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The Army-Navy Game may not be as important as Academy-Ivy contest

The Army-Navy Game may not be as important as Academy-Ivy contest
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The 121st annual Army-Navy game today likely will be remembered for at least two reasons beyond who wins or loses: For the first time since World War II, the game will not be played on neutral turf in Philadelphia. And the stands will be largely empty.

Instead, the game will be played at West Point. And all 4,200 Navy mids will travel north so that the tradition of America’s most storied rivalry can continue uninterrupted, albeit under COVID-19 restrictions. No spectators other than the mids and cadets will be allowed, but the game will be televised. Whether the broadcast audience is larger than usual in this sports-starved season is secondary.

The image of a nearly empty Michie Stadium prompted a conversation with my firm’s interns — all of them smart, hard-working Ivy League undergraduates taking a gap semester. I asked if they knew anyone at a service academy. After an uncomfortable moment of silence, two thought they might know people from their schools who might have gone to an academy; no one knew anyone currently serving in the armed forces.

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A bit stunned by their isolation from anyone in the military, I wanted to better understand their beliefs about service. 

So I asked them to assume a hypothetical — that there would be a referendum on a proposal to establish a program of mandatory national service. Details would be limited, but I wanted to know how they would vote: approve or disapprove such a program as described. Then I asked them to share the same question with their friends, and report their responses.

The proposal read: “All citizens and permanent residents (Green Card holders) will be required to participate in an 18-month National Service program. Service can be started anytime between an individual’s 18th birthday and their 22nd birthday. Service shall include health care assistance, infrastructure/environmental repair, early childhood education programs, eldercare assistance, and military service. (Participation in the military option shall be voluntary.) National service participants shall receive free communal room, board and a minimal subsistence allowance. Participants shall receive $10,000 upon successful completion of their service. People who fail to successfully complete their National Service obligation shall not be eligible for any federal student loan or mortgage guarantee program.”

Although far from a scientific survey, my interns returned with responses from several dozen students mostly at elite colleges. That skewed sample reflected an intentional bias: I wanted to hear from young people who were more likely to have an outsized impact on the national debate in coming years. And what I heard was both disappointing and distressing.

They voted 4-to-1 against the proposal.

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Their comments disturbed me: They gave lip-service to the idea of service — but thought it should be voluntary or created in some way that would not interfere with their education or career plans. Overwhelmingly, they showed no sense of common cause, no desire for shared experience, no sense of a need for personal sacrifice.

That “OK for thee, but not me” attitude warranted further inquiry. I wanted to see if my interns’ friends’ antipathy to mandatory national service was shared by a broader range of college students. And I wanted to know what their parents thought. So I commissioned  a major polling firm to pose the question to larger, statistically-valid samples.

In our survey, 80 percent of young people ages 18-22 favored the mandatory national service program, and 88 percent of adults voted for approval as well. Those results were not surprising. It was consistent with a poll conducted last spring, which found overwhelming support for greater funding for national service projects.

So why the giant gap between the general population and my elite subset?

It would be easy to pin the difference on sheltered Ivy League environments that feel compelled to provide guidance on Halloween costumes (Yale), ban single-sex clubs (Harvard), or entertain tearing down statues of Roman emperors Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius because they “celebrate ongoing colonialism in the United States and idealize white, Western civilization” (Brown, my alma mater).

Fortunately, the nation as a whole is not estranged from the military. Confidence in the military is higher than in any other institution in the country, with 72 percent of Americans telling Gallup they have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the armed forces — compared to 51 percent for the medical system, 42 percent for the church/organized religion and 40 percent in the Supreme Court. 

Whether those approval levels are shared among those at elite universities is unknown, but I’m skeptical. In 2019, only seven students graduating from Harvard — from among 1,554 undergraduates receiving degrees that year — received officer commissions from the school’s ROTC program. At Brown, the percentage of the student body in ROTC is even smaller: just 0.3 percent. 

Twenty years ago, I wrote two articles about what the Service Academies and the Ivies could each learn from the other, and proposed a voluntary exchange program between these very different institutions. Senior administrators at all the schools I approached expressed enthusiasm, but none of them took the steps necessary to make it happen. 

It is time to revive that initiative. It would help to reduce the gap in civil-military relations — particularly among people who, in all probability, will become leaders in their respective professions 25 years from now. For institutions that purport to encourage diversity, such an exchange would be a real improvement over the current echo-chamber of identity politics. And those personal interactions might even lead to a debate about mandatory national service.   

The stands at the Army-Navy Game may be bare this year, but we need to take steps to fill them in the future with people who understand the diverse values, traditions and experiences of those who choose to serve. I say we start by adding two new football contests: Army-Harvard and Navy-Yale.

Steve Cohen is an attorney at Pollock Cohen LLP, and attended both the Naval Academy and Brown University. He was a member of the board of directors for the U.S. Naval Institute.