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Kagan in Context: Military Recruitment on Elite Campuses

This article by IWP student Lauren Daugherty was published in National Review Online on July 1, 2010.  Please click here to view the article on NRO. 

While I sympathize with Kagan’s opposition to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, she chose the wrong way to address the issue. She had a tremendous opportunity to influence the policy in its early stages: She served as an adviser to President Clinton at the time it was created. But instead, she later used it as an excuse, while dean at Harvard Law School, to block military recruitment.

Based on my own experiences, I suggest that Kagan’s opposition to military recruitment is part of a widespread distrust and degradation of the military of which many contemporary American academic elites are guilty.

I started college at Emory University in August 2001 and thus came into adulthood as our nation was reeling from the September 11 attacks. I decided to enroll in ROTC. I had participated in Junior ROTC in high school, had grown up in an Army community in Tennessee, and wanted to serve in the Army.

There was one problem: Emory didn’t have an ROTC unit. I would have to travel across Atlanta to Georgia Tech multiple times per week in order to participate. Those familiar with Atlanta will recognize this to be a significant obstacle for anyone, but even more so for freshmen, like me, whom the university prohibited from having access to cars.

Nevertheless, I agreed to participate, along with three or so other Emory students (who also had jobs). The Georgia Tech battalion provided a van to shuttle us – at least some of the time.

But the significant inconvenience was only part of the problem. When I wore my uniform on Emory’s campus, as was often necessary in order to be ready to travel to Georgia Tech, I was ostracized by my classmates. It was as if, by donning my country’s uniform, I had suddenly become an alien among them. They would avoid sitting near me in class and stare at me as I walked across campus. Professors would glare. Occasionally, someone would say something derisive or nasty or spit at me. All this sounds silly to someone who hasn’t had to deal with it, but it’s bitter medicine – especially for a teenager – and significant enough to deter many from even considering involvement in certain causes or organizations.

Soon, I decided that I would postpone my commitment to the military until the end of my college studies. I was tired of Emory’s intolerance.

Revival of ROTC, especially on America’s “elite” campuses, is vital to our well-being as a democracy. America is divided, though not on the terms so often posited by those who talk of such things. Half of America has some familiarity with our military: They themselves have served, or they have friends or family members who have served. The other half of America has virtually no familiarity with our military; they have never known someone who has served, and everything related to our military is completely foreign to them.   This alienation can largely be blamed on the removal of ROTC from university campuses. Until the last generation and a half, it would have been ludicrous to imagine an American who is so far removed from our military as many Americans are now.

Worse, our “elite” students are particularly discouraged from service.

This is partially due to sentiments that grew during the Vietnam era – when college and graduate students were exempt from service – but also partially because those who advise these students (whether they are parents, teachers, or counselors) are themselves far removed from the military and see it as a non-option.

I experienced this sentiment at Emory, both as an Army ROTC student and later when I joined the Marine Corps my senior year. I was told that I was “wasting” my education, going to “become cannon fodder,” a “disgrace” to my intelligence, etc. Even in my hometown, which boasts one of America’s largest Army bases, I was told that the military was an inappropriate profession for a doctor’s daughter like me.

I knew other students at Emory who wanted to join various military branches; all met with the same harsh push-back that I did – from the university, their parents, and their broader community. One friend’s parents told him they would cut him out of their will if he joined the Marine Corps. He didn’t join.

Some schools, such as Harvard Law School, proclaim that their opposition to military recruitment is simply meant to protect their students from employers the school’s administrators deem to be “discriminatory.” Indeed, I see a stark contrast between schools that allow ROTC and those that forbid it. My brother, now a naval aviator, graduated from Purdue University as an ROTC cadet. In my interactions with Purdue’s campus and students, I was constantly reminded of the school’s true tolerance and support of those wishing to serve.

Regardless of how a school inhibits military recruitment – whether it is through a formal university policy or simply by creating a hostile social environment for those who dare to seek to serve their country – such actions fly in the face of any genuine interest in tolerance that they might claim to have.

So what happens when we inhibit our “elites,” academic or otherwise, from military service? Thucydides, a great historian on war, knew this would lead to disaster: “A society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its wars fought by fools.” Our military has many brilliant and honorable men and women serving and protecting us every day. But when so many of our brightest are being blocked and discouraged from joining, we lose more than their abilities. We unwittingly take our country back many steps closer towards aristocracy, when some people were deemed “better” than others and were therefore exempt from the responsibilities of their country.

I cannot speak for all of Kagan’s personal intentions, but I can vouch for the troubling larger picture of military recruitment at America’s “elite” schools, which I suspect played a part in this situation at Harvard. Through formal and informal means, administrators at many prestigious American universities are pressuring our students away from military service. This insults our students and our military, does nothing to advance any interests in tolerance, and, most important, degrades our democracy. Is this the kind of behavior we want from someone who will have all the law of the land in her hands?

– Lauren Daugherty is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and a Young America’s Foundation alumna.