Truth-Telling About War and War Recruiters on College Campuses

You don’t often see a piece about war, much less about the war industry of which ROTC is a part, as honest as this one by Colman McCarthy in, of all places, the Washington Post:

Now that asking and telling has ceased to be problematic in military circles, ROTC has resurfaced as a national issue: Will universities such as Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools be opened to Reserve Officers’ Training Corps since colleges can no longer can argue that the military is biased against gays and therefore not welcome?

The debate reminds me of an interview I conducted over parents’ weekend at the University of Notre Dame in 1989. I sat down with Theodore Hesburgh, the priest who had retired two years earlier after serving 35 years as the university’s president. Graciously, he invited me to lunch at the campus inn. During our discussion, he took modest pride at having raised more than a billion dollars for Notre Dame, and expressed similar feelings about the university’s ROTC program. More than 700 student-cadets were in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. Few universities, public or private, had a larger percentage of students in uniform then. The school could have been renamed Fort Hesburgh.

When I suggested that Notre Dame’s hosting of ROTC was a large negative among the school’s many positives, Hesburgh disagreed. Notre Dame was a model of patriotism, he said, by training future officers who were churchgoers, who had taken courses in ethics, and who loved God and country. Notre Dame’s ROTC program was a way to “Christianize the military,” he stated firmly.

I asked if he actually believed there could be a Christian method of slaughtering people in combat, or a Christian way of firebombing cities, or a way to kill civilians in the name of Jesus. Did he think that if enough Notre Dame graduates became soldiers that the military would eventually embrace Christ’s teaching of loving one’s enemies?

Here, in my view, is the heart of the matter:

At Notre Dame, on that 1989 visit and several following, I learned that the ROTC academics were laughably weak. They were softie courses. The many students I interviewed were candid about their reasons for signing up: free tuition and monthly stipends, plus the guarantee of a job in the military after college. With some exceptions, they were mainly from families that couldn’t afford ever-rising college tabs.

To oppose ROTC, as I have since my college days in the 1960s, when my school enticed too many of my classmates into joining, is not to be anti-soldier. I admire those who join armies, whether America’s or the Taliban’s: for their discipline, for their loyalty to their buddies and to their principles, for their sacrifices to be away from home. …

Colman McCarthy is one of those rarities on both sides of the political spectrum who opposes ALL taking of human life, including abortion and the death penalty, on the grounds that these are all forms of legalized murder. I don’t agree with him on abortion — I think there is a clear distinction between governments sending their citizens to kill other human beings to carry out those governments’ geopolitical goals; or the cold-blooded state-administered execution of a human being; and a woman choosing to end a pregnancy — which obviously means killing the embryo or fetus — because that pregnancy endangers her mental or physical health or life. However, I respect and even admire McCarthy’s moral consistency — especially given the fact that he also is decidedly NOT someone who opposes abortion and simultaneously opposes all or most social programs that would reduce the number of abortions by addressing the reasons many women choose to have them.

Military and right-wing bloggers, predictably, are (you should pardon the pun) up in arms over McCarthy’s piece, and furious at the Washington Post for publishing it.

Please don’t bleed on the Ivy – the WaPo disgraces itself with this op-ed piece by Colman McCarthy (to whom we give props, in a ‘spell the name right, any publicity is good publicity’ sort of way).  His gist – Set aside any notion you might have that our nation’s educated elite ought to have some contact with our nation’s military.  In his view, US soldiers should fight, bleed and die elsewhere but not sully our college campuses with their presence[.]

That’s Tom Maguire at Just One Minute. Although I certainly respect not just Tom’s opinion but the strength of his feeling, he is clearly mistaken when he says that McCarthy’s view is that “U.S. soldiers should fight, bleed and die elsewhere but not sully our college campuses with their presence.” McCarthy does not believe U.S. soldiers should have to fight, bleed, and die anywhere, nor that they should be put in the position of killing people who never did any harm to them. Tom may disagree with that viewpoint, but that is what McCarthy is saying. As well, McCarthy’s opposition to ROTC’s presence on college campuses goes to his belief that military recruiters are targeting — in effect if not in intent — young men and women who have no or few other choices. Why should those college students who can’t find a job or don’t know what they are going to do after they graduate not have access to other choices besides just the military? Is fighting and dying in war the only way young men and women can serve their country? Are there not other ways to serve your country — like the Peace Corps or Teach for America, for just two examples? McCarthy is saying that joining the military should not be the only option college students are presented with.



