Reflections on Military Education at Stanford

by Alex Kindel, ’14

In April 2011, the Faculty Senate of Stanford University approved the recommendations of an ad hoc committee convened to consider the possibility of returning the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program of the U.S. military to Stanford, after its removal from campus during the antiwar backlash of the Vietnam War. The recommendation called for the university to express its interest in bringing ROTC back to Stanford, having considered the arguments for and against return. I was sitting in the back of the room in the Stanford Law School when this vote went through, and watched it happen live. Having been involved extensively with the anti-ROTC side of the aisle, I was very disappointed (to say the least) in this turn of events. Now, months later, I can’t say that I’m any more satisfied with the decision the Faculty Senate has made. However, I think of myself as pragmatic, so I’ve decided to move forward and re-evaluate my thoughts on the issue of military education at Stanford.

Make no mistake; I am now and will continue to be against the return of ROTC to Stanford. But operating under the assumption that ROTC will return to Stanford, I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve seen so far of Stanford’s approach to educating its students about war and the military. I tend to believe that the issues I take with Stanford’s approach arise from one of two things: either the generational gap between the undergraduate population and the faculty and administration, or the administration’s intrinsic lack of (understanding of) diversity. Generally, I would categorize my qualms with Stanford’s endeavors as follows: they underestimate the diversity of experience in the student body, and they are consistently based in a normative, privileged world-view.

The first issue is the issue most immediately apparent in the ad hoc committee’s pro-ROTC rhetoric. Somewhere along the way, somebody assumed that Stanford students are, by and large, ignorant of the meaning of war and of the military. They believe that today’s typical Stanford student does not have sufficient contact with the military to gain the kind of understanding they believe all Stanford students should have. This has me curious for two reasons: one, where does this assumption arise from?; two, even assuming that Stanford students are ignorant of war and the military, what does their proposed solution actually do to alleviate the problem? I’ll tackle the first question- perhaps the assumption that we are ignorant of war and the military comes out of a perceived lack of contact with people who are in the military. I will counter that possibility with a personal example and a broader generalization.

First, some personal background: I come from a family more entwined with the military than most families are. My mother is a classic military brat, raised in a vast number of  different European nations on USAF bases while her father, my grandfather, was on assignment. My grandmother on my father’s side watched the events of Pearl Harbor unfold from the front porch of her family’s home in Hawaii as a girl, and her father was on shore leave from the U.S.S. Arizona when it was bombed beneath the sea by Japanese pilots that same day. My grandfather on my father’s side served in Korea as a part of the Marine Corps. I have seven cousins on my mother’s side in the military; two in the Air Force, one in the Army, two in the Navy, and two in the Coast Guard. My older brother has been an enlisted member of the Army. I have been given more camouflage-themed birthday presents than anyone ever should! However, because I am gay, I did not have the option of entering the family business, and still do not until the repeal of DADT goes into full effect. I suspect this is part of why I am so skeptical of any administrator or committee that claims I don’t understand the military. On that note, I should say that I don’t claim that this experience is typical; I merely wish to use my experience as an example of the fact that Stanford students have a much more diverse range of interactions with the military than the administration would have us believe.

Aside from my family experience, I come from a high school in an area that would be best described as lower-middle class. There, enlisting in the military is almost as popular an option as attending college after graduation, especially among students of color. Because I was a white, tracked-up student in high school, I was not their targeted demographic and thus managed to avoid the brunt of the military presence on campus; still, I experienced several in-class guest speakers from a variety of military backgrounds, and passed the recruitment table at lunch on a semi-regular basis. I suspect (unscientifically) that more students enlist from my high school than enroll immediately in four-year colleges; still more are recruited while attending their first year of community college. I also suspect (again, unscientifically) that more students from my high school register for and take the ASVAB than the SAT. I am told this is not an uncommon experience for first-generation and low-income students, and indeed, I am surrounded by just as many people whose college choice was between Stanford and West Point as people who chose between Stanford and Harvard. Hence, I am forced to suggest: if Stanford wants students who understand the military, then it would be well-served to more aggressively recruit and admit more first-generation and low-income students, and even more well-served to enable substantive conversations in the first-generation low-income community by creating a static community space.

Still, say the student body is largely ignorant of war and the military. After all, the first-generation low-income community is still very small, and the amount of students who do not need any financial aid from the university hovers around 50%, or so I’m told. If this is indeed the case, what does bringing an ROTC  program physically onto campus do to alleviate the issue? A number of Stanford students already participate in ROTC programs at nearby colleges, but to be  generous, let’s say the size of the program doubles when it’s brought onto campus, to a total numbering somewhere in the range that can be counted on the  fingers of two to three people. What happens then?

There are two options: Stanford can depend on the diffusion of these students throughout campus to spark conversation on military practice and theory of war, or it can actively create spaces where these things are discussed. With the former, I would argue that the size of a group does not matter when it comes to sparking conversations, but rather the collective will to be heard.

