Why ROTC is the overlooked tool to challenge the civil-military divide

Why ROTC is the overlooked tool to challenge the civil-military divide
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The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) sits at a natural juncture between the military and society, operating on numerous college campuses across the country. ROTC Cadets are integrated into the broader university community while they train to be officers in the US Military. As universities begin the academic year, both the military services and university administrations should consider how they each can leverage ROTC to address the growing distance between military and society, and challenge young people’s reservations about the military.

While the military continues to be the most trusted institution in America, far beyond Congress or organized religion, a majority of Americans admit to knowing little about the military or the people who serve in it. Many issues that caused decades of rift between universities and the services (the Vietnam War, the draft, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) have passed, and ROTC has recently returned to a few elite universities. However, ROTC has been underutilized as a way to increase dialogue and learning between future military and civilian leaders. ROTC Cadets are de facto ambassadors of military values and military service, well placed to represent the military and challenge the civil-military divide.

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A majority of Americans — 71 percent — admit to knowing and understanding little about the realities of military service. Strikingly, while many Americans are proud of their military and its sacrifices and agree that service members and their families bear the brunt of sacrifices, most Americans see no problem with the military carrying the burden of war.

Furthermore, two trends among young people indicate the burden of conflict will remain on a small segment of society. Harvard University’s Youth Survey found that 80 percent of young people do not consider the military in their future plans. Additionally, two studies found that 71 to 75 percent of young people are ineligible to serve due to failure to complete high school, criminal records, and low physical fitness. Broad disinterest in service combined with a shrinking pool of eligible recruits will challenge the quality and size of the US military while worsening the burden on a warrior caste.

Increased societal distance from the military could have an outsized impact on policy decisions. Civilian control of the military is enshrined in the Constitution, yet the increasing societal distance from the military — both literally, given the geographic distribution of military bases, and socially, given loosening familial and personal connections to the military — implies many of the next generation of leaders will have little personal or working knowledge of the military, despite being in charge of it.

For those young people who remain eligible for military service, their lack of familiarity with or interest in the military puts the military at risk. ROTC serves as a vehicle to combat stereotypes about the military, increase connections between those serving and young people with no relations, and address the perceived isolation the military feels from society.

In the recent working paper “Leveraging ROTC to Span the Civil-Military Gap,” Andrew Swick and I examine ROTC programs’ potential for growth, specifically how the program can broaden engagement with universities and communities to benefit cadets, university students, communities, and the services. While many Americans believe members of the armed services contribute ‘a lot’ to society, understanding the broader role the military plays in American foreign policy is critical for American voters to make educated decisions and to welcome veterans back into society.

ROTC programs can provide a vital cultural link between the military and communities in a society where few such links exist. Both civilian and military leaders could deeply benefit from strengthened and empowered ROTC programs.

Both by design and lack of interest, many ROTC detachments operate as separate entities on college campuses, serving only to train, teach, and prepare cadets for careers in the military. There is room for significant opportunity for increased collaboration between university faculty and administration and ROTC detachments, as well as opportunity for community building between cadets and other student groups.

This engagement can be as simple as joint physical training sessions between cadets and sports teams, or more robust such as leadership training taught by ROTC military science instructors. We think Army Cadet Command should allow non-cadet students to enroll in military science courses. Additionally, schools that host ROTC programs should at least offer a Department of Defense 101 course to teach students about one of the primary components of foreign policy.

Rather than bemoaning the familiarity gap or creating new initiatives, the services should leverage the tools they already have to span the divide: ROTC is one option the Pentagon cannot afford to overlook.

Emma Moore is Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously worked with ProVetus, a peer-mentoring organization helping service members transition into civilian life, and as an Executive Assistant for Narrative Strategies, a coalition of scholars and military professionals addressing the non-kinetic aspects of war. She earned her Master's in War Studies from King's College London. Follow her on Twitter @moreemmamoore.