It’s always patriotism season in the United States, but with Independence Day just around the corner, stars and stripes are more common than ever — along with the usual chest-thumping pride for the United States' favorite institution: the military.
President Trump announced Tuesday a military parade-style Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C., styled as a “Salute to America”. It’s a brand of hawkish posturing we haven’t seen since the age of President Nixon, who led his own disastrous “Honor America Day” in 1970.
This resurgence of martial pride and propaganda speaks to uncomfortable, deeply-rooted issues in the United States — namely, the equation of military aggression with patriotism. Nowhere is this culture more prevalent and worrisome than in the recruitment practices directed toward students and young people.
The Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) has a long and rich history at the University of Kansas and across the nation. A program that provides students with hefty scholarships and training to produce commissioned officers, ROTC was founded in the World War I era to boost U.S. manpower in the fight against swelling nationalism in Europe.
However, in the post-war era and into the 21st century, ROTC faced serious hostility from students across the nation. Anti-war sentiments voiced during the Vietnam Conflict led to the disbanding of many ROTC programs, and opposition to the Clinton administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy prompted many elite universities to distance themselves from ROTC and other forms of military support.
Today, military recruitment practices face a fresh wave of criticism. U.S. foreign policy hasn’t exactly improved since the days of Vietnam, and astronomical university costs have led to accusations of student exploitation on the part of military leadership.
Public universities like KU are obligated to uphold ROTC programs and other forms of military recruitment at the risk of losing major federal funding, as mandated by the 1996 Solomon Amendment.
Colleges aren’t the only ones strong-armed into upholding ROTC and thereby propping up military institutions. Students, faced with thousands of dollars in student loan debt, opt in to receive ROTC’s primary draw and benefit — full tuition coverage. More often than not, these students are from marginalized communities and unable to afford a higher education in any other way. ROTC capitalizes on patriotism and inequity to fill its ranks.
Some would argue that ROTC provides an opportunity to these under-served students. But maybe it’s not much of an opportunity if a life, as well as the burden of war and all its trauma, is the potential cost. Social mobility shouldn’t come with such an enormous risk — no other scholarship program would ask so much from a student.
Fresh-faced teenagers, often leaving home for the first time, subject themselves to the rigors of military training. Yes, this training develops discipline, strategic thinking and strength — it also instills an aversion to questioning authority, hyper-aggressive tendencies and a sense of pride in a deeply flawed and problematic institution.
It’s certainly true the U.S. military has its virtues. As one of the world’s largest contributors to humanitarian and emergency relief efforts, it’s easy to understand why so many young students — raised on the fervently patriotic diet of U.S. society — see ROTC as a win-win scenario.
But the United States is no longer the heroic force it was at the end of World War II. Our foreign policy has swung from proudly championing democracy and equality to imperialistic interventionism, more concerned with oil procurement and maintaining hegemony than human rights or peace.
Combined with the looming specter of college debt, U.S. foreign policy makes ROTC programs seem increasingly suspicious and exploitative.
This is not to blame schools or students for gravitating toward ROTC. Financial insecurity is a real, frightening prospect for many Americans, as is loss of funding for public universities. Neither students nor public universities can be reasonably blamed for making a difficult decision in order to afford education and innovation.
The solution isn’t to disband ROTC programs altogether. There can and should be a place for service organizations in our society — competent, well-educated military leaders are a necessity for our country. Auxiliaries such as the Civil Air Patrol or Merchant Marines are excellent examples of taking a middle grounded, volunteer-oriented peacekeeping approach rather than pushing foreign policy objectives.
Rather than funding and promoting exclusively ROTC, resources could be allocated towards civil service organizations, which instill patriotism and pride without warmongering.
U.S. troops — many of whom have graduated from ROTC programs — have made enormous personal sacrifices in their service. The U.S. military has also committed atrocities around the globe. It’s wrong to entirely equate the two entities — individuals cannot be solely blamed for the sins of the institutions they serve.
But it’s even more wrong to make universities a breeding ground for generations of young people who, by choice or desperation, become complicit in American brutality abroad. Promoting gentler alternatives to military-minded students could be the ideal solution — a path to training our youth for diplomacy and justice, rather than war and aggression.
Sandhya Ravikumar is a Sophomore from Lawrence majoring in engineering physics.