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.

22 thoughts on “So ROTC is not Allowed?”

  1. No need to apologize Craig. Bernstein is an ignorant twit. Credentialed but uneducated. He needs to be called down and humiliated.

    I doubt his courses are all that rigorous. People of his ilk usually accuse people of what they themselves are guilty of.

  2. This is not a simple, one size fits all, type of situation. As I look at it, I see many different questions. First, is our military top-heavy? Do we really need all of the Military Officers, now in the military? I come at this question from the enlisted side, but I also have a very broad scope of people I knew on all levels on the military. There is no such a thing, as an unbiased opinion. Just for the record, I could never see myself writing this type of comment. But after considering my own history, I am forced to write it. The situation at Sanford is just like the canary in the mine. I find myself asking very hard questions not to you, but to me. I have no real answers, just some considerations. Second question, what is the ratio of Military Officers to Military Enlisted Personnel? Just because a person goes to college, does this make them Military Officer material? We have more and more kids going to college. I would suggest this, we have these people with a college background be brought into the enlisted ranks, first. Then, as these young people prove themselves to be Military Material and being promoted through the standard Enlisted Ranks, this becomes the place from where you pull your new officers. I do think there is a place for the colleges. They can provide the training for our Military Personnel, but from within the Military structure. We must understand as time goes along, there will be massive changes to our Military. The colleges should be required to find ways to work with the Military, if they want ANY funding, in any format. The last problem is this, how do we deal with the people who have already planned for a career in the US Military?

    I will not suggest that this is an easy answer, but we must start somewhere. We must realize this, the demand for a solution did not happen recently. The demand actually started many years ago, when we first entered Iraq. I respect both Brad and Lex, for allowing the discussion to continue.

    1. My opinion, and that is all it is – based on 20 some odd years in and around the military, is that the US military does not have a problem with the ratio of junior officers to enlisted personnel. In fact, if anything looking at the historical references the US military is actually lean on junior officers to the determent of many enlisted ranks. Attrition among the junior officer corps is always high. And that does much to trim the numbers naturally up the rank structure.

      On the other hand, the rank structure above O-5 is screwed to be top heavy. Much of that is a cold war hangover. We intended to fight WW II all over again and wanted plenty of seasoned regular military leadership to expand a draftee army. Might have made sense in 1950. Was clearly out of date by 1975. Has given us a secession of “staff oriented” generals and admirals.

      The solution I offer is more ROTC detachments with smaller numbers. I’d also cut down the numbers in the service academies. As you say, not everyone with a college degree gets a commission. But a college degree comes in handy for someone with a commission. The OCS system should mesh into ROTC programs to ensure all 2nd LTs, no matter what their source, have the sheepskin.

      I’d also turn around and revamp, direct, and push the “troops to teachers” program. In the current form it is a joke. If there is anyplace we need more veterans involved it is with the education system (er…excepting maybe the legislative process). While I don’t carry the delusion that all veterans are of a certain political persuasion. I do find that the vast majority better understand concepts such as integrity, responsibility, and morality.

  3. Part of my problem with this whole situation is this, “Do our colleges actually teach their students?” But the same question could be raised to each of our Nation’s high schools. Just for an example, I knew a man, high school dropout, taught himself math, enlisted into the military, when he was discharged, he became involved in software development. His only problem was that he had University Graduates/ Mathematicians as his assistants and they could not keep up with him. He had the same problems with both his Military and US Government Managers. There are two kinds of authority in the Military, “Real and Appointed.” Grumpy, what’s the difference? “Real authority comes from the person who con do it, but also the reasons why, in context, but also the when and the when. Appointed is just rank. No, they are not always the same.

    This shows you the reasons for some of my response.

  4. Awesome write up, Craig. I continue to learn. My gut aches as I smell more liberal obfuscation and duplicity, (a.k.a. lies).

    We should demand the truth. I’m ready to join Aggie in getting Craig face to face with this prof on camera and getting it on YouTube.

    Keep it up, Craig. It was NOT too long. Thanks.

  5. Craig. Just read your most recent replies (1/23/2011 @ 12:54pm) and the solutions you present for raising up military leadership via training, education, etc. Sounds well thought through as real solutions to the problem.

    The ‘sheepskin’ prerequisite is a good idea. College education does not guarantee that the person will make a good leader/officer, but it does provide a gauntlet to negotiate in order to be considered worthy.

