Will ROTC Units Keep the United States Out of War?

Writing at The Chronicle Review, Michael Nelson reviews several recent books on war and America.  I usually do not read much on war or military history, but after reading Nelson’s review I may go out an get a copy of Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War or Richard Rubenstein’s Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War.

Here is Nelson’s take on Rubsenstein:

Rubenstein, after pausing at the start of Reasons to Kill to puzzle over Tocqueville’s observation that Americans are “fond of peace” because it “allows every man to pursue his own little undertakings,” traces the roots of American bellicosity further back than either Bacevich or Beinart.  He cites a study showing that even in colonial times, “there was either a declared war or a conflict for 79 of the 179 years from just before the founding of Jamestown until 1785, nominally the end of the Revolution.” Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force, record 111 “militarized interstate disputes” that the United States initiated from 1812 to 1992. Rubenstein also mentions research by the political scientists Peter D. Feaver and Christopher Gelpi, who in their 2004 book

Rubenstein argues that a proclivity to war sank deep and enduring roots in American soil for two small reasons and one big one. The first small reason is the early settlement pattern that made Scots-Irish immigrants—warriors for more than six centuries in defense of their native land against the English—the dominant ethnic group in the southern frontier; the second is the “Billy Budd syndrome,” in which Americans have long been “blinded by uncritical trust in authority,” even when it leads them into unnecessary wars against countries like Mexico, Spain, and North Vietnam. The big reason is that Americans are a religious people who won’t fight unless convinced that their cause is just but who are easily persuaded that lots of causes are just. Those include “self-defense” broadly construed, an “evil enemy,” “patriotic duty,” and their “unique virtue” as “liberators and peacemakers, not selfish imperialists.”

But this is more than a review. Nelson suggests that the real answer to why America spends so much time fighting foreign wars has something to do with the expulsion of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) units on elite college campuses.  I am not sure if he is right about this, but his argument is fascinating. Nelson explains:

First, both the volunteer forces and the ROTC expulsions turned the military’s recruiting gaze southward, to the region of the country (still rich in Scots-Irish ethnicity and culture) most supportive of the armed forces as an institution and of war as an instrument of national policy. In 1968 ROTC had 123 units in the East and 147 in the South.  Just six years later, Southern ROTC units outnumbered those in the East by 180 to 93. Alabama, with one-fourth the college population of New York City, has 10 ROTC units compared with New York’s two.  As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out last month in a speech at Duke University, “With limited resources, the services focus their recruiting efforts on candidates where they are most likely to have success.”

Forty percent of enlisted men and women are now Southerners, and the officer corps speaks with an even stronger Southern accent. As a consequence, like the South generally, the military has moved rightward into the Republican Party. “Reversing a century and a half of practice,” laments the University of North Carolina military historian Richard H. Kohn,  based on surveys he helped to conduct, “the American officer corps has become partisan in political affiliation, and overwhelmingly Republican.” In his new book, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations,  Jason K. Dempsey  reports that in 2007 Republicans outnumbered Democrats 49 percent to 12 percent among senior officers. At West Point, Dempsey found, “enough officers overtly endorse the Republican Party that many cadets apparently conflate an identification with the Republican Party with officership.” 

Second, the end of the draft and ROTC’s banishment from many elite campuses mean that a steadily declining share of those in Congress and the upper reaches of the executive branch have served as either officers or enlistees. Until 1995 the percentage of veterans in Congress was consistently higher than in the country as a whole. Since then it’s been lower—around 30 percent and shrinking.

3 thoughts on “Will ROTC Units Keep the United States Out of War?

  1. Fascinating post John. Thanks! I recently analyzed Barna's “Biblical Worldview” (BWV) over here (www.mwalkerhunter.com) and also noted that southerners (Barna cites TX and NC) are much more likely to have his version of a BWV AND 60% of people with that BWV would support a federal amendment making Christianity the offical religion of the U.S. Not sure what exactly that has to do with our war-mongering, but I can make some guesses…


  2. Jason K. Dempsey reports that in 2007 Republicans outnumbered Democrats 49 percent to 12 percent among senior officers.

    In other words, less than half as pronounced as in our universities, with colors reversed.


    This could be a bottom-up self-selection, though. Although you come to your position from a theological standpoint, John, you're congenial with the left's rejection of “God and Country,” which one would think is the normative ethos in the professional military.

    And as we all know, hostility to the military [think the city of Berkeley] is a unique phenomenon of the left.

    And yes, Paul, I think there is a “missionary zeal” for American principles among the professional military. Otherwise, they are mere mercenaries.


  3. Seems like a bit of a stretch to me. After all, American war-mongering is not only a post-WWII phenomenon. The host of small wars in Latin America during the first half of the twentieth century, the military adventurers of the mid-nineteenth century, and the wars of expansion all predate this southern shift in recruiting.

    I'd be tempted to point my finger at American exceptionalism and sense of missionary zeal. Darn it, we were the city on a hill and we were gonna make others/heathens/foreigners imitate us!


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