Filed under International, Law, Politics, Religion, Society, War

10 responses to “Truth-Telling About War and War Recruiters on College Campuses

  1. W.M. Dix

    I disagree in this case Colman MacCarthy has managed to offend people across the political spectrum so far I’ve only seen one blog defending him and a few scattered comments on his piece in the Washington post website. And as for honesty may I observe at least he is honest about his beliefs however his piece lacked any honesty as far as morals and history are concerned. I understand he doesn’t like military or killing at all. however his beliefs are quite literally are not something I can support or for the matter believe in blindly like he does in fact I will state that for as long as humans remain humans and we organize ourselves in Nation states we will have a need for those rough men who will stand in harms way to battle for others. And to tell the truth I would far rather have a military ready to defend my nation than the opposite case. All the moral superiority in the world will be of no use in the case of someone deciding that your nation looks mighty tempting and easy prey particularly if it lacks the means to defend itself.

    If he had contented himself with stating that it was war that he found repulsive and hat he would far rather support programs like the peace corps and others of that sort it would have been enough but his drawing a false moral equivalency with the Taliban and American soldiers in his concluding line was quite literally the straw that broke the camels back. But far more idiotic was his claim that the mere presence of Soldiers in training in the form ROTC would taint the intellectual purity of Academia was for me the most offensive and stupid of his statements. In that statement alone he exhibited an intellectual arrogance and willful blindness that beggars belief not only is his proposal stupid but it would if applied lead to a dangerous disconnect between Military and Academia one in which both sides would only see each other as caricatures of each other rather than the understanding that being in contact with each other provides.

    Also let me observe that ROTC academics to the contrary of his claim are not softie courses and I would like to know what he defines as softy courses. Also let me state that the two ROTC graduates I personally know, one is a law school graduate and she currently is a FBI agent, and the second who still serving has a double masters in Engineering and he is currently working in a military police unit and recently completed a tour in Afghanistan (I will note he did have some observations as to Afghan and elections). I will also note contrary to his claim that it is mostly low income people who make use of the ROTC program both of them come from middle class backgrounds.

    • Hi, Dix. Thank you for giving me your thoughts here. I really appreciate that you took the time to do that in a civil and substantive way. Obviously, I don’t agree with you on all your points, but I do think you make some good ones — particularly what you say about “a dangerous disconnect between Military and Academia….” I think that’s a good and fair point, for sure.

      Colman McCarthy does have strong opinions and tends to offend a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum, but I think that’s at least in part because he is so consistent. I don’t agree with or like his position on abortion at all (and he certainly wouldn’t agree with or like mine), but I do have to at least respect his consistency.

      Again, thank you for commenting. It’s a good thing to keep talking, maybe especially when we disagree, eh? 🙂

      • William M. Dix


        Indeed it is a good thing we do manage to discuss things in a civil manner. Like you said we may not agree on many points but that is no obstacle to a civil discussion. I’ll admit that Colman is infuriatingly consistent about his opinions on war and killing to an extreme that he’s actually said that the U.S. shouldn’t have participated in WW2 at all something which I came across today in a two year old interview of him. In fact the interview was quite illuminating at just how far out his beliefs are.


        In the interview he goes so far as to claim that Hitler would have died in 10 years. He does have a point that the timeframe to stop Hitler would have been in 1926 however he avoids saying anything as to how to stop him…

        After seeing that I had to come to the conclusion that he is fanatically (only word that fits) committed to his ideals to the point that he literally can’t accept other points of view or for the matter accept the fact that his beliefs suffer from serious ethical and moral shortcomings. For the matter my reaction to that statement even two years after the interview in question is colored by the fact that my Mother was born on Jersey in the Channel Islands in WW2 which were the sole piece of British territory occupied by the Germans in WW2.

        If one where to try to apply his beliefs in WW2 the cost in human life would have been far worse than it was. In fact he did not even consider just who Hitlers possible successors would have been when he made that statement. I will also note that the twentieth centuries death toll from all the wars lumped together does not even come close to the aggregate death toll inflicted by polities on their own citizens (Take a good hard look at some of the communist states in that time frame China and the Soviet Union being by far the worst offenders).

