So ROTC is not Allowed?

Last week, Neptunus Lex ran a short post discussing the ongoing issue with Stanford University and ROTC.  That set off a slow burn on my end.  There are too many points made by ROTC opponents in the base article to simply let things lay were they sit.  And the burn prompted this long winded post.  The most insulting points, and those also highlighted by the Lex, come from Professor Barton Bernstein:

And they worry about students who receive ROTC scholarships, then change their mind and are penalized — a policy that one professor called “financial coercion.”

History professor Bart Bernstein, who helped lead the movement against ROTC 40 years ago, disapproved of ROTC for several additional reasons. “It requires that the faculty be appointed by the Pentagon, not by the university. Secondly, the course content … is not as rigorous, not as demanding, not as deep and does not require the same level of analysis.”

Bernstein’s third objection: “Students in ROTC courses are not as intellectually free as they are in Stanford courses — for instance, they are not allowed to criticize the president of the U.S., foreign policy and military action.”

“One can accept and endorse the military,” said Bernstein, who joined ROTC as a teenager, “and still believe ROTC is inappropriate and propose that officers be recruited and trained in other ways.”

Let me start by saying that indeed I received my commission through the ROTC system, and received a degree in history.  It was in the 1980s, not too far removed from the curriculum offered in the 1970s.  (And I know this, because, as a good historian will do, I’ve researched the background and evolution of Army policy in this regard.  If the book would sell, I’d send the manuscript off tomorrow.)

First off, let’s expose this “financial coercion” tact for what it is – a class warfare code word.  All students who attend college with the intent to graduate are under some form of financial coercion.  Student loans, academic scholarships, and heck even sporting scholarships all have strings attached. How is this different for ROTC?

Oh, the old “pay back” stipulation the professor alludes to.  Well, in all my time in and around ROTC, there is only one case I’ve seen where that stipulation was exercised.  In most cases the military opted to wave the pay back in order to expedite resolution of the issue.  You see, most times when a cadet opts to give up that scholarship, something has occurred to make military service unlikely – injury most often, but occasionally misconduct.  In the very rare cases where a cadet experiences a change of heart, I’ve seen the military rather willing to simply write things off the books.  Better to be rid of someone who doesn’t want to be there, than to retain them to the misery of all involved.

BUT regardless, when you sign on that line, then you have agreed to a contract.  A little does of reality here.  In the real world, when you sign a contract, you are obligated to honor the stipulations of that contract.  I really don’t want to replay my house loan.  But it is not “financial coercion” for the bank to send me statements every month.

Professor Bernstein complains (and has long complained) that ROTC offers little to the Stanford student.  The instructors, assigned not by the Pentagon (yet another code word if you are following here), but rather by the military branch managers.  And these instructors are chosen based on their background and performance.  It might be desirable to chose instructors from the university faculty.  But frankly, on campuses like Stanford there is a great lack of the essential knowledge and experience required to teach ROTC classes.

Quite the opposite of the rather pedestrian characterization offered by Professor Bernstein, ROTC classes must blend instruction between art and practice.  No where else on the course catalog will you see the mix of “theory” with “practice” to the extent applied in ROTC classes.  Cadets must master the “hard science” of the trade (ranging from basics such as map-reading to delivering field orders).  They must also understand the “art” of soldiering – morals, ethics, and the big one…. LEADERSHIP.

Yes, leadership.  Stanford is, in the words taken from their web site, “… dedicated to finding solutions to the great challenges of the day and to preparing our students for leadership in today’s complex world.”   So how does that look in the course offerings?  Lets see what we find in the course catalog:

  • Athletic 405: Outdoor Leadership – “Skills needed to lead basic multi-day backpacking trips. Classroom sessions and wilderness trips. Topics include group dynamics and leadership, technical skills, and wilderness first aid.”
  • BIO 318: Communications and Leadership Skills – “Focus is on delivering information to policy makers and the lay public. How to speak to the media, Congress, and the general public; how to write op-eds and articles; how to package ideas including titles, abstracts, and CVs; how to survive peer review, the promotion process, and give a job talk; and how to be a responsible science advocate.”
  • CLE 147 and 247:  Cases in Personality, Leadership, and Negotiation:  “Case studies target personality issues, risk willingness, and life skills essential for real world success. Failures, successes, and risk willingness in individual and group tasks based on the professor’s experience as small business owner and construction engineer.”
  • CSRE 203A:  Civil Rights and Education Strategies for the 21st Century – “For students with leadership potential who have studied these topics in lecture format. Race discrimination strategies, their relation to education reform initiatives, and the role of media in shaping racial attitudes in the U.S.”
  • EDU 126X: Introduction to Public Service Leadership – “Offered through the Haas Center for Public Service. A foundation and vision for a future of public service leadership. Students identify personal values and assess strengths as leaders. The ethics of public service and leadership theory.”
  • EDU 254S:  Leadership in Diverse Organizations – “This course is designed to help students improve their capacity to exercise leadership and work effectively with others within the context of culturally diverse groups and organizations….”

