March 02, 2008

Anger in Uniform

From May 10, 2006 on Campus Progress

Camouflage doesn’t really work on college campuses. Among the legions of coordinated North Face fleeces, Nalgene water bottles and UGGs, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students in uniform tend to stick out in a larger army of book-toting students. Military garb can become a target for criticism and ridicule on campus. As recent events at the University of Texas illustrate, student anti-war activists are increasingly turning to anti-military recruitment efforts. One member of the ROTC at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who asked to remain anonymous, reports being called a “baby killer” on his way through campus.

Other students in uniform have spoken of feeling harassed by mocking salutes or other hostile gestures. Several members of the ROTC report feeling indicted for the errors of policy makers and military officials beyond their control. While Americans have good reason to criticize a mission in Iraq that was proclaimed “accomplished” almost three years ago, it is wise to distinguish our President – who wears the uniform for PR stunts – from those who don the military dress as part of a real commitment to service or as an opportunity for advancement.

Students angered by the presence of the military on campus are careless in their knee-jerk reactions against members of the program. According to the US Army website, the purpose of the ROTC is to provide “individuals with the tools, training and experiences they need to become Officers in the U.S. Army.” Students join the ROTC for myriad reasons. Whether motivated by the desire to serve their country, the promise of an instant career path upon graduation, or the ROTC scholarships that allow students to go to school first and serve later, one thing is for certain: students in uniform espouse a range of political beliefs and are in the military for a variety of reasons.

As Michael Owens, a Naval ROTC officer, explained, “The majority of them tell me that service to the country motivates them, but obviously, we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think the scholarship money was important to them.” After a thirty year career in the Navy, even Capt. Owens had a hard time pinpointing one particular reason why individuals enter the ROTC. In addition to service and financial need, he referred to “a mixed bag” of family tradition, patriotism, and a desire for adventure or leadership, but ultimately conceded, “Every time I talk to a different student, I tend to get a slightly different answer.” In this light, it is senseless to target and prejudge those in uniform without knowing their back-story.

Even worse, defaming the uniform only lends credibility to the puffed up conservative rhetoric about elitist liberals overrunning universities, while episodes of blind harassment on the University of Michigan campus easily provide ammunition for conservative claims that opposition to the war translates into opposition to our troops. These actions alienate an essential ally – service people and war veterans – from a national movement intent on bringing the troops home.

Though it goes without saying that harassment of ROTC students is wrong, these campus incidents beg a tougher question: What does it mean when people advertise their support for our troops? Though we are bombarded daily by magnetic ribbons, yard signs, t-shirts, and partisan rhetoric, Americans have left the issue of what “support” really means relatively untouched. Does support suggest that we blindly condone any actions that service people carry out overseas just because they are our troops? I hope not. Support should include an understanding of the dangers faced by many servicemen and women.

Demonstrating our support for troops means advocating for decent pay, adequate safety equipment, and good health benefits. For years, the Bush Administration repeatedly cut benefits for veterans who put their lives on the line for their country. As recently as last summer, the Department of Veteran Affairs admitted to being short $1 billion for the fiscal year, and according to the White House budget, veteran medical benefits budget would increase in 2007, but decrease afterwards.

Support means understanding the enduring economic draft in this country that has compelled many into uniform because they seek access to higher education as opposed to a role in the “War on Terror.” A National Priorities Project study conducted last November showed that “nearly two-thirds of all [military] recruits were from counties with median household incomes below the US median … [and] that 15 of the top 20 counties had higher poverty rates than the national average.” So, supporting our troops doesn’t mean a blind adherence to the military policies they carry out, but, instead, solidarity with those members of the armed forces who are most adversely affected by its policies.

No matter what your definition, the “support our troops” mantra is unfulfilling because it is impossible to really pass judgments, positive or negative, on the troops as a unified entity. The partisan debate over who really supports the troops is a mindless political football game that turns people into statistics and overlooks the individuality of those in the military and the differences between each soldier, unit or division. The actions of an individual in the armed forces should be judged on a case-by-case basis taking into account, among other things, one’s place in a chain of command.

By virtue of their immense power, commanding officers at the Pentagon and officials in Washington war rooms have primary responsibility for the results of war. The military structure subjects individual autonomy to its will, and rallies individuals under an ideology of duty and country. In this way, it is difficult to assign responsibility to soldiers for the things that happen in war, however atrocious or valiant. And yet, to strip these men and women of responsibility is to deny them the very humanity which we must remember and confirm.

The Nuremberg trials following World War II determined that individuals who played a role in the genocide would not be exonerated by the defense that they were simply following orders. As Principle IV of the Nuremberg code states, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to an order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” The principle articulated by the Nuremberg code simultaneously re-infuses agency into an individual while tacking on a clause that highlights the difficulty, which persists today, of addressing moral responsibility.

In combat, soldiers inevitably enter another world where accountability withers, and where individual moral choices are tugged at by so many external forces. For most of us, nothing we have ever experienced comes close to this kind of moral dilemma, and so it is difficult to see this as anything but black and white. But it is critical that students empathize with the harsh realities of military service and war, before making blanket statements about the troops.

No matter how great your distaste for war, or your disapproval of militarized college campuses, it is senseless to project these frustrations indiscriminately onto students in uniform. Whether in training or returning from service, members of the military deserve to be engaged before they are judged.

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