The Civilian Military Divide and ROTC

by Danny Colligan

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 US 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 US 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 us 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.

I do not expect to sway any cadet with my 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 US 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
Cochabamba, Bolivia

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