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Me and the Major Don’t See Eye to Eye

September 6, 2010

Unpublished op-ed written July 2010 in response to “Army ROTC needs more boots on more campuses,” John Renehan (Washington Post, July 4, 2010).

In 2007, I had a chance to talk with Army Chief of Staff General George Casey about my concern that the armed forces were not recruiting graduates of America’s elite institutions. Well into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, recruiters were having trouble meeting their quotas even with lowered standards for entry, but there had been no discernible push to promote military service to top-tier college grads. Less than one percent of Ivy League graduates were joining the military, down from 50% in the 1950s. General Casey turned the tables on me and asked me to tell him why my cohort wasn’t joining up. Not wanting to provide solely my own views, I polled my friends and peers why they weren’t serving. I heard about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and about women’s concerns for their personal safety, but what I heard loud and clear was that nobody had ever asked them to serve and they had no idea what they’d do in the military.

My generation has never been called to national service. We have been asked to shop, and if our collective credit card debt is any indication, we’ve done a bang-up job of that. Yet for all that the Millennial Generation has been painted as lazy and self-centered, we have a strong undercurrent of service-mindedness that should have – and still needs – to be tapped on a national level. We have come to adulthood in the shadow of two wars that have barely touched our lives, in a world that seems to get sicker every day, and we want to do something about it beyond picking up another reusable tote bag. The popularity of programs like Teach for America, AmeriCorps, and the Peace Corps among the graduates of top-tier schools are evidence that we are looking for lives of meaning. Appeals to working together for the greater good resonate with my generation; a national call to service would provide a sense that we’re all in this together.

As part of this call, the argument for and benefits of military service must be clearly articulated. Beyond academic debates about the validity of the use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, most top college graduates don’t know much about the modern military. My immediate peer group doesn’t contain many veterans, and as a result of DADT and lingering acrimony about Vietnam and Iraq, many private schools have banned the military from campus. The military has responded by pulling back from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, home to a sizable number of elite institutions, and disengaging from these schools. The mutual animosity between academia and military recruiters is
detrimental to both and has resulted in a population that only sees fatigues in the airport.

This is a serious missed opportunity for the military, the nation, and these graduates. The low-supply/high-demand positions in today’s military fit our interests and knowledge; we have studied abroad in developing nations, learned uncommon languages, and grown up with a sophisticated understanding of networked technology. Beyond the potential short- and medium-term gains, there are long-term negative consequences to a persistent lack of military experience among elites. The top ranks of government are increasingly populated by this cadre; the low-paid internships and entry-level jobs that act as a gateway to later government service require high GPAs from name-brand schools and are often subsidized by wealthy parents. When my peers are debating defense policy in twenty years, will it be without gut-deep knowledge of what war entails for those who fight it? Will we lack first-hand experience of the strain deployment and subsequent reintegration places on soldiers, their families, and their communities? Military service isn’t required to speak intelligently about national security, of course, but it does provide a visceral understanding of what it means to use force that cannot be duplicated in a classroom.

A variety of economic, educational, and regional backgrounds makes for a stronger military, and widespread military experience makes for a more educated citizenry. The Obama administration needs to reinvigorate its efforts to promote national service and expand the definition to include military service. The military must learn how to explain the benefits and challenges of military service to this population, which may require new approaches and will certainly necessitate a reallocation of recruiting resources. At a time when recruiters are having trouble finding top-notch candidates and college graduates are having trouble finding meaningful work, it should be a straightforward solution to bring the two together.


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