      • I took a look at that article. I agree his statement that Hitler would have died in 10 years and we could have waited him out is odd, to say the least. Like you, though, I think his other statement — that the time to stop Hitler was in 1926 or thereabouts — is much more reasonable. Even after Hitler gained power, in 1933, much could have been done, imo, to influence his behavior, if not stop it completely. The U.S. and Britain and the entire world stood by and did nothing while the Nuremberg Laws were put into place, and continued to do nothing as the persecution got worse and worse. The difficult truth is that anti-Semitism both in the U.S. government and among the public, and also of course in many other countries — Britain, France, etc. — influenced how the West reacted to Hitler early on, and he knew it. Maybe Hitler was not 100 percent correct when he said he was doing the West a favor by exterminating the Jews (meaning: maybe he wasn’t totally correct that that is what the world wanted), but he certainly was able to use anti-Semitism in the West to his advantage. He tested the waters many times in many ways to see what the West’s reaction would be, and each time he was, in effect, given permission to continue. We pretended not to know what was happening.

        I say this as someone who, like you, has some personal skin in the game as far as WWII goes. Both my parents were Holocaust survivors (they weren’t in the camps, but they escaped Europe), and about three-quarters of my father’s extended family (he came from The Netherlands), including his mother — my grandmother — was murdered by the Nazis.

  2. William M. Dix

    True enough. And I’ve come to the conclusion that Colman is a Moral absolutist as far as his beliefs are concerned. And he has been unable to resolve some of the ethical shortcomings of absolute pacifism. I’m afraid that he is very much one of those tragic dreamers that have grand dreams but are unable to accept or reconcile those dreams with harsh reality of the world as it is. I’m afraid that growing up in Latin America made me very much a cynic as far as political ideologies are concerned and I have become very much a libertarian in so far as my attitude towards government power. (Note that as far as I’m concerned I see no moral distinction between communism and fascism).

    To tell the truth given the historical environment in which Hitler rose to power in the aftermath of WWI with it’s attendant death toll (Some of my maternal grandfathers relatives died in the trenches of WW1), I’m not sure that any of the political powers that be in France, Britain or the U.S. would have been able to stop him or able to foresee the logical outcome of his beliefs. Nor for the matter did it help at all that many in the west actually admired him for giving Germany it’s pride back and reviving the German economy from it’s post war implosion (partly brought on by some of the more idiotic provisions of the peace treaties at the end of WW1 the French and British were so determined to keep Germany from becoming a power again that they set the stage for the rise of something worse). And I will also note that Hitler exploited the beliefs and fears of pacifists during the 1930s when he drove the unification of Germany and Austria as well as the annexation of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in which both France and Britain quite cravenly allowed him to do so. There’s Neville Chamberlains claim of Peace in our time after his return from Berlin after the Sudetenland annexation which was hailed by many pacifists at the time. Indeed Chamberlain more than likely ended up wishing he had never opened his mouth and said that. I will say that England was very lucky to have Winston Churchill take over during WW2 as I very much doubt that anybody else would have had the force of personality and will to do what needed to be done. Another thing that comes to mind about the pacifist is that their beliefs also led to the tragic lack of preparedness of western powers for war in the period before WW2. The U.S. did not seriously start to prepare for war till after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.

    Sadly enough antisemitism is rearing it’s ugly head in Europe and elsewhere in recent times (particularly in the Middle East) so I would not count that beast as dead and gone as of yet.

    • I agree with much of what you’ve written here. I was particularly struck with your sentence about Hitler exploiting the beliefs and fears of pacifists during the 1930s, etc. I think that’s undeniably true, but I also think you’ve left out some important context that explains that pacifist feeling: World War I. Or, to put it more broadly: war. THIS is precisely one of the major reasons why war, imo, is so counterproductive. The carnage and human suffering that WWI created in Europe is one of the factors that made Europeans so reluctant to get into another war. I think the “peace” that war sometimes *seems* to create is an illusion, in many important ways. I do agree that sometimes war is inevitable, but imo that is only because we have sowed the seeds for it earlier, haven’t understood that we were doing that, and have failed to see the growing signs of conflict that eventually result in war. Even if we agree that WWII was one war that had to be fought, and that the human cost was “worth it,” we cannot just be so blithely accepting of that cost, because the cost was horrendous. What I conclude from that is that it’s wrong to say that the U.S. has been successful in waging war to make peace (you didn’t say this, btw; a well-known conservative media pundit at another blog did), because I think that gets us in the mindset of looking at war as a solution when it should be, always, the very last alternative after every other alternative has been exhausted, and the cost of not going to war has to be significantly worse than the cost of going to war.

