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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Why We Need West Point: Painfully written by an OCS guy

West Point Snow

Recently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.

While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.

Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commisssionning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.

The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in-tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burn out” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.

The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.

The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audbile “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.

Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.

In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existance West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.

The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.

Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.

If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.

It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.

I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Gen. Powell: “Military Service is honorable.”

Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Returning to City College for the ceremony welcoming back ROTC was beautiful and surreal. It was strange to walk in the Great Hall and see so many military men and women criss-crossing the floor in sharp uniforms, and I had to remind myself at times that I was one of them. I felt uncomfortable like one would when inviting two friends to dinner that you know don’t get along, but are forced to be cordial. I studied the faces of faculty members whom I knew were at best, skeptical of this endeavor.

The ceremony began with a the posting of the colors. The Francis Lewis High School JROTC Color Guard did the honors and looked superb.

The President of City College, Lisa Staino-Coico began speaking, then CUNY’s Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, followed by the ROTC Cadet Commander, Major General Smith, all discussing how great it is that ROTC is returning and thanking those who had a role in bringing it back.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.” (Jeff Mays, DNAinfo)

That, I believe was Gen. Powell’s way of addressing the lingering apprehension among those who believe ROTC does not belong on campus.

Military service, is honorable.

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

And I agree.

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it. It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

The ceremony concluded with us singing the Army Song in the Great Hall.

Media:
After Decades, Boots Are Back on Campus (New York Times)
R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal (New York Times, At War Blog)
ROTC Returns to CUNY (CUNY Press Release)
CUNY brings back long-lost ROTC program (New York Post)
Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program (DNAinfo)
Army ROTC returns to City College of New York (Army Press Release)

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

At War: R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s 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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Biblical Proportions: ROTC, DADT, and women in combat


I had been meaning to write a blog piece on how both the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) and the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to Ivy League schools were both met with scathing resistance and commentary before the changes were implemented, but once the changes actually took place, nothing terrible happened. Now, with the decision to eliminate the “combat exclusion” policy which theoretically was supposed to keep women out of the line of fire and which in practice kept them from the opportunity to try out for many of the combat arms branches (armor, field artillery, infantry etc.), it seems to me that those other two policy changes might suggest how this change might also be received.

In the repeal of DADT, the argument against repeal usually lingered around the idea that having openly serving gay soldiers in the military might undermine unit cohesion or morale, or that it might upset some soldiers’ religious or personal beliefs. There was also another fear of gay soldiers suddenly becoming “flamboyant” once they no longer had to hide who they were, and that this would undermine military professionalism. Both of these fears, of course, were completely unfounded and the repeal of DADT rolled out with barely anyone noticing.

In the case of ROTC returning to the Ivy League, there were a number of Op-Eds written for ROTC’s return and against, as well as town hall meetings that turned nasty as some students and faculty members made their case for keeping ROTC off campus. Interestingly, a major reason cited by those against ROTC was the military’s DADT policy. Beyond that, many believed (and still believe) that a college campus is not an appropriate place for the military to have a presence (militaries do carry out wars, after all) and that by having ROTC around, it could potentially “militarize” the campus (whatever that means). After much handwringing, ROTC was invited back to a host of Ivy League School (Columbia, Harvard, Yale) with little incident. Some argue this is because of the low-key rollout of the programs, but whatever.

The point is, both of these changes were met with heated debate that fizzled quickly once the deed was done. Maybe, as Americans, we’re so apathetic that we just shrug and move on when the we think there’s nothing we can do. Maybe we’re easily enraged by the pundits and media darlings that tell us what to think. Or maybe we just like to argue.

While I think integrating women into combat arms will face some unique hurdles that differentiates it from the repeal of DADT and bringing back ROTC, none of these hurdles are insurmountable – in fact they’re all pretty simple to address with a little common sense. People in the military are pretty good at following orders, and I would imagine that integrating women into the various combat arms positions (if that is indeed what happens) will happen methodically and with care – and probably with little commotion.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

(Don: This article post is from 2011, and many of the links are dead or take you to strange places)

My parents have a small bathroom in their house on the first floor. It’s tiny and sparsely decorated. The only wall adornment is a dusty ‘motivational’ poster in a frame.

Stand in the bathroom and look left.

If you can’t read the text, it says “VISION: Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.” It’s attributed to Jonathan Swift.

I’ve stared at that poster a lot. People can interpret the meaning in a number of ways. “Seeing the invisible” might mean seeing the invisible dead people who move among us without our knowing it (except, of course, for those who can see them). To me it means picturing something that doesn’t exist. Yet.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of people have written about the civil-military divide. Kings of War had a piece on a French officer’s lament over the public’s (mis)understanding of the meaning behind the death of some of their soldiers, which sparked a debate on ‘why soldiers fight’ in the comments. Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the Huffington Post chronicling the “display” of the military for public consumption, and how it lacked real meaning. Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West point fired things up when she suggested that the awkward offer of ‘thank you for your service’ may originate in guilt. Back to Kings of War, “Captain Hyphen” confirmed the awkwardness, to which MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons responded by asserting things have never been better in terms of the civil-military relationship.

So what’s going on here? Is the civili-military divide – the gap – bigger than it has ever been or not?

MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons makes some good points in his argument describing how the divide is as close as it can be:

There have to be at least 5,000 members of the media who have been embedded with military units since 2003. They have the names and email addresses of let’s say 100,000 service members in their cell phones and blackberries and vice versa. Soldiers have real friends in the media today. They are doing a great job writing about soldiers and what they are doing overseas and at home now more than ever, and that’s as it should be. The media uses military analysts who are ready to discuss and explain all the intricacies of the mission or whatever the military is up to. The Pentagon now gets it regarding social media and its connection to the civilian world.  Active duty officer’s blog openly about topics in the military – leadership among the popular topics – this was unheard of in the Army I grew up with.

I agree that the information is out there. Anyone can spend the time and learn as much as they want about the military world. You can follow lots of service members on Twitter and read their blogs, and get all up in their world.

In the media rich environment we live in today, the same can be said for just about anything.

Feeling similarly to Mike, a few years ago I raised this exact thing to one of my mentors. “Are we beating a dead horse here?” I asked. “Everyday I see stories about us in the media.” To which he wisely responded “Yes, there’s a lot out there, that’s true. “But” he continued, “You know, when you drive a Jeep, the only thing you notice on the road are other Jeeps.”

She doesn’t drive a Jeep

The information is out there, but it doesn’t count if people don’t care.

Once, while sitting in a history class during a summer session, the professor threw out the question “How many American troops have been killed in Iraq?” to which a girl – probably 20ish – responded “I don’t know, like, 30 or 40.” At this point in the war, some 4,000 American troops had been killed. My jaw literally dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up my heart. I was offended. How could an American college student not know, or even come close to knowing the number of American war dead?

To me, that is an example of the civil-military divide.

People like Mike Lyons, Captain Hyphen, and myself drive Jeeps and we see Jeeps all over the road. But the majority of the country, like the girl in the history class, don’t drive Jeeps. As a veteran himself, Mike Lyons is in the game. And as a veteran, he’s going to notice all the military stories, all the Jeeps. In fact, as a military analyst for the media, it’s his job to notice.

Unpacking

The term ‘civil-military divide’ gets thrown around a lot without explanation. Like ‘transition,’ we talk about it without really talking about it. What do we actually mean? While this may seem tedious, explaining helps.

  • ‘Civil’ means civilians. Regular men and women. Except, they never served in the military.
  • ‘Military’ means the men and women who serve or served in the military.
  • ‘Divide’ suggests a gap between the two entities.

Significantly, when the term is used, it usually suggests that the civil-military divide is unnatural. There’s a sense that somehow the gap has ‘grown’ from a point in which there was no gap or it was at least a lot smaller. Besides being undesirable, it’s also described as being unhealthy for the country (unless we’re talking about civil-military relations, which has more to do with civilian control of the military. These two things are interrelated, but not the same).

The problem with this formulation is that it suggests that there are only two types of people in this country, military and civilian. Once someone goes through military training they begin seeing the rest of the country – those who haven’t served – as ‘civilians.’ This is usually done with a hint of superiority (see Ricks, 1997). Civilians, on the other hand, don’t view the world this way, unless they’re forced. That is, civilians don’t think of themselves primarily as ‘civilians,’ highlighting their non-militaryness. If they do, well that’s a shame.

A friend of mine wisely informed me that the only time she realizes she is a ‘civilian’ is when someone from the ‘military’ reminds her.

Civilians ———– GAP ———– Military (the push comes from this side)

My point is that the civil-military divide is mostly viewed from the military point of view. We talk about it, we write about it and sometimes, we suggest ways to address it. And in doing so, we give it power and the meaning we want.

Something we can never know is how much thought ‘civilians’ give to the civil-military divide on their own time. Do they sit around and discuss how out of touch they are with the military? I doubt it. Every now and then an article might pop up somewhere urging Americans to pay more attention to the lives and sacrifices of service members. Usually though, these are family members of troops, or someone who had a chance encounter with a veteran, for example, and was suddenly inspired.

The trend suggests that American society is becoming less interested and more disconnected with the military. So, expecting an ‘about face’ (or the civilian equivalent) is not promising. Since we are the ones talking about it, we should charge ourselves with fixing it.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

Getting back to my parents’ bathroom, the problem with the entire civil-military divide debate is the lack of vision. A lot of time and energy is spent thinking about what constitutes authentic appreciation of the military and what is just political theater. There is little, though, offered in terms of solutions.

What would the country look like if the divide was completely eliminated?

Alas, I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do have some ideas.

Not being outright disrespected is a good start.

ROTC in more schools is good too. Active student veteran clubs at college is good (so long as the club interacts with the rest of the campus and doesn’t become a Fortress). It would also be helpful if military service was not always cast as the last refuge of the downtrodden.

Strangers thanking the military for their service is nice. Awkward, yes. But not a bad thing.

But, if the divide was completely eliminated, would that mean that stopping to thank a service member would be all the more strange, since interactions between society and the military would be the norm?

If the goal is to close the gap, I argue the more interaction the American public has with the military, the better. Until the Zombie Apocalypse, the American public is unlikely to swarm any military bases in an attempt to get to know them better. In the interim, it would be helpful if all the energy spent grumbling about the civil-military divide was instead invested on imagining and ultimately enacting solutions.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.