Op-Ed: Country first, humanity second

Opinion by and
April 28, 2011, 12:24 a.m.

If I had to summarize the report and recommendations of the Faculty Senate’s ad hoc committee on ROTC in two words, they would be “Country First,” the shallow, populist slogan of John McCain and Sarah Palin’s presidential campaign. These words come to mind because, having dismissed “some of the most trenchant arguments…against ROTC” on the basis that they were “marred by naïve and derogatory stereotypes” (without providing any examples of such stereotypes or enunciating the basis on which the committee found them to be “naïve and derogatory”), the ad hoc committee proceeds to justify its recommendation that the military be given special treatment, compared to other, more peace-promoting and international-law-abiding institutions, by wrapping Stanford University in the American flag.

Needless to say, jingoism has no place in an academic institution of Stanford’s caliber, and by concluding that establishing an on-campus ROTC facility would be consistent with Stanford’s “civic” mission, the ad hoc committee undermines its own credibility. Furthermore, given the flaws in the report, the committee fails to provide members of the Faculty Senate with any legitimate reason to accept its recommendations.

I do not deny that Stanford’s civic mission may include a “special responsibility to contribute to the success of [the United States’] public institutions,” as the committee suggests in its report. The committee clearly errs, however, when it assumes: (1) that “contributing to the success” of the military means providing the military with a training facility on Stanford’s campus; and (2) that ROTC’s consistency with the University’s civic mission can be assessed solely in the context of this “special responsibility.”

Assumption (1) is reminiscent of the false, support-the-troops patriotism that flourished in the aftermath of 9/11 and which remains prominent today. It is equivalent to the notion that “those who love their country don’t criticize their country.” Who is to say, for example, that a principled refusal by Stanford to provide the military with an on-campus training facility would not be the best way for the University to contribute to the “success” of the military? In other words, why should Stanford surrender its moral agency and let the military decide what is in the military’s interests? From the University’s perspective, contributing to the “success” of the military means, inter alia, critiquing the military’s failure to reflect the values of the University; it does not mean blindly acquiescing to the military’s request for an on-campus facility.

Assumption (2) is even more insidious. The committee acknowledges in its report that the University’s “commitment to freedom and democracy is not confined to the fate of any single nation.” But it then concludes that on-campus ROTC would be consistent with Stanford’s civic mission, without mentioning the interests of anyone outside the U.S. (i.e. those who are most likely to be harmed by the military’s actions)! In other words, while Stanford’s founding grant calls on the University to exercise an “influence on behalf of humanity and civilization,” the Ad Hoc Committee believes it is sufficient to ask whether on-campus ROTC would constitute an influence on behalf of the U.S. military.

Moreover, the committee’s report relies on a conception of the military that ignores the violence it perpetrates, on the basis that such violence is the result of the purposes to which the military is put by civilian leaders. But no one would accept this reasoning in any other context. In the case of murder, for instance, killing at the instruction of another is generally considered a more heinous crime (and comes with a greater sentence) than killing of one’s own volition. Furthermore, the brave actions of the military personnel who refused to serve in the Iraq war (and others) demonstrate that the military does have the capacity to defy civilian orders on moral grounds, such that its refusal to do so must be understood as institutional complicity in the violence itself.

It doesn’t take the critical thinking skills of a Stanford student to realize that the report and recommendations of the ad hoc committee on ROTC constitute a cowardly and superficial appeal to patriotism. The University’s only hope is that the Faculty Senate doesn’t succumb to the same temptation.


Sam Windley LL.M. ’11

President, Stanford Says No to War

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