That’s what I see about five to six pages into the catalog.  But I noticed several trends.  Several of these classes are offered pass/fail.  Second, there is emphasis on ethics, strategy formation, and public presentation. Lastly, much is made of the “professor’s experience” in these courses.  Sort of reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield’s encounter with the economics professor in “Back to School.”

I would offer that ROTC classes, particularly where leadership instruction is the topic evaluated, are perfectly in line with the Stanford definition of leadership. And certainly ANY ROTC class will rise above the intellectual level of that “Outdoor Leadership” upper division course offering (trying hard not to make a joke of that one!).

Not demanding and offering little discourse?  Let me pull again from my personal experience.  There is no instructor in the world more demanding than an Army Sergeant-Major or Navy Master Chief.  Those guys “know” what right is, and have no inhibitions making the student learn what right is using any and all techniques possible.  And as for criticism of the President, policy, or such, have you ever known any E-9 to hold back?

In my personal experience, after four years of ROTC I was thrust into a “sink or swim” profession.  I had to demonstrate mastery in a range of fields and an adaptability to learn new skills on demand.  Within 12 months of graduating college, I was in charge of a team consisting of 45 personnel, equipped with devices that could effectively destroy a small community.  Within 24 months of graduation, I was responsible for an $8 million budget (that would be what in 2011 dollars?) and maintenance of in excess of $150 million worth of equipment.  My world was one of “zero defects” – a bad decision on my part might result in injury or even death of a member of my team. How many of my Stanford peers reached that level of responsibility, even given double the “swim” time?

I had to be proficient at the trade of soldiering.  Let’s be frank about this.  Professor Bernstein provided a good summary in another interview, stating ROTC’s focus is “…preparing students for war and training them to kill, and that is fundamentally unacceptable at a university.”  Soldiers are required by society to fight wars, and where necessary kill.  Because the act of killing another human being is so averse and opposite to what we are taught as members of a society, it is necessary for the soldier to understand the nature of that act.  The soldier must understand the fine line between killing and war (which arguably Professor Bernstein himself lacks the ability to differentiate).  Where better to gain that understanding than a school of higher learning?

The last line from Bernstein’s response brings me to evoke a skill I learned from my ROTC training.  When receiving any information, I was taught to analyze it from multiple perspectives.  Apply some “discourse” if you will.  Often one must consider the messenger as much as the message itself.   So I remind readers just where Professor Bernstein stands as he speaks.

The article notes Professor Bernstein joined ROTC as a teenager, but doesn’t indicate if that was JROTC or college ROTC.  Just a bit of web queries reminds us that he was in college at the time of the Vietnam draft.  Many, of course, went to college and joined ROTC as a shelter from the draft.  And as soon as the draft transformed and eventually dropped off, most of those sheltering in ROTC left the program.  While I’d be interested to hear exactly how much time Bernstein spent in ROTC, I seriously doubt it was enough for him to speak with any authority on the subject.

Also discussed was Professor Bernstein’s actions in the 1970s to drive ROTC off campus.  That action was a reaction to student protests against the Cambodian invasion.  We know, from the vast amount of source material, that those protests weighed heavily on decisions made by senior leaders to withdraw from Cambodia.  The American withdrawal opened a vacuum filled by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  Logically we have only a few steps to make from the Stanford protests to the pile of skulls in Cambodia.  Indeed, it takes a good person, perhaps one well schooled in morals and ethics, befitting from quality classes in leadership, to admit contributing to such a terrible event.  Often in those cases an individual not ground with good leadership skills resorts to extreme, irrational interpretations of the facts and projection of their failings onto otherwise innocent persons or groups.  I will let the reader decide if that is the case here.

But since the professor brings up criticism, discourse, and disagreement as proper components of a rigorous and demanding education, I am reminded of the only time I’ve seen him interact with an audience.  Professor Bernstein is somewhat an authority on the bombing of Hiroshima.  Interpretation of that historical event became a hot topic in the 1990s when the Smithsonian began revising an exhibit of the “Enola Gay” (see here for a short summary of the issue).  I watched a panel discussion on that topic which included the professor.  At one point in the discussion, a student brought up evidence that shattered the professor’s interpretation of events.  You see, Professor Bernstein contends the estimate of US casualties for an invasion of Japan in 1945-6 have been grossly exaggerated.  The student offered up primary source materials that refuted the professor’s position.  Yet, in the end, the student was told, “you are simply unaware of all the information I have on the subject, and should just simply accept my [the professor’s] estimates as factual.” Dissent is all in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

In my ROTC leadership classes, they taught me to speak out when I came across invalid information.  I was taught to both reject it for planning purposes and bring it to the attention of my superiors, as the situation called for.  And I was also taught to have the moral courage to “dig in my heels” when someone dismissed my observations without proper examination.  And certainly NOT to simply accept anyone’s opinion, even a superior’s, without proper supporting evidence.  Moral courage – isn’t that part of leadership they teach at Stanford?

I’d submit that ROTC coursework is far more useful, rigorous, demanding, and critical than Professor Bernstein is willing to admit.

Apologies for the length of this rant.  But it really got under my skin.  Craig.