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From Draft NOtices, July—September 2010

ROTC and the Seduction of Liberal Militarism

— Sean Dinces

On April 20, representatives from the Naval War College met with students at Brown University to pressure the school’s administration to bring ROTC back to campus. Invited by a new student organization called Brown Students for ROTC, the meeting’s attendees lamented a longstanding policy at Brown and other Ivy League universities that prohibits military science departments on campus, denies credit for military science courses, and requires students who want to participate in ROTC to commute to a nearby university where the program already exists. ROTC units were eliminated throughout the Ivy League during the Vietnam War when faculty, under pressure from students, deemed that institutional support for the military implicated their universities in the violation of international law in Southeast Asia. Since then, sporadic calls for ROTC’s reinstatement have surfaced; but, until now, these appeals have generally been ignored.

This time, things have changed. As reported recently in the Boston Globe (see, Ivy League administrators have been increasingly receptive to pro-ROTC appeals. Moreover, the most recent efforts are neither isolated nor disorganized. Several pro-ROTC campaigns have recently emerged at other top-tier universities like Harvard and Stanford under the auspices of the umbrella group Advocates for ROTC (, and are demanding course credit for military science and the eventual restoration of military science departments on campus. Student sentiment is becoming alarmingly sympathetic — not just apathetic — to these demands. A recent poll in Brown’s student newspaper suggested that a “plurality” of the student body favors ROTC’s return ( This situation deserves attention from counter-recruitment and campus activists, because the rhetorical strategy developed by the pro-ROTC contingent is helping it appeal to students and faculty who identify as liberal or progressive. Below, I outline and rebut the main points of this rhetorical strategy.

A popular progressive argument in favor of ROTC’s return, seen in sources ranging from the New York Times (see to campus papers, is that increasing the number of Ivy League-educated officers will somehow “liberalize” the culture of the military from within. Even if we accept the shaky assumption that the Ivy League produces more forward-thinking liberals than other universities, this line of argument is misguided. Certainly, important institutional change has followed from the inclusion of more liberal voices in certain sectors of society. The military, however, is not your typical institution.

It is one thing to talk about progressive politics. It’s quite another to enact them as a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. The range of options boils down to disobeying orders (and facing court martial) or violating one’s conscience by obeying. Those who think this is an exaggeration should recall the recently released Wikileaks video ( of U.S. helicopter pilots mowing down Iraqi children and civilians and laughing about it afterwards. As former soldiers have testified, this video is not exceptional (see one of these testimonials at Democracy Now!, It represents the day-to-day operations that American soldiers are ordered to take part in directly or indirectly. There is little that individual soldiers can do to change this reality.

Anecdotal evidence I’ve accumulated as a counselor for GIs seeking a way out of the military, as well as published statistics, confirm that the cultures of sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the military are highly resistant to internal reform. CBS News (see reported last year that one in three women in the military experience some form of sexual assault -- a rate much higher than in the civilian world. A recentNew York Times article (see revealed that 2009 saw an 11 percent jump in reports of sexual assault in the armed forces overall, and a 16 percent jump in combat areas. For many of the soldiers who experience this type of bigotry and violence, their immediate priority is getting out of the military as soon as possible, NOT fighting a disorganized crusade against discriminatory culture.

Another liberal-friendly position concerns the potential repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). According to ROTC supporters, the repeal of DADT would bring ROTC in line with anti-discrimination policies at universities like Brown and remove the ethical problems associated with support of on-campus military training. First of all, DADT has nothing to do with why ROTC was originally removed from these campuses. Students and faculty at these institutions organized successfully against ROTC’s presence during the 1970s because of the program’s inherent relationship with war crimes being committed by the U.S. military in Southeast Asia (see an original explanation from 1969 in the Harvard Crimson, As the aforementioned Wikileaks video illustrates, the military’s dehumanization of foreign enemies has not given way to kinder, friendlier armed forces. The repeal of DADT will not rectify the continued violation of international law by the U.S. military.

Proponents of ROTC also claim it will enhance campus diversity by offering scholarships to low-income students (see an example of this argument at We DO need more scholarships for low-income students, which is why this argument is especially seductive. ROTC, however, is the wrong way to accomplish this. These scholarships lock poorer students into a career involving great physical and psychological risk while their more affluent peers enjoy much more flexibility in choosing their profession. In other words, justifying ROTC on the basis of its appeal to low-income students merely relocates inequality to the sphere of career choice.

Finally, those of us who have mobilized to oppose the pro-ROTC campaign at Brown have encountered the claim that our position reflects elitist Ivy League culture. This is another smokescreen. Non-Ivy League schools have organized successful campaigns against the establishment of ROTC on campus, as was the case recently at Cal State San Marcos. Furthermore, what is truly elitist is the notion that students from Brown or Harvard will liberalize military culture from within when it would appear that ROTC graduates from less privileged campuses have been unable to do so.

Students and faculty at institutions reconsidering ROTC’s return must recognize the pro-ROTC positions for what they are — manipulations in the name of campus militarization.

Sean Dinces is a disabled veteran and a counselor with the GI Rights Hotline. He is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Brown University. He can be contacted at sdinces[at]

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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