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The military-civilian disconnect has been a source of increasing concern over the last few decades. National security leaders–including the commander in chief, President Barack Obama–have warned that many Americans are unaware of the military’s sacrifices and its growing sense of isolation from wider society. In remarks at Duke University in September 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates identified this issue as the “narrow sliver” problem, reflecting on both the achievements of America’s all-volunteer force and the challenges it now faces.
Gates noted that few Americans today have a personal connection to the military. Veterans represent 9 percent of the total population (a number that continues to decline), and less than 1 percent of Americans serves in any of the military services, active duty or reserves. Soldiers also come from a narrower segment of society–geographically and culturally–than ever before. Southerners disproportionately populate all the branches, while the Northeast and large metropolitan areas–New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia–are underrepresented.
The homogeneity of today’s military is partly a product of self-selection, as the services seek out the most eager volunteers. As Gates acknowledged, however, it is also a product of budgetary and policy decisions made by the armed services and government.
The recent history of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) provides just one such example. Originally envisioned as a hedge against a civil-military divide, the ROTC has become subject to the same trends as the military as a whole. Since the Vietnam War era, ROTC units have shifted to the South and Midwest for economic and cultural reasons. Urban areas have been abandoned in favor of cheaper and larger training sites in rural and suburban America. The result of this shift–an officer caste increasingly detached from civilian society–is precisely what the ROTC was intended to protect against.
With over 8 million residents and the largest university student population of any city in the United States, New York City demonstrates the challenges faced by urban ROTC programs–and their great potential. For the past twenty years, New York has been served by just four ROTC programs within its five boroughs–programs that are insufficiently resourced and not centrally located. To the detriment of the military’s ability to recruit from a diverse and talented segment of America’s youth, New York’s students are not being afforded the same opportunities for military service as students in other US regions.
The New York City ROTC has had a remarkable–and rocky–history. Once the home of some of the largest and oldest ROTC programs in the country, the city still has much to offer today’s military. With its diverse and growing population, the city can help supply the cultural competency and language skills the military needs to fulfill its many and varied global responsibilities. By expanding its reach, the military can ease the enormous pressures on the service men and women currently in the field and reconnect to wider American society. Finally, returning the ROTC to New York City would restore a proud tradition of military service.
The post-9/11 moment and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy have found students, faculty, and administrators newly supportive of the military and ROTC. Already Harvard and Columbia University have reestablished ties with the Navy ROTC, and other elite schools–Stanford and Yale–look poised to follow.
As welcome as these changes are, however, the lifting of elite-school bans against the ROTC will be a lost opportunity unless the military and civilian leadership push for more substantive changes to the ROTC program, broadening its base and seeking more geographic and institutional diversity. Absent such a push, universities and the military likely will stick with something very close to the status quo, in which token, light-footprint programs continue to operate largely on neighboring campuses.
Urban areas and the Northeast will remain underserved. Even with the recent agreement between Columbia and the Navy, New York will still have only four ROTC host programs–compared to twenty such programs in Virginia (population 8 million) and ten in Alabama (population 4.7 million). New York City’s sole Navy program, for example, is closed to the majority of New York City’s six-hundred-thousand-plus college students, and students interested in other service branches face the same obstacles as before.
Current policy has resulted in many missed opportunities for the armed forces.
Cheryl Miller manages the Program on American Citizenship at AEI.
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