The Senate’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” raises a number of important questions about how this shift in policy promises to shape both the armed forces and American society at large. Historically, organizational culture does not change quickly, and there will likely be a long period of transition before the U.S. military becomes a fully open, accepting, and integrated force. And yet, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” indirectly promises another important cultural shift—for America’s elite universities and for American civil-military relations more broadly. Many of America’s elite universities—Harvard, Yale, Columbia among others—kicked the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) out during the Vietnam War and later continued to ban it from campus, arguing that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” violated their non-discrimination policies. The banning of ROTC was part of a broader rift between America’s elite and the military, a division that continues today.
While civil-military relations are certainly not as poisonous as they were forty years ago, the two remain worlds apart. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I participated in a ROTC consortium hosted by MIT. Most of my classmates regarded ROTC as something of a novelty (“Oh, that’s interesting…”) and occasionally, with the more unctuous eye to self-advancement (“Well, you should know that’s not the way into politics anymore”). Similarly, as an active duty officer, my soldiers wondered why anyone with a Harvard diploma would ever join the military in the first place. For many of them, Harvard grads were the people who sent them half-way around the world to some forgotten hell-hole, not the ones who went there with them.
The end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” promises to end the ban on ROTC on elite campuses nationwide. Indeed, President Drew Faust of Harvard said she would support a return of ROTC to Harvard following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and other Ivy League schools have made similar promises. And while these are important first steps, even if the ban on ROTC was lifted tomorrow, the gap between America’s elite and its military will not be reconciled quickly or easily for three reasons:
- Cheap Gestures vs. Substantives Changes. While lifting the ban on ROTC may be a relatively cheap from the university’s standpoint, actually bringing ROTC back to campus is an expensive venture: it means additional offices, cadre and sets of equipment—all of which cost money. In an era of defense budget cuts, the military may want to avoid these costly ventures in favor of cheaper gestures—sending recruiters to campus and calling it a victory. Cheap gestures, however, are often just that—gestures with only a marginal real impact. While I was at Harvard, for example, we had recruiters at the activities fair—albeit disguised in the nondiscriminatory, nominally independent, student front-organization known as the “Harvard ROTC Association,” which happened to be comprised of only cadets, midshipmen and ROTC cadre members. While eliminating this façade has important symbolism, the change may not be transparent to the average student and I doubt it will truly change ROTC’s enrollment numbers.
- An Epiphenomenal Rapprochement vs. A Lasting Peace. The expulsion of ROTC from elite campuses was initially a product of the Vietnam War; the question of gays in uniform was a pretext for continuing that separation. So it’s fair to ask whether the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will produce a lasting effect. Whether we like it or not, whether under this administration or a future one, the United States will likely find itself in another unpopular war in the future or, at least, one that is unpopular with predominantly liberal college student bodies. While the United States may not fight another Vietnam or even another Iraq War, the true litmus test of this new cordial relationship between America’s elite universities and ROTC will come during that next unpopular war. If ROTC is brought back to campus, will it remain as part of these institutions or become the whipping boy every time the student body finds itself at odds with national security policy?
- Micro Changes vs. Macro Shifts. Even if ROTC is brought back to these campuses tomorrow and it stays there, it will take time to solve the problem of America’s civil-military divide. In particular, deeply embedded elite attitudes toward military service are unlikely to change quickly. ROTC programs will need to attract and commission enough students from a sufficiently wide demographic base (i.e. not simply the more conservative members of the student body) to effect real change. This, in turn, means overcoming left-wing students’ wariness of the “militarization” of their campuses. At very least, it will take several years to turn a college student into a military officer, and more likely decades to produce sufficient numbers of officers, so that military service among America’s elite is no longer thought of as an anomaly.
Ultimately, the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” might be a great opportunity to bridge America’s current civil-military divide (which is, above all else, an embodiment of elite America’s view of itself), but it needs time—likely decades—to be fully closed. It certainly won’t affect the outcome of today’s debates; in the coming budget battles, for example, the case for new defense spending, especially for programs that will not yield instantaneous results, is unlikely to resonate with liberal elites. While it may not immediately help the balance sheet, however, bringing ROTC back to elite schools might at least start the long, slow healing of the civil-military rift that has plagued the United States for almost the last half century.
Raphael S. Cohen, a former active duty Army officer and ROTC graduate of Harvard University, is now a Ph.D. student in Government at Georgetown University.