“When I see people in uniform, I think of fascism.” –Yale student, circa 2009
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight…is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” -John Stuart Mill
I loved my time at Yale. The brilliant people, abundant resources, and multifarious opportunities to learn about the world and my place in it were unlike anything I had ever known. Everybody seemed so worldly and studied. Sure, I had lived in Germany for three years, but these people could read dead languages, quote Shakespeare or Churchill at length, and wax poetic about the elegant truths of higher-order mathematics. I could hardly imagine anything I might understand better than most of them. And then, during a pleasant exchange, an avowedly thoughtful, intimidatingly mature, and all-around wonderful friend of mine compared the prospect of ROTC cadets on campus to fascism.
How was this possible?
Between 1969 and 1970, a period of profound social upheaval, a handful of elite schools moved to appease rabid hostility to the military Vietnam War by expelling ROTC from campus. Decades later, somebody decided the continued exclusion was about opposition to the ban on gay Americans serving openly. When I matriculated at Yale in 2007, the vast majority of my peers were functionally oblivious to the military—notwithstanding the occasional relative who fought in WWII and general indignation over the Iraq War. Among friends more given to pacifism, my military ID might as well have been Confederate currency: perhaps imagined to exist in a faraway place but never expected to be encountered in real life. (Incidentally, before Yale, this was my impression of vegetarians.)
By contrast, I was a natural-born Army brat and erstwhile JROTC cadet officer who had always expected to go to college in the South, where the military is right between God and football. Moreover, I was a distinguished student from a Naval Honor High School who had seriously considered Annapolis before the Ivy League came calling. (And many old friends are now serving.) Freshman year at Yale was nothing short of a culture shock. I was no more ready for a world impossibly ignorant—and proudly so— of the military than for classmates unfamiliar with minorities. (Army communities, unlike Ivy League schools, are among the most diverse and integrated places in the country, but I digress.)
Years before Congress brought DADT repeal up for a vote, the debate over whether to return ROTC to campus waged hotly at Yale and Columbia. As surprised nobody back home, I argued the need for more exceptional talent in the officer ranks, more understanding between the political and military elite, and the simple civic virtues of duty and patriotism. But above all, as a gay man, I had no patience for the yuppie exploitation of my political struggles to conveniently mask the anti-military bigotry of the day. DADT was a law from the civilian world that came 23 years—more than most of us had been alive at that time—after the purge of ROTC from the Ivory Tower. Politicians passed it, and politicians would have to fix it.
But what these debates laid bare was how much places like Yale and Columbia need the presence of the military. Apart from otherwise thoughtful people extrapolating totalitarianism from the patriotism of their peers, there was the public debate in which the student leader of a prominent liberal organization denigrated military officers as cowardly leeches on society. He was met with ovation from the left. That this particular gentleman—I was raised to be polite—could not imagine a war he or most of his friends would fight in perhaps goes without saying.
He was followed by students who declared that servicemembers are not heroes but dregs of society that had been exploited for their stupidity, poverty, and hopelessness. Others blamed the intrinsic evils of military culture—and the governing barbarians who enable it—for everything from My Lai to Abu Ghraib. For these safely distant gentry liberals, the military is an object of pity and contempt from which the world—and servicemembers—must be saved. Such were the asinine costumes of reason ad nauseam that I suffered for years.
I remember all too well the many stilted conversations, littered with mawkishly tendentious musings and didactic misconceptions, in which leftists expressed “enlightened” outrage at the very idea of the military. I also remember the people who obstinately held ROTC an affront to the integrity of the academy. (Fortunately, the discipline I learned from my military parents empowered me to oppose my peers nonviolently, for a time, before abandoning them to their iniquity.) But of course, we were still to believe the opposition to ROTC on campus was just about DADT rather than a perverse failing of the culture of the Ivory Tower.
After the repeal, Connecticut’s only Navy ROTC program and a new Air Force ROTC unit finally began operating in New Haven. The official photos of the new NROTC midshipmen have reverberated around the world, broadcasting the pride of Yale—a place where the service of alumni fallen in the Great War is honored in the immortality of marble. But while much of the commentary has been positive, there have been those—including the aforementioned sometime liberal leader and the other one in every six students opposing ROTC regardless of DADT—who assure us that the U.S. military is still “despicable” and that the image of cadet uniforms in the rotunda still “freaks them out.”
The impregnability of such inanity is the real threat to the academy and the world it purports to serve. How on earth can we expect the “best and the brightest” to govern well while defiantly ignorant of and obdurately hostile to the Armed Forces? How fully could they consider our national interests while lacking even the obvious understanding that the enlisted and their officers never decide to start or end war, regardless of what they might think of such belligerence. What sort of world could endure governance by “leaders” who think soldiers analogous to demons and pacifism viable?
These people who oppose the very idea of the military are a remnant of the chaotic narcissism that saw a generation vomit out the dignity of its own defenders. They are a contemptibly spineless lot, afflicted with a nefarious defeatism, which would delight in entrusting the protection of the earth to crackpot organizations, two-bit dictators, and the French. Their beliefs and values—such as they are—are a cancer once thought to be in remission, that would compromise our entire body politic, if ever left to fester. And these are many of the people who want to “change” America by running her institutions.
While growing up on Army bases, I learned that freedom is a foundation built upon a shifting precipice. It must be ever maintained against the winds of the day. If the pacifists, isolationists, and other enemies of the military—and thus of freedom—ever get their way, the winds will keep howling. But there will be no brave hearts left to hold the fort. Nor will there be peace for the living.