    I also like the’ troops to teachers’ suggestion. Experience in the field always improves one’s ability to mentor while teaching because it deepens the learning. Praxis-Theorem-Praxis!!!

  6. Great post. I would say that my own ROTC curriculum was not exactly rigorous; however, the ground work that it laid for my life’s work was absolutely essential. Kind of like my OSUT; it seemed hard at the time but life in my first unit was harder. ROTC seemed challenging at the time, but nothing like what I have experienced in the years since.
    With regards to the idea that officers should first be enlisted; I used to think so, but I no longer do. My enlisted service made things much easier for me, as I find myself accepted faster by the Soldiers and NCOs, but the job and leadership skills I use as an officer are decidedly different. I would go as far as to contend that, for those who do not understand the difference, prior enlisted service is actually a detriment to effective officership.
    Concur with the comment that “sheepskin” does not equate to being an effective officer.
    I would like to take the outdoor leadership class as described in the course catalog!

  7. When I consider some of the classes I took in college, I don’t think the good professor realizes what you can get a few credit hours for. I took both basketball coaching and ADVANCED basketball coaching. There were literally a few dozen courses that everybody on campus knew were far easier credits than what you’d get in ROTC. Not every course is The Politics and Ethics of Modern Science and Technology.

  8. I would go as far as to contend that, for those who do not understand the difference, prior enlisted service is actually a detriment to effective officership.

    Esli, I’d be interested in hearing more about this, especially in light of your earlier statement about being better accepted by the enlisted. I could guess, but would prefer you share. Thanks.

  9. Well, enlisted guys appreciate that officers have been enlisted. I had been to the same schools, had the same experiences, etc. I knew what it was like to work for bad officers/NCOs. So, I had empathy. I could look one of my soldiers in the eye and tell him that I was going to punk him in some way, but at least I realized I was doing it, unlike some officers who can sometimes be oblivious to the effects that their decisions have. I could also show a brand new sergeant on his way to the basic NCO schools (PLDC and BNCOC) my diplomas from those schools and challenge him to be the distinquished honor grad like I was. On the other hand, being an officer requires a delegative style of leadership, as opposed to hands-on. Some former NCOs don’t understand this and try to lead in the same hands-on style. Soldiers and NCOs expect their officers to know how to do things and to spot check, but not to be around all the time. For example, as a brand new tank platoon leader, I was expected to know how to do every maintenance check on my tanks, and I freely used my crew to train me. They like that. But, at a certain point, they will chase me away to do “officer stuff.” Some officers will stay anyway and get in their soldiers’ business; some will take the hint. When a good NCO says “Sir, I got this,” the officer leaves. If the NCO is not so good and says it, the officer still leaves but comes back to check the work! Bad officers stay around and provide continuous supervision, otherwise known as micro-management. My enlisted experiences benefitted me up through my company command time, but now many of my soldiers don’t even know I was enlisted before.

    1. I’ve worked for prior-service officers, and others who were not prior-service. Ultimately, it comes down to the officer. Esli raises many good points about the difference in leadership styles that are needed.

      My personal experience has been that a prior service Lieutenant would be accepted a little sooner than a non-prior, but within a couple months, you were evaluating the officer on what he was doing for you NOW. What he did 5 years ago was of no consequence to you.

      The very best company commander I had was a non-prior guy. And I do believe he was a West Pointer. I saw him at the front of the company during the morning run, and maybe, just maybe, saw him at the final formation of the day. But he knew everyone and everything in that company. He had excellent NCOs working for him, and he let them do it. He spent his time teaching his officers to be tactically proficient.

  10. Craig, your idea of “Troops to Teachers” is a sound move, but they must bring a sense of experiential teaching with them. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong. As far as I can see, you are looking for a better model of teaching, I would agree with you. If that new model would help us to inproduce the type of officers we need, am all for it.

    Cathy, it would depend upon the prior service and the quality of it to determine, if it was, in reality detrimental to be an effective Military Officer. My example would be GEN Omar Bradley, the last five star general. Many troops called him, “The Soldiers’ General”. I understand the tension between the two, but understand one thing, present company is EXCLUDED! Many civilians are absolutely clueless about warfare, on any level. It There are many things that Soldiers, whether they are Officers or Enlisted, take for granted. They need to assume absolutely nothing and explain everything. Please understand this one thing, you must learn to follow, before you can learn to LEAD! This is an absolute essential. I will put it this way, you would not believe the men who stressed that principle and the fact that it is timeless.

