The tragic events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath have had the side effect of increasing popular interest in the workings of the U.S. military. Here at Yale, opinions concerning government service in general and the ROTC program in specific have become a hot topic of debate. From the pages of the Yale Daily News and the New Haven Register to Newsweek and The New York Times, an on-going discussion has developed over what the relationship between America’s academic elite and the military should be.
I propose that the very foundations of the debate itself are flawed, that our beliefs about the relative merits of military service are based on an outdated and anomalous standard.
When people find out that I plan to work for the Air Force, they often assume that one of my parents also served. Thoughts of serving in the military are so foreign to most of today’s elite that we assume those who do join are members of a modern warrior-caste.
Imagine the surprise, then, when I mention that not only were my parents non-military, but they were anti-war activists during the Vietnam War. The next question I inevitably receive is “so do they mind what you’re doing?” In a nutshell, this is the fundamental error of our collective thinking.
My father was an activist with Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war student group of the 1960s and ’70s. He was also my biggest supporter when I decided to finance my Yale education with an ROTC scholarship.
Critics within the ivory tower find these two positions antithetical, yet they are not.
Our generation has grown up in an atmosphere that draws a sharp divide between intellectual scholarship and government service. Before the Vietnam War, however, this idea never entered the collective psyche of the academic elite, and there is little reason why, 30 years after, it should remain.
I’ve been raised to understand that it is the duty of the American intelligentsia to work from within the governmental system to effect change, not to stand idly by and criticize from the sidelines. The Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War while chaplin of Yale, was recently quoted as saying that ROTC has “no intrinsic educational value.”
With all my respect to Coffin, this quote misses the point. I don’t participate in ROTC to bolster my Yale education; I go to Yale in order to better serve my country once I graduate.
My way of thinking would not have appeared novel to our grandparents. The greatest minds of “the greatest generation” regularly intermingled the realms of government service and academia. The research branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the premier U.S. intelligence agency of its day, was staffed almost exclusively by Yalies during World War II and contributed greatly to ridding the world of fascism.
At war’s end, most of these men returned to college circles — indeed, most of today’s area study programs at major universities were founded by graduates of the OSS.
The Vietnam War changed everything. That poorly conceived, wrong-headed and unpopular war virtually erased the link between citizenship and service and greatly reinforced the divide between the civilian and military worlds. The vast inequities of the draft during Vietnam allowed the ethos of service to deteriorate so that those who fought were not fulfilling an obligation of citizenship but were unlucky at best, and wronged at worst.
I am not advocating that we forget the lessons of Vietnam, but rather that we learn from them and move forward. Perhaps current events will give us this opportunity. The writer David Brooks has gone so far as to say that Sept. 11 gave new direction to our generation.
At the very least the “war on terror” has raised American consciousness of military service so that recently it has become slightly more acceptable to the social elite. Two years ago I walked the streets of New Haven in my uniform, and no one looked me in the eye. Today, I’ll leave my room in Durfee Hall and be met with smiles all the way to my car.
I have no desire to be the poster child for military recruitment. I don’t think the military is for everyone — but I reject the notion that it has no place in academic circles. Our current crisis will inevitably fade, yet what America needs, now and in the future, are students just like us.
The country whose elite disdain the responsibility of governance is a country in jeopardy. Those who are most offended by the presence of the military in an academic setting should be the first to realize that we, the privileged few, have a duty to work for the betterment of our country.
Robbie Berschinski is a senior in Morse College.