As the unit moved closer to the enemy position their movements became rushed. During a brief mix up over how best to approach the enemy, the woods erupted with an explosion of sound. “BANG BANG BANG.”
The mission was a failure, but their failure did not lose them any men. The mission was a training exercise coordinated by the Princeton Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for a biweekly Squad Situational Training Exercise. The soldiers were students from The College of New Jersey and Princeton. The rifles were made of rubber, the enemies were other ROTC students wearing their uniforms inside out and the explosion of sound was just students yelling loudly. After a mentally and physically tiring day in the woods, they are prepared for war, but they are not ready to fight the social and political battles that face today’s military.
Intelligent, hardworking and patriotic; the students enrolled in Princeton’s ROTC program are uniquely positioned to influence the military with their wealth of experiences. Unfortunately, their wide-ranging talents are not realized because of the culture of silence that permeates the ROTC program, dissuading students from speaking their minds on important social issues.
Clay Pruyear ’09, the battalion commander of Princeton’s ROTC program, suggested that outspokenness in the military can be destabilizing. “Regardless of our personal views, it’s not a choice we have … If lobbying needs to be done, I’m going to let them handle that.” Samuel Gulland ’10, a Wilson School concentrator, articulated a similar view: “It is not really our place to be very political.” But why wait for the anonymous “them” to institute change? As students and private citizens, it is entirely within their prerogative to discuss, engage and even protest policies they find unfair.
Whether or not the military explicitly prohibits dialogue on difficult issues, the wall that separates Princetonians’ thriving intellectual life and military service is damaging both to Princeton and the military. The ROTC — intentionally or unintentionally — is curtailing these students’ sense of intellectual liberty, which is damaging to the Princeton community as a whole. Without a culture of intellectual liberty, the military sacrifices its ability to reform itself and confront issues of equality and morality.
The congressionally enacted “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy stands as a major reason why peer institutions have refused ROTC recruiters. Even on our campus, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy stands outside of the spirit of the University’s non-discrimination policy. And there is a growing consensus that this policy is misguided. In an op-ed in the Feb. 9 issue of The New York Times, Marine veteran Owen West argues that accepting openly gay homosexuals would not only increase equality but also “combat readiness” because “a nation at war needs all its most talented troops.” Princeton ROTC graduates, if properly trained, could help invigorate discussion on this policy.
Women’s service is also restricted by an outdated military policy. The recent documentary “Lioness” highlighted the policy that refuses to train women for combat situations. A 1996 Congressional Research Service issue brief articulated the Pentagon’s position restricting women from serving in “direct ground combat.” But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that there no longer is a rearguard where women can avoid combat. Training and allowing women to participate in direct combat with the enemy could increase the equality, effectiveness and safety of our troops.
Princeton students will not solve all these serious problems single handedly. Repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will take an act of Congress, and properly training women may take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But the first step — and perhaps most important one — is to encourage students active in the military to voice their worries, doubts and suggestions for improvement on these and other issues.
Military veterans are willing to use their clout to criticize government and military policy. For example, groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace offer distinctive and compelling arguments for leaving Iraq. While the veterans are willing to criticize, ROTC students have failed to voice their opinions on important issues.
President Tilghman and Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson are both strong supporters of the Princeton ROTC program. While I commend their desire to fulfill Princeton’s unofficial motto, “In the Nation’s service and the service of all nations,” I would prefer they support the military we want — and not the one we have.
Michael Collins is a sophomore from Glastonbury, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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