  11. Brad is correct that it is not a big deal. My enlisted service sometimes manifests itself in intangibles, such as being told that I didn’t shine my boots like an officer (read, didn’t shine my boots….) I still contend that: 1) prior enlisted service is not required to be a good officer; 2) it helped me; and, 3) some of the best and worst officers I have seen where prior enlisted. The absolute worst officer I have ever dealt with was prior service in the US Navy…

  12. A few points, Dr Bernstein.

    1. At most institutions credit hours for Military Science 3 & 4 courses (i.e., junior and senior year) do not count towards cumulative hours for degree completion nor can they be counted as electives. So that is 12 hours of course load above and beyond whatever a student’s major is to get a commission. Never mind the time the individual has to take o go to Advanced Camp. So tell me how this waters down the overall academic quality of a student’s degree?

    2. I too am a product of the 1970s ROTC program with a degree in history (now an advanced degree) . And despite being prior service I can damn well tell you the discipline I learned in ROTC is what got me through. I had to go an extra semester and really needed and extra year. The Army told me that come Jan 1981 I would be either 2nd LT or Spec 4…take my pick. It was only the discipline I learned in ROTC which allowed me to complete my degree by DEC 80 by taking 21 hours my last semester.

    That said, I don’t want an ROTC program on that campus. I don’t want any federal dollars going to possibly help in any way an asshat like him.

    PS: Hey, Doc! How did you pay for your education?

  13. I agree with Esli to a point (and I can understand the ex-Navy guy not making a good Army officer). Too many officers don’t understand what soldiering really is. Esli didn’t have the problem as he was a soldier first. Frankly, one of the sever weaknesses of our system is we don’t require our officers to understand what goes on down in the ranks and how things operate. I don’t think there is a substitute for that.

    You may learn second hand what goes on, but that is a weak sister compared to being there. But, like Brad, I agree that eventually you will be judged by those under as an officer. But my observation has been, the fact that you were in the barrack yourself will follow you as will that knowledge.

    I would close down the service academies. They do not return anywhere near full value and the money sunk into them is, by and large, wasted. ROTC is by far the better value when the two are compared. OCS, even more so. However, in some areas, ROTC is better because of the other college training the cadet obtains, if he is at the right college (an increasing rarity, these days).

    I will also qualify this. As you learned from your experiences with the ex-Navy guy. It is only meaningful if you are commissioned in the service you served in. The Ex-marines I was in OCS with had a hard time adapting. One of them did the duffel drag one night. I was the only Ex-Navy, but they didn’t pick on me 😉

    It is telling that one of the best Armies in the world required it’s officer cadets to make corporal before they became officer cadets. Rommel, for example, was assigned to a regular unit and had to rise that far before he was admitted. A few, for some reason were not so required; Guderian for example, who was an Army brat himself, and that may have had something to do with it. Last I looked, the Israelis require a man to rise to the rank of sergeant before he can be considered for commissioning. The Rhodesians had a very large slug of mustangs, as did the South Africans. Most of them without college degrees.

    Having been through University (Civil Engineering) myself after active service, i can see why college really doesn’t offer an awful lot as far as leadership is concerned. It’s really not even much of a barrier or gauntlet. In fact, the way things are turning in academe these days, I see it as more of a ball and chain that bids fair to weaken the services. At the same time, secondary education has become even weaker. So I’m not sure what the long term answer will be.

    One thing I do beyond doubt is, our system is weakening dramatically. The economy is just a symptom of the rot within. But without a strong economy the country will fall as we will be unable to maintain a solid defense of the country.

    And, I’ve rambled enough.

  14. How about a small amendment to the Defense Authorization Act:

    No institution of higher learning which is found by the Secretary of Defense to discriminate against ROTC, or students enrolled in an ROTC program, shall be eligible to receive Federal funds from any source until such time as the Secretary of Defense shall certify to the Congress of the United States that the institution is in compliance.

    Any institution which is found not to be in compliance shall be ineligible to receive any federal funds for a period of five years, or longer, as the Secretary of Defense shall recommend.

Comments are closed.