Defending ROTC

Michael Nelson does a monumental job of focusing a lot of books about the service academies (including two of mine) into a finely-honed argument in his essay "The Case for the Academies" (Summer 2010). Now in my 24th year in the English Department at the United States Naval Academy, I wish I could be persuaded by his case.

Nelson makes clear just how expensive the academies are and that, in terms of quality and longevity in uniform, there is no clear advantage to academy-trained officers over less-costly ROTC officers, who outnumber the former two to one in any given year. In arguing to keep the academies anyway, Nelson offers two interesting, if problematic, arguments: one political, the other geographical. It's absolutely true that civilian universities, especially East Coast elite ones, are largely inhospitable to conservatives, and that higher education's liberal tilt is typically expressed in an antipathy toward the military. I agree with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's recent suggestion at Duke that we need more ROTC at elite schools. Nelson notes, too, that many ROTC units are located in the South, which is more hospitable to the military than the North. He sees the academies as providing a greater geographical spread, because some applicants get their nominations (which are necessary but not sufficient to admission) from their congressman.

But Nelson makes too much of geography, forgetting that many midshipmen come with national nominations (including those recruited for athletic or racial reasons) and that others from Navy families grew up everywhere and nowhere—though they have congressmen to nominate them when the time comes. New York City and New England are still under-represented at USNA; huge numbers of our students come from San Diego and Pensacola (Navy strongholds) and from Texas. He forgets, too, that "red" and "blue" states are a statistical convenience. I come from Maryland's Eastern Shore, a firmly "red" area in an overall "blue" state—but it's only "blue" statewide because Baltimore and suburban D.C. have a greater combined population than the "red" edges of Eastern Shore, Southern, and Western Maryland. Other states like New York, California, and Texas are similar.

The real issue is the liberal-conservative split that characterizes our country, of which the military-civilian divide is only one expression. Like Michael Nelson, I am worried that the military is now overwhelmingly Republican and that private universities exclude ROTC. But even so, we aren't going to be left without officers: some come up through the ranks or out of college via Officer Candidate School, and state schools everywhere offer ROTC programs.

The solution is not to have counterweight conservative institutions (such as the academies) to balance liberal ones. I agree with Tom Ricks that the academies tend to be intellectually shabby, far below the Ivies they're sometimes compared to. The military keeps itself happy at these insular places by praising itself. Military pride should not come at the expense—as is now too often the case—of disdain for the civilians the military is meant to serve. And if liberals don't like the military enough, conservatives like it too much—anything the brass wants, it gets, and voting against an appropriation means you're not "supporting the troops."

Military academies should get out of the business of undergraduate education, or at least stop competing with liberal arts colleges, as Western European military academies have done. For example, Britain's Sandhurst no longer offers general undergraduate education; it provides multiple tracks of post-graduate military "finishing school" for students up to 30, who are treated like adults. The same is true for the French and Belgian military academies. Only after getting their degrees wherever (with or without ROTC), should America's college graduates, too, pursue a high-intensity course at Annapolis or West Point.

Our military academies are doing nobody a favor—not the students, not the taxpayers, not the military as a whole. I stand by what Nelson quotes me as saying in the New York Times: they should be fixed or abolished.

Bruce E. Fleming
United States Naval Academy
Annapolis, MD

In his defense of the federal service academies, Michael Nelson lessens the value of the many ROTC students and OCS graduates whom I've had the pleasure to know. Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and West Point may provide unique, intensive cultural experiences for their students, but Nelson's claim that OCS programs "strip" sergeants and petty officers from the enlisted corps ignores the fact that having officers rise from the enlisted ranks is a highly effective means to increase a variety of perspectives, and to develop understanding and appreciation among officers of the crucial role that enlisted personnel have in our forces. Nelson misses, too, that ROTC students tend to master valuable skills that sometimes elude the academies' cadets and midshipmen, such as dealing with academic budgeting and balancing multiple on- and off-campus activities and responsibilities.

What's more, I recommend law professor Diane Mazur's informative New York Times opinion piece, "The R.O.T.C. Myth" (October 24, 2010), about the alleged campus "banning" that is at the root of Nelson's arguments. Without question, the American military benefits from the diversity that service academies, ROTC, and OCS together provide. Nelson's other underlying assertion—that civilian universities are home to an anti-military "academic Left" establishment—suggests that political conservatives have a monopoly on loyalty to our armed forces, and fails to acknowledge American liberals, in and out of academia, who show tremendous support and compassion for our military personnel.

I wish, too, that Nelson had given a more comprehensive overview of my research on women's experiences at the Naval Academy. Limiting his discussion to a quote from Edith Seashore (not Ellen, as Nelson writes) prior to the arrival of women as midshipmen, and a statistic about the level of male midshipmen's acceptance of women from 1996, fails to accurately represent the persistent institutional and cultural resistance to women at Annapolis that I detail in my work.

H. Michael Gelfand
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, VA

* * *

Judicial Duty

James Stoner's "Neither Force Nor Will" (Summer 2010) contrasts my book, I Do Solemnly Swear, with the brilliant efforts of Philip Hamburger and Douglas Edlin to examine the duty of the American judge. Though I believe in a duty of judicial review over legislative and executive acts, I consider it part of a duty to do justice for each person with an interest before the court, just as legislators and executives have similar duties to do justice to each person with an interest affected by their offices.

Stoner wonders how each official can be responsible for retail justice without accounting for its wholesale allocation. As I read his challenge, he asks how each actor in a system can provide justice to the individual unless the system as a whole delivers it, which would mean the decisions are not personal but systemic, not dutiful but political.

