One might get the idea that the only justification for opposing ROTC on campus is because of the military’s discriminatory practices against members of the LGBT community. In the fog of the post-9/11 patriotic fever, we may have lost sight of the issues that drove anti-war movements of the past.
The goal of most higher education is to teach the mind how to think, not what to think. Many undergraduate freshmen that do not understand this can be heard moaning phrases like “Why do I have to waste my time on all of these required courses! They have nothing to do with my major!” The reason is this: exposure to mathematics, philosophy, ethics, logic and art allows one to go through the process of learning how to learn. You learn how to become a free thinker. The process teaches you how to overthrow your previous beliefs and to think critically and clearly about complex issues in the world whilst avoiding pitfalls and logical fallacies that easily ensnare the uneducated.
If this is the goal, then military service and membership in the ROTC is the antithesis of this goal. In the military, an individual is turned into a tool, a machine that obeys the chain of command. It is necessary to divorce the individual’s ethical reasoning from his/her actions or risks paralysis. Once enlisted, military personnel largely do not have the luxury of choosing to fight in only morally defensible wars.
This is the parable portrayed in the 1970s by George Lucas throughout the Star Wars movies using Darth Vader. Darth Vader becomes both literally and figuratively the machine of the Empire and commits many atrocities in the name of defending it. Only when his morality is resurrected does he cease to be the machine. (Seriously, if you were distracted by the light sabers and missed that part, go watch it again.)
Now, consider how you might weigh the moral defensibility of the purposeful U.S. napalming of civilians in Tokyo and other cities in WWII or the subsequent use of two nuclear weapons, killing many hundreds of thousands of civilians only to secure more favorable terms of surrender (Alderaan…anyone?…anyone?). Maybe it would be worth it. Maybe it would be justifiable to some. The point is that the guys in the planes that dropped those bombs didn’t grapple with that, because it was their job to follow to the orders, not to decide them.
Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments in the 1960s at Yale and Phillip Zimbardo’s prison experiment conducted on this very campus in the 1970s potently demonstrate the power of an authority, an institution and a role in overriding an individual’s sense of morality. We know how to mechanize people. The military does this with exceeding efficiency.
If the goal of higher education is to nurture the parts of the mind that can think independently, why should we subject students to an institution that works counter to that purpose?
Keith Sudheimer, Postdoctoral Fellow