      Even more importantly, I think that if we have the mindset that sometimes war is necessary and you can wage war to make peace, and the cost of WWII was worth it, then we will be less inclined to find solutions to human conflict other than war. I think it’s possible to agree that Colman McCarthy is too much of a moral absolutist, AND at the same time agree that people in general are far too complacent about war — about using war as a tool of foreign policy.

      • William M. Dix


        I didn’t directly address WW1 because I considered it a given fact although I did allude to that in stating more than one of my grandfathers relatives died in it. One of the bits of family history I really should be asking my mother and her siblings about before it fades from family memory. Indeed people are too often complacent about war and it’s cost. However I will note that for modern armies when facing opponents who are not their technological equals and are not being supplied by a third party casualty rates are far lower than is the case when they are battling opponents with equivalent technology. I agree that negotiation and diplomacy should always be the first option in any case but I also believe that you had better be prepared to backup diplomacy with force if so required.

        As for WW1 a few things come to mind as to why it was such a bloody mess:

        Tactical and strategic doctrine in many European armies was still very much Napoleonic in it’s methods and thinking. Particularly if one bears in mind that their was bias towards set piece battles in which two armies would face each other across a field and slug it out with all the attendant toll. In fact if you take a hard look at things the American Civil War was a harbinger of the changes to come in war fighting technology and tactics and one that whose implications was ignored by European aristocratic armies. Trench warfare’s bloody toll was first in the American civil war but it’s WW1 toll was tragically by far higher.

        Another problem was that the Generals running European armies had not yet assimilated the fact that the technological changes in the latter half of the 19th century required a fundamental change in how soldiers fought. The development of magazine fed rifles, machines guns, and barbed wire in combination with trenches meant that defensive positions where virtually unassailable. Thus you have the case of soldiers in full kit being sent out in charges across open muddy fields torn apart by artillery barrages into prepared defensive positions and more often than not entire units being slaughtered to a man. And tragically they kept doing it again and again for most of the war. A particularly illuminating and harrowing piece of poetry from that time is Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est which can be found here with explanatory notes.

        A final point much as I would like to believe otherwise some of the trends in the the current century point to a distinct certainty of major international conflicts over resources or spheres of influence. I’m particularly concerned about China’s recent assertiveness about what it considers to be its rightful sphere of influence and as much as I would like to believe otherwise if people thought the U.S. as a regional hegemon was bad just wait till China seriously asserts itself. As much as I would want to wish otherwise the new START treaty isn’t going to do much to address the issue of China’s growing nuclear arsenal and very active ballistic missile development programs. See this from today’s Washington Post as to why I’m so pessimistic. Nor do I really have any faith in Arms control treaties addressing this issue as their historical record as far as success has been less than reassuring (take a look at the results of the naval power treaties after WW1).

      • “… some of the trends in the the current century point to a distinct certainty of major international conflicts over resources or spheres of influence.”

        How seriously do you take global warming? 🙂

  3. Chief

    As much as I oppose war, I realize there will be times when diplomacy fails. This not something a citizen of the US would recognize. Said because the US seems to regard diplomacy as a weakness, as a bastard step-child of the ‘manly-art-of-war.’

    Unbridled aggression as a furtherance of empire is our modus operandi.

    Mr. McCarthy, imo, has a wide-eyed, pie in the sky approach. I do not believe that Rev. King would have found success facing Hitler, Pol Pot or any one else that didn’t care about the rule of law.

  4. William M. Dix

    As a biologist I don’t rate global warming to be as critical an issue as deforestation and overfishing. In fact I will note that one of the prime causes of deforestation in Southeast Asia is due to idiotic bio-fuels policies in Europe that are driving the planting of massive plantations of oil palms for the bio fuel market. As for overfishing as long as fishing industry that is operating more like a bunch of hunter gatherers hunting mega-fauna albeit with a higher technological base rather than as farmers actively managing fish stocks to ensure a sustainable harvest.

    As far as Global warming is concerned it’s going to be a factor albeit a very minor one in my opinion as far as conflict is concerned. What we are more likely to see is conflicts over access to valuable rare earth elements critical to high technology as well as access to energy resources. We are also likely to see conflicts over access to fisheries as well.

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