vote No on ROTC” flyers taped to mail boxes at the Post Office. Every time I’ve read about SSNW, it’s been about SSNW attacking some group. You don’t seem interested in constructive efforts to help people in war-torn countries or legitimate efforts to prevent future wars.