As a member of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation, I’ll shamelessly use it as an example: as a group of 10 (generously) consistent members (with a few people floating in and out), SSQL has put on a large number of events and has been extremely prominent in campus media throughout the past year. So it’s been demonstrated that an increase in the size of the program is not necessary, or really sufficient, for it to spread awareness. Moving on to the second case- if Stanford wants to actively create spaces for discourse on war and the military, then I can think of any number of examples for it to learn from. The work that student organizations such as FLIP, SOSAS, the ASSU, and others have done suggests multiple ways of starting a conversation and spreading it across campus. Thus, my second recommendation: rather than relying on an on-campus  ROTC program to promote discourse, the administration should actively create spaces at Stanford for discussion of war amongst undergraduates. Judging from the public debates on ROTC, there’s no shortage of interest in the issue on either side.

I’ll give credit where credit is due- the administration has definitely tried to start incorporating more education regarding war and the military into the way it does business. It’s very obvious that the administration cares a lot about this particular issue. I argue, however, that their attempts, without exception, fall into
three pitfalls.

(1) The administrators who advocate most vocally come from places and viewpoints of unchecked privilege, especially with regards to age, gender, race, economic background, and sexuality. They are able to identify strongly with the upper echelons of the U.S. military, a bastion of white, heterosexual, cisgender males, and privilege the experience of these officers and politicians over the storied history of interaction between the ranks of enlisted soldiers and people of color, who are disproportionately represented therein and have been for decades. They also privilege the perspective of the victor, and do not critically engage with the perspectives of the people facing the other end of the machine gun. All of this is evident in the programming that administrators put on for students. For example, the Three Books program this year purports to be a study of ‘war ethics’, but does not include a single book that focuses on the experience of a person of color in the U.S. military, nor a book from the perspective of someone on the other side of a conflict. I would argue that these are critical perspectives on war, perhaps even more so than the perspective of a soldier on the winning side. The fact that they are missing from the program speaks volumes for the level of privilege that these administrators have left unchecked.

(2) Administrators are able to delegitimize the diverse experiences and perspectives of students because of their age and experience. Most administrators were approximately as old as Stanford undergraduates are today back during the Vietnam War, and experienced that war largely through the new media of the time; this bears comparison to the current wars in the Middle East and the new media that has arisen alongside them. However, because administrators are not used to our method of obtaining knowledge about war and conflict, and because the older generation tends to devalue virtual media and communication technology in favor of traditional media, it is simple for them to deny that we have any contact with the sort of raw information that characterized the 60s. Moreover, the dynamic of power that places administrators above students invites and even encourages the sort of interactions we’ve seen and experienced first-hand: dismissive responses, refusal to meet, and overall failure to critically engage with student perspectives.

(3) Current attempts at military education rely solely on traditional pedagogical practices; rather than creating a space for campus-wide dialogue or building new options for people who want to study war and the military, they reinforce old methods and pedagogies. The topic of military education has been a hot issue on campus for more than a year now, but I don’t particularly feel that I have more options to study the military now than when I started at Stanford a year ago. The same options are still there: I can take a class from one of a handful of departments (political science, history, international relations, etc.), or join ROTC (theoretically, given that DADT is not yet fully repealed), or take part in a handful of student movements, or attend an occasional talk or  seminar. I would have encouraged, or even fought for, the administration taking advantage of the cross-disciplinary nature of war and the military to bring new topics into departments like HumBio, Econ, CompLit, Sociology, Urban Studies, or CSRE. Instead of mobilizing some of our university’s greatest resources- its faculty and students- they have decided to rely on an outside program that brings with it none of the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and intellectual spirit that makes Stanford an elite institution. It seems to me that the debate over ROTC is the best the administration will ever be able to do in its attempts to  bring military education to Stanford students, simply because of the dedication both sides put into researching their arguments and truly understanding the  institution we wish to bring back.

Now that the debate over ROTC is over, I look forward to seeing how the administration will make good on its promises to enhance the military education experience at Stanford, beyond just bringing the program onto campus and calling it good. I maintain that if administrators want to create substantive discussion and education around the military and war at Stanford, the resources it needs exist here already. There are several departments which could encompass the topics of war and the military, which along with the first-gen low-income community and the range of anti-war groups means there are potentially hundreds (or possibly thousands!) of students and faculty who would potentially get involved in cross-campus discussions on the nature of war or the role of the military. The time is now- ROTC debate is still fresh in the campus collective mind, and interest is as high as it’s ever been. Bottom line: if the administration wants substantive discussion and education on war and the military, then we’ll be happy to oblige, but if they think an on-campus ROTC program and a handful of classes is sufficiently substantive, they’re wrong.


Alex is a sophomore living in Ujamaa, majoring in Symbolic Systems with a concentration in Learning, and is thinking about adding another major in Philosophy & Religious Studies if he can plan it out. He is involved with Stanford Students for Queer Liberation as well as the ASSU; in his free time, he likes to read science fiction, take naps, and make academic plans. Alex would love to hear your feedback and comments at!

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