Checking in on Army ROTC at CUNY

CUNY ROTC Coin

It has been two years since Army ROTC returned to CUNY, its headquarters at City College.

When I was a student veteran at the school and spoke with officials about the possibility of Army ROTC returning, many said that no one would join. I was often told I would have to show that there is a real demand from students to create real momentum for its return. I argued that it was “if you build it they will come” kind of thing. Former Secretary of State and retired General Powell famously says that he learned about ROTC at City College simply by walking past the office.

When ROTC returned in 2013, I think many people thought it would fall flat on its face. With a downsizing military, Army ROTC at CUNY wouldn’t attract the right numbers to justify its existence.

Last April I had the privilege of attending the second CUNY Army ROTC end of semester ball. The program is just starting to commission its first batch of new Second Lieutenants, and most of them were choosing to serve in the Army Reserves locally in New York. Speaking with some of the officers and NCOs who run the program, they energetically championed the urban program as one that is attracting a unique type of leader, with different experiences than your typical ROTC/USMA cadet.

The program is still “boutique” in its offerings. It doesn’t produce the massive numbers of officers that it did in the early 20th century when it was one of the largest in the country, but it also isn’t designed for that today. The program is set to expand to offer at CUNY’s community colleges this year, which will likely expand the overall number of CUNY cadets.

On social media, I see CUNY ROTC participating in events and adding a touch of military professionalism where there really was none.

Besides the benefits to the Army that we get from attracting CUNY students to the military, the presence of an ROTC contingent at CUNY schools helps to normalize (not militarize) the relationship between the military and the citizenry. Understanding the military, and especially understanding that the military is made up of real human beings, is much easier achieved if you have had some contact with the military, even if its just an ROTC student you share a class with two days a week.

That, to me, is much better than the alternative.

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What’s with the super-hate towards Gen. Petraeus? (that CUNY video)

I saw this video a couple of days ago and it’s starting to pick up steam. As I’ve written about in the past, I’m of the belief that the much vaunted “civilian-military divide” is a thing only as much as military people think it’s a thing. Civilians don’t sit around thinking about how disconnected from the military they are. We do that.

But, videos like this contribute to military people sitting there, incredulously, mouth agape, swearing that they don’t understand the society from which they came.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that more than any other military personality, Gen. Petraeus has received a disproportionate amount of hate.

It began with the “General Betray Us” ad in 2007 when he was testifying before Congress about the need to “surge” in Iraq.

When I was still a CUNY student at the City College of New York, I attended a talk given by Gen. Petraeus at the 92nd Street Y – not exactly an imperialist think-tank. I arrived early, and there were a handful of protestors outside, waving signs that called Gen. Petraeus a war criminal. The protestors heckled anyone who stepped inside, asking why we’d want to hear a man like that say anything.

General/Ambassador Eikenberry was up on stage, introducing Gen. Petraeus, who was walking up to the podium. As he read through the laundry list of the General’s accomplishments, he was using a mnemonic of “He was the Commander of forces in Iraq, then he was the Commander of….he was…” Right as he said another “He was” a protestor who had “infiltrated” (bought a ticket) jumped up and screamed “A WAR CRIMINAL! HE’S A WAR CRIMINAL! YOU’RE A WAR CRIMINAL!”

The room gasped and some people tried to shush or shame the protestor. Gen. Eikenberry waited for the person to be removed, which took an awkwardly long time. Gen. Petraeus held his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the light to try to see who it was.

The protestor was removed and the Gen. made an off the cuff remark about the protestor that made everyone laugh. I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t offensive. It was making fun of himself if I remember correctly.

A couple of years later, I was in London for graduate school. In a small classroom, I sat with a handful of very bright students waiting for our professor of Middle East anthropology. We had just read an article critical about the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some quotes from General Petraeus were in it. I listened in on a conversation happening next to me between two students, one from the UK and one from Italy:

Italian Student: “You know, I have to admit, I kind of had to respect General Petraeus when I read that he has a PhD from Princeton.”
UK Student: “Oh please, the Nazis were highly educated too.”

My jaw literally dropped a bit and I had to bite my cheek not to flip my desk. Both statements were ridiculous. I didn’t say anything. It is terribly awkward to be the grizzled Army veteran in a Middle East studies class. And once that cat is out of the bag, it doesn’t go back in.

The Italian student’s statement was ridiculous because buried inside of it is the idea that having any kind of respect for General Petraeus because of his military service or character is unfathomable. But because he got a PhD from Princeton, now it’s okay. That kind of a statement just fuels the idea that there is this academic elite who can only respect and understand people who have their noses buried in a book.

The UK student’s statement offended for obvious reasons.

And now, of course, we have the video above, which I’m particularly embarrassed about as a CUNY graduate. I’m all for protest and free speech. And CUNY is a special university that has a rich history of being at the very least – skeptical – of the military. But I think that this trend of hate towards P4 is indicative of just how skewed the public is about the military.

Inside of the military, General Petraeus was a legend living in his own time. For most of us, he really only appeared on our radar after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when he led the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and settled in Mosul. From there, he was relentless and lead MNSTC-I, which was charged with training Iraqi forces, then commanded the Combined Arms Center where he worked at writing (with others) the Counterinsurgency Manual. Then commanding forces in Iraq for the surge, CENTCOM Commander, then the odd promotion/demotion to commanding forces in Afghanistan after Gen. McChrystal was fired. Retirement, then Director of the CIA before his personal scandal had him retiring from that.

