Congressman Charley Rangel was at it again over the weekend, insisting that today's military is populated largely by those who "lack other options." Never mind that Mr. Rangel's thesis has been stunningly refuted by various studies, including a detailed Heritage Foundation analysis that we've cited on several occasions.
But Mr. Rangel's continuing rant highlights another, related debate on military service that surfaces from time-to-time. If serving in the armed forces is to be a "shared burden" (as the Congressman contends), then shouldn't we strive for greater representation from all sectors of society, including the Ivy League schools?
It's an argument that cuts both ways. Congressman Rangel believes that if the sons and daughters of the nation's elites were subject to conscription--and duty in Iraq--we would be far less anxious to put our troops in harm's way. On the other hand, supporters of the all-volunteer military believe that greater representation from the nation's premier schools would enhance the armed forces, integrating perspectives and experiences that are sometimes lacking among those who wear the uniform.
But does the military really need an infusion from the Ivy League? Critics note that many of these elite schools have long expressed open disdain for the military, ostensibly for its refusal to allow gays to serve openly in the ranks. Only one Ivy League school--Cornell--has a Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) on campus; the rest evicted their ROTC programs during the Vietnam War. Of course, these are the same institutions that gladly accept DoD research dollars and federal student aid money, while treating military recruiters as personna non grata. And they see nothing inconsistent, contradictory or hypocritical in that policy.
Faced with such a hostile atmosphere, it's little wonder that the military (and the schools) have opted for "work around" agreements that allow some degree of accomodation--and compliance with federal law--without creating a campus uprising. Under those arrangements, Ivy League students participate in ROTC at other schools in their area, though it often means a lengthy commute to the "cross-town" program. Military recruiters are officially "tolerated" on campus, although faculty members and students sometimes protest their presence. Despite these obstacles, the Pentagon believes the effort is worth it; there are usually a handful of cadets on ROTC scholarships at Yale, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and elsewhere--at a cost of more than $50,000 a year per student.
But do the Ivy Leaguers really bring something extra to the table, in terms of education, life experiences and leadership potential? Based on annecdotal evidence, I'd say the answer is yes and no. I've read of Harvard grads who joined the Army after 9-11 and served with distinction as platoon and company commanders in Iraq. I know another Harvard graduate who now commands a wing in the U.S. Air Force and is highly regarded by both peers and superiors. And, it should be noted that a number of senior officers have been through graduate and seminar programs hosted by various Ivy League schools. The most successful U.S. ground commander in Iraq--Lt Gen David Petraeus--earned his PhD at Princeton.
Unfortunately, I've also seen the downside of the Ivy League experience. During my days as an ROTC instructor, I was tapped to serve as Commandant of Cadets at a large summer encampment--the ROTC equivalent of basic training. After a few days, it became apparent that our worst cadet--by far--was a young man from Yale, who attended ROTC classes at the University of Connecticut. The cadet in question was marginally fit, had absolutely no military bearing, and his conduct suggested potential moral and ethical problems. Talking with the cadet, it became evident that ROTC was nothing more than a means for funding an expensive education; his interest in military service was middling at best, and he had no desire to make the Air Force a career--an idea we heartily endorsed.
Given his apparent incompatability for military service, we submitted a package suggesting that the young man be sent home immediately and forfeit his ROTC scholarship. Our request was quickly denied, in part because of the "considerable investment" the Air Force had already made in his education, and a desire to increase Ivy League representation within the service. As I recall, the Yalie finished dead last in the camp rankings; the scary thought is that he might have actually finished the program, received his commission and is now serving as an Air Force officer.
Obviously, it's unfair to lump all Ivy League officers in the same boat with that dirtbag from Yale. But, given the continued hostility of elite schools to ROTC (or any other, on-campus, military presence), I've got to wonder if the end result is worth the investment. For every crackerjack wing commander with a Harvard degree, we get a few rejects like our friend from Yale, prospective military officers who deserve neither the title nor the authority. Besides, for every scholarship awarded to a cadet at Harvard, Columbia, Penn or Cornell, we could fund 5 or 6 students at schools like Southwest Texas State, Clemson, or the University of North Dakota. True, a degree from those schools doesn't carry the cachet of Princeton or Yale, but then again, an Ivy League diploma doesn't confer military leadership skills, either.