We must demystify the military

Kevin Zhang

In his article “UT needs to reconsider its support of university ROTC program” sociology senior Patrick Lee argues that UT has a moral obligation to cease its support of the Reserve Officers Training Corps program and with it the “imperial violence” of the U.S. military. His argument, while emotionally charged, demonstrates a distinct lack of empathy and understanding that threatens to undermine and make possible the very accusations he lays down. Not only are programs like the ROTC necessary now more than ever, we as UT students, Americans, and members of a representative democracy need to understand and demystify the military that represents our country.

I have been in the U.S. Army my entire adult life — I started at West Point less than 20 days after I turned 18. I am the son of two immigrants. I am a first-generation American, a minority, and in many ways, a representative of the U.S. military. I am a person and a human being with agency, my own beliefs and values. I deny any attempt by Patrick Lee or any others to dehumanize me.

Neither I nor any of the people I have served with are faceless automatons. We are people who make mistakes, celebrate our successes and strive to make a better life for ourselves and our families just like everyone else in this country. The military, like every government organization, is not a monolithic entity. It is a conglomerate of many people from all walks of life. The actions and values of our government and its organs represent the people and the culture of the United States. In many ways, it is a reflection of who we are. If the U.S. military is immoral and represents the evils of the “American imperial project,” as the author claims, the solution cannot be to separate UT from the military to somehow alleviate ourselves of our rightful share of the blame. As reasoned, educated and driven individuals we are morally obligated to drive forward positive change. Whether through internal reform as members of the military or through political action, what we need is more interaction and understanding. As members of a democracy, it is our duty and our right to force our government to represent us, not simply divorce ourselves from it and deny our culpability.

Lee’s point that “one should not have to join the military to access higher learning” is frankly easier to refute. Simply stated, there is no draft, conscription or compulsory service requirement today. While military service in exchange for higher education is one of the easier options, it is far from the only one. The current ongoing debate about the cost of higher education is beyond the scope of my response, but it is also clear that we cannot arbitrarily remove options, particularly from those most disadvantaged. Lee cites Harvard and Yale’s historic repudiations of ROTC programs while criticizing their more recent acceptance of them. What he mentions as “caving to national pressure” has far more nuance than Lee gives credit. 

The real question we need to ask is not whether we should remove support for ROTC programs, but how do we engage to ensure the military and our government best represent our values. Integrating, teaching and learning from those who could one day represent us as a nation by serving is surely a good first step.

One of the foundations of a modern college education is exposure to ideas, cultures and values that might be previously unknown. Rather than wrongly identifying the military as a mysterious other, we need to recognize it for what it really is — a reflection of our society. If we do not like what we see, we owe it to ourselves to work to fix it together. We cannot deny our own culpability as members of a democratic state in what our country does. If we disagree with our country’s actions or how our military represents us, our duty is to work together to make a change, not dig our heads in the sand and ignore it. 

Zhang is a UT graduate student studying history and an active-duty Army captain.