A storied career. Weaved inside of all that is a ton of media which got him on the front page of a bunch of magazines and on television dozens and dozens of times. He became “the” General that everyone knew.

Soldiers, however, know the rest of the story from people who served with him. How he was an avid runner and athlete, and didn’t believe in weight training – just good old fashioned Army physical training. How when he commanded a Brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division, he had a physical fitness challenge for the paratroopers that no one could beat him in. How he was accidentally shot on a training range. And of course, his relentless, un-ending energy.

There was nothing bad to say about the guy. He was loved. One of the good guys.

But anti-war activists seized on General Petraeus as the target of their discontent. He became the poster boy for anti-war. For military people watching, it didn’t make any sense. Why Petraeus?

My theory is because it’s the only General they know. The media windstorm surrounding him (and which he helped stir) means that he is the General, and with it comes the good and the bad.

For the military and veteran communities, though, all we see is a bunch of self-righteous kids egging one of one our heroes. Without a good understanding of how this all happened, it is very easy to slip into a general hate for the protestors specifically and the society generally that promotes it. That’s not good.

Like I said, “closing the gap” on the civilian-military divide is only a real thing inasmuch as military people are willing to do so. But, admittedly, this crap doesn’t help.

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David Petraeus

At War: R.O.T.C. Returns to New York‚Äôs City College More Than Four Decades After Removal

ROTC high crawl

I wrote a short article for the New York Times At War Blog about today’s ceremony welcoming back ROTC to City College. This has been long in the making, and I’m personally looking forward to learning how it all went down.

The team at the New York Times did a great job digging up some photos from the late 1960s showing students mocking ROTC drills on the campus. Perfect find for the piece.

I’m really proud of this article and especially proud that ROTC is returning to City College today.

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Ghosts on campus: student-veterans of the Vietnam era at City College

I’ve been doing some research on the ROTC at the City College of New York and came across this piece in The Campus newspaper. It’s called “College: a vets’ eye view” and the author interviews some of the student-veterans on campus about their views on the war in Vietnam. I am completely sucked into these pieces because all of this happened at my alma mater. The same things I experienced at City between 2007 and 2010, student veterans faced forty years ago, and probably sixty years ago too after World War II.

But I never really knew. None of us did. All of this information is lost. Ghosts of the past walk the campus, experiencing the same things over and over and over again. All this gnashing of teeth and tormented thoughts. The answers all there, buried in texts from the past. This has all been done before.

Most of the veterans, although they agreed that anti-war protest is important and necessary, felt that they were somewhere to the political right of most students, if not in their attitudes, certainly in their actions. It’s possible that is because most of them are married and working at least part-time, and feel that they have a greater investment in the “system” than other students have.

For the same reason, most of them felt that their attitude toward their education was somewhat more pragmatic than most other students’. Several said that their only interest in the school was to get a degree as fast as possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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College: a vets' eyes view
Returned veterans speak out

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

ROTC Wants Rule by Force

The City College of New York recently announced that they had digitally archived all editions of the undergraduate student newspaper of record from 1907 to 1981. I’ve been poking around for a few minutes and I can waste a lot of time there.

When I was at City College I founded the veterans club, or rather, resurrected the veterans club. While looking for a name, I discovered through old issues of The Campus newspaper that a group that called itself the “City College Veterans Association” had existed for many years on campus. So I just started a club with that name. CCNY historically hosted a vibrant military/veteran community on campus that faded away with the elimination of ROTC during the Vietnam War. That culture I’m happy to say is being revived, slowly.

Anyway, here’s a little snippet from the front page of the April 1, 1947 issue of The Campus, proving that satirical news is an old, old idea.

This particular article reminds me of a flyer a veteran friend of mine made with me. It was a flyer announcing the veteran club on campus, and we wanted to add a line at the bottom assuaging people’s fears so we wrote:

CCVA is not a political organization. CCVA does not take a position on the wars and is only here to help improve the lives of veterans on campus.

As a joke, we made a flyer with an alternate disclaimer that read:

CCVA is a political organization. We take a militant position on the wars and we are here to militarize the campus. (or something to that effect)

Reading back on the real disclaimer, I’m struck by how apologetic in tone it seems. I remember at the time feeling that it was necessary to have it in there given the political climate on campus, even though that was probably an imagined climate. Most students were completely uninterested in the wars or what activities were happening on campus. It’s also interesting that we used the term “the wars” as if they were truly perpetual. Not the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. Just ‘the wars.’

Anyway, you can access the entire archive here.

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ccva general flyer

ROTC back at CUNY after more than 40 years

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

While doing some research for an earlier post, I learned that Army ROTC is headed back to the City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically the City College of New York (CCNY), my alma mater. I had heard through the grapevine that this was in the works, but nothing was officially official. It won’t start until the fall, but it looks like the cat’s out of the bag.

I know a lot of people were involved in making this happen, and maybe when ROTC officially opens at CCNY I’ll write a longer piece on how it all went down. For now, I’m just happy to know that it is actually happening. CUNY, CCNY, and the Army will all be better for it.

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