Op-Ed: Why the Military Matters

Opinion by and
Oct. 4, 2010, 12:07 a.m.

Last fall, we were approached independently and asked to head up the Stanford chapter of a new program called the Truman Service Initiative (TSI). Its parent organization, the Truman National Security Project, “recruits, trains and positions a new generation of Progressives across America to lead on national security.” After meeting with the national directors, we both decided to volunteer for the job.

It took several weeks for each of us to figure out the other was a political conservative. Imagine our surprise.

Rather than undermine TSI’s goals, this discovery highlighted the importance of our work on campus. National security issues have become something you only care about if you lean right politically. Stanford is not alone in this. The three-year pilot program also was instituted at Yale, Princeton, University of Chicago and Columbia—all places known for their active, involved and, dare we say, overachieving, students. But even so, the program had trouble finding students with the necessary interest and experience to act as campus directors. The fact is that progressives who care about national security are a rarity on elite campuses, as is non-politicized discussion of these issues.

We saw this as a gap in our collective education. This is about citizenship, not politics—as shown by the two conservatives who volunteered their time to a progressive organization. As students, we constantly are reminded that we are tomorrow’s leaders in academia, business and government. Why, then, do so few of us know the differences between the Army and the Marine Corps? Or that there even are differences?

We see you out there, physics major, rolling your eyes because you don’t care and can’t imagine why you should. But you vote, don’t you? You pay taxes? Your money funds our defense budget. Your security is entrusted to our military personnel. You cannot pursue your research without the assumption of a safe environment.

It is even truer for those of you who take exception to the military’s past or current policies. You cannot hope to reform an institution that you do not understand. You cannot speak convincingly to its leaders if you do not share their vocabulary, grasp their perspectives or understand their particular hardships.

After its beginning in October 2009, TSI hosted a number of events on campus to help start a dialogue about national security and its relevance to all Stanford students: Military 101 seminars, a lecture on global terrorism, a panel with Stanford ROTC cadets and a roundtable on military conscription. It was a busy, successful, exciting year—and that brings us to the present.

We realize we’re a little late with this op-ed. It is partly Jessie’s fault; she wrote a thesis, graduated and in the process ignored three months of e-mail. It is partly William’s fault; he took a leave of absence from Stanford to reenlist in the Marines and currently is deployed to Afghanistan. As you can imagine, it has been hard for us to coordinate.

But isn’t that what this is all about? The Marine in Afghanistan and the civilian in her living room, the six-foot-something guy and the five-foot-something girl, the student veteran and the student with no military connection at all. We come from different backgrounds and face different challenges. In this, we represent the great diversity of the Stanford population. But we also represent its ultimate commonality: we are both students, and we are both citizens. Our job is to learn and to serve in the positions and according to the skills we uniquely possess. We will vote. We will pay a lot of taxes. One of us will fight. It is important, therefore, that we both know about our military, its capabilities and missions and the people who wear its uniforms—regardless of our politics.

Stanford prides itself on intellectual engagement and frank debate, but these attitudes have not been applied to discussions of national defense. Our hope is that efforts like TSI, the Haas Center’s Understanding Military Service as Public Service Initiative, expanded ROTC programs and defense-focused Student Initiated Courses will make Stanford an example of how an elite university can reconnect with the military community to the advantage of both great institutions.

Jessica Knight ’10

William Treseder ’11
Science, Technology and Society

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