- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2000

Some months ago, I asked a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) cadet for an assessment of her peers. She grimaced and gave me to understand that half were the children of military officers, the other half losers. Memory of that conversation kept intruding as I read Michael S. Neiberg's "Making Citizen-Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service." This is a fine book, but it takes the ROTC story only up to 1980 and a feeling of incompleteness, even of evasiveness remains.

Mr. Neiberg teaches history at the Air Force Academy. The book came out of his doctoral dissertation, a study of an exceptionally peculiar form of civil-military interaction: the ROTC that used to be such a fixture on American campuses. The author's leitmotif is simple. From its beginning in 1917, ROTC was a typically American response to the dilemma of fielding an adequate military without the perils of militarism. But the theme plays out in some unusual and occasionally surprising ways.

According to Mr. Neiberg, the English Whig mentality of colonial times is still very much with us. While Radical Whigs (like contemporary libertarians) might prefer to dispense with standing militaries entirely, more moderate factions accepted the necessity of a minimal, professional establishment, hedged by civilian supremacy and, in time of emergency, reinforced by citizen-soldiers.

Bearing arms was as much an exercise in civic virtue as a means of defense. The Morrill Act of 1861, which established the land grant college system, also provided for on-campus military training, even though the products of such instruction were not required to serve in either federal or state forces, and most often never did. Drill for the sake of citizenship and character … in the midst of the Civil War, and for a half-century thereafter.

The 1916 National Defense Act formally established Army ROTC. When war began, the program was suspended in favor of the Student Army Training Corps, which churned out quickie enlisted men. Army ROTC resumed afterwards; the Navy came on board in the 1920s. After Pearl Harbor, ROTC was again suspended in favor of faster and more specialized campus programs. Only in the 1950s, with the Cold War and peacetime conscription seeming immutable facts of life, did ROTC become a major source of commissioned officers for both active and reserve duty.

The military loved it, almost. So did the universities, more or less. ROTC proved a remarkably cost-effective way of channeling the nation's better and brighter young men. But the military never really regarded it as part of campus life. Few officers assigned to ROTC duties had advanced degrees; many were on their final tours before retirement. The course remained vocational, the ambiance remained authoritarian, and Drill (also known as "Leadership Lab") remained Drill.

University attitudes were more complex. Few schools made much money off ROTC, but good relations with the services could lead to (and rarely hurt) chances for lucrative government research contracts. Tension there was over the nonacademic, even anti-academic aspects, of ROTC. Whether to grant credit for military science courses (West Point didn't) remained a point of contention. But so ingrained was the old Whig mentality that, when the Pentagon tried to trim the programs to suit personnel needs, college presidents (and congressmen) howled. The needs of the services were secondary. ROTC built character.

The Vietnam years weren't kind to ROTC. The program had been slowly losing its appeal to students. Cultural changes denigrated character; scholarship money was plentiful; more demanding curricula left little time for Drill. Short haircuts, and the female response thereto, were also factors. More faculty were growing more uneasy over the academic incongruities

And if Vietnam made ROTC more attractive to some students, others saw the institution as evil incarnate, not least of all because many suspected that ROTC was being used for what is known in the trade as domestic counterintelligence.

Yet, despite a few well-publicized bombings, building occupations and kickings off-campus, ROTC came through surprisingly well. Neither partner really wanted to terminate the relationship. In the post-draft 1970s, the program finally lightened up, got competitive, started welcoming blacks and women, and today endures.

End of story. One story, at any rate. What happened next?

ROTC did indeed enjoy a revival during the Reagan years. Its graduates fought in Desert Storm and today provide much of the field grade officer corps. But who does ROTC attract today? If my cadet was correct, the program has evolved into something no good Whig would ever countenance: a bastion of a de facto hereditary officer corps. As for the other half, the "losers" who can't get through college, or life, any other way … I asked the young woman why she was there. She smiled and said something about flight training, jets, the space program, maybe Mars. I suspect she may have been a bit harsh on her peers. As for Mars, … that's good.

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