Monday, March 06, 2006

Everyone should want the military on campus

The Supreme Court has ruled that colleges that accept federal money must allow military recruiters on campus. The case involved some law schools who had banned the recruiters because the military's policy on homosexuals violates the schools' own policies.

Justices rejected a free-speech challenge from law schools and their professors who claimed they should not be forced to associate with military recruiters or promote their campus appearances.

The ruling was unanimous, so there's not a lot of room for interpretation: if you want federal money, military recruiters come with it.

I sympathize with the schools to some extent. There's a fairness issue: Why should the military be exempt from rules that apply to every other recruiter or company that has access to a given school? In addition, there's the appearance of condoning discrimination.

But I bring another perspective to the case, having been commissioned through ROTC and witnessed the same debate and protests while I was in college in the late 1980s at the University of Minnesota.

First, let me be clear: I think the military's policy on gays is asinine, the discrimination both unfounded and unnecessary. The military has plenty of rules on conduct and fraternization that would maintain discipline even if soldiers were openly gay, just as they manage to maintain discipline in a military where heterosexual men and women serve alongside each other. And in an era when the military is having difficulty meeting recruiting goals, turning away thousands of otherwise qualified (in some cases, highly qualified) soldiers makes no sense from a national-security standpoint.

The problem, as I see it, is one of relative weight. Military access to college campuses is simply too important to be derailed by the military's gay policy. Protest? Fine. Work to change minds? Fine. Declare and demonstrate support for military gays? Of course. But banning ROTC and recruiters goes too far, doing real damage to our security and further isolating the military from mainstream society.

When I was in the military, 70 percent of officers received their commissions through ROTC -- including some of the brightest and best-educated soldiers. Simply put, that is an irreplaceable source of military leaders. If we ban ROTC and recruiters, we cripple the future of the military -- and thus our security.

A second point that opponents should consider is a bit more subversive. Soldiers recruited from college campuses tend to have a broader education and life exposure than those who are educated in the hothouses of service academies and military schools. They bring that with them into the military, forming the main part of what might be considered the "liberal" wing of the military. They help ensure that mainstream American values continue to be represented in military culture.

This is crucial, coming as it does at a time when fewer and fewer people know someone who is in the military. If military culture grows too separated from civilian culture we risk a "Prussification" of the military: turning it into an insular society led by elites that have little in common with the people whom they ostensibly serve. That would be a disaster on many levels.

The military must be given access to college students both to maintain our physical security and to save the military from itself.

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