Law is not sales, though, and justice is not a commodity, despite the U.S. legal system's nearly industrial nature, in which rules are manufactured in thousands of national, state, and local government assembly lines. I hope my wholesale-retail metaphor will remind each member of a city council, each member of a legislative caucus, and each deputy assistant under-secretary, that he is not a mere wholesaler dealing only with merchants. Each one of them has a personal relationship that is direct, clear, and essential to every person whose liberty or opportunity is affected by his acts. That is the retail nature of the law. It is like the shop in the factory floor, in which the creator has a direct relationship with the customer.

So, to that extent, I agree with Professor Stoner's observation, but with a twist: It is not only the sharp customer who wants to buy wholesale. It is also the sharp producer who wants to sell retail.

Steve Sheppard
The University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR

James R. Stoner, Jr., replies:

I should have realized that when my friend Steve Sheppard wrote about retail he was thinking of Walmart, which tries to cut out the middleman. But what if the analogue to manufacturing-wholesale-retail were politics-law-subject, where politics was recognized for its role in making law; and before coercion was applied, law ensured that political passion or interest was mediated by due process (notice, hearing, evidence, reasonableness, etc.)? Dropping the "wholesale premise," then, means dropping what is distinctly legal. Besides, Walmart is not exactly a retail outlet; instead of help with a purchase and the ongoing relationship indicated by the term "customer," you get a right to stand in line to return an unsatisfactory product, no questions asked. It may be a good analogy to explain today's simultaneous politicization and bureaucratization of the law, but I am less sanguine that progress towards justice is the end result.

* * *

Christian Philosophy

In his flattering review of my book, The Legend of the Middle Ages, Douglas Kries takes me to task for two points on which I part company with Leo Strauss ("Medieval Renaissance," Summer 2010). First, I am said to have contended, "The Scholastics actually preserved ancient philosophy more faithfully than did their Muslim counterparts." I probably did not set out my intention in this regard clearly enough. I did not want to compare individual thinkers from the Scholastic and from the Islamic traditions. Moreover, what "preserving ancient philosophy" may mean is far from clear. My claim was more modest. I focused on two cultures, one in which Greek philosophical works were translated and preserved in their original, one in which they were translated and no longer studied in the original. I did not talk about the preservation of ancient philosophy, but about the preservation of philosophical texts as concrete things that can become the object of philology, be critically edited, retranslated, etc.

According to Kries, Strauss's principal point is that "the Christians had compromised philosophy as a way of life, whereas the Arabic philosophers had practiced such a life" (emphasis in the original). The view of ancient philosophy as being first and foremost a way of life has been on the rise since the works of Pierre Hadot and others. Interestingly, the idea played a central part among the Church Fathers. In the Middle Ages, philosophia, as is well known, often meant the vows of religion or monkish life. At least, it implied a definite behavior. On the other hand, Arabic philosophers define falsafa as a kind of knowledge rather than as a way of life. The great exception, Mohammed al-Razi's Sira al-falsafiyya, is the work of an outsider whom his colleagues never took seriously.

The real issue behind this second point might be the content of such a life. What Christians may have compromised was not the idea of a life led in accordance to philosophy, but their idea of what philosophy is all about. Now, unlike Kant, who remembered that, for the ancients, "philosopher" meant at the same time "moralist," Strauss downplayed philosophy's moral dimension and conceived of philosophical life on the Socratic model as a life of free inquiry. The question is what the inquiry is looking for, and what happens if it finds it. Christian Scholastics believed—whether rightly or wrongly—that they had found the Truth and they clung to it by adopting a way of life in which the Platonic homoiôsis theô was mediated by the imitatio Christi. Gotthold Lessing, whom Strauss considered one of his inspirations, tells the famous story of his having to choose before God's throne between Truth and Research, and his deciding in favor of Research. This is all very nice. But if we do so, can we be sure that what we are looking for is still the truth? And not research for its own sake?

Rémi Brague
Université Paris
1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Paris, France

Douglas Kries replies:

Professor Brague is being too modest when he writes that his "claim is more modest" and speaks only to preserving ancient philosophical texts and not ancient philosophy generally. Nevertheless, there is no reason to attempt to dissuade him on this point—especially since modesty is so rare in our age!

With respect to the question about philosophy "as a way of life," perhaps I might use a homespun example to explain my take on the matter. Among my other duties, I serve as the academic advisor to a Roman Catholic undergraduate seminary. If a young man decides to enter the seminary to study for ordination to the priesthood, the first thing he is told he must do is complete a major in philosophy. This is in accord with the stipulations of the U.S. Catholic bishops themselves, but it is also clearly a vestige of medieval Scholasticism. Because they think more seriously than most undergraduates about the highest things, the seminarians make above-average philosophy students; but the rationale for their study is that philosophy will prepare them for an even higher study, namely, revealed theology. Philosophy is thus viewed as a useful tool that will enable them to transcend philosophy. Needless to say, primacy of place in this curriculum is given to Thomas Aquinas.

Strauss, in my view, would not have approved of the manner in which the seminarians "live" philosophy, and he would have warned people such as myself that their encounter with philosophy may well not lead them to the altar. He understood ancient philosophy to consist in a life-long questioning process rather than in any submission of the will to God or gods. The philosopher's way of life is, to him, a zetetic trek to an unknown destination from whence one will probably never return. The prerequisite for such a life is an erotic longing for the truth wherever it might be found, disciplined by the principles of rational inquiry. It was this way of life, according to Strauss, that Al-farabi lived and Christian Scholasticism did not.