In the best of all worlds, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, Americans would have nothing to do with other nations. Yet he knew that war would "sometimes," maybe even frequently, "be our lot; and all the wise can do, will be to avoid that half of them which would be produced by our own follies, and our own acts of injustice; and to make for the other half the best preparations we can."
As President, Jefferson's record on war "preparations" was mixed. His republican concern with frugality led him—disastrously—to downsize the navy, even as he continued to promote international trade. In pursuing so contradictory a policy, he left American citizens and ships vulnerable to foreign attacks and imperiled the very honor and justice he sought to defend.
But this was nothing compared to his deep and abiding distrust of a standing army. Part of his opposition stemmed from the conduct of British troops in the years leading up to the Revolution. Even after the redcoats had been vanquished, however, Jefferson remained faithful to the classic Whig doctrine that viewed standing armies as a danger to republican liberty and a nursery for despotism. In Europe, where nobles could buy military commissions, army officers were too closely tied to the aristocracy, and Jefferson feared (wrongly, it turned out) that the well-born army officers who fought for independence might also be tempted to betray the revolution. He saw conspiracies everywhere.
Thus, it comes as some surprise that only a year after taking office, Jefferson, with the backing of the last Republican Congress, signed into law a bill establishing a national military academy on the grounds of the old garrison at West Point, in Alexander Hamilton's New York. His reasons were both political and scientific. Whatever Jefferson may have meant when he declared in his First Inaugural that "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," he most assuredly did not mean that officers loyal to Hamilton and, in his view, secretly favoring aristocracy and monarchy, should remain at the head of the armed forces. The establishment of West Point solved the problem of where this new corps of army officers might come from. As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson hoped he could use the academy to promote science, the exploration of the west, and other less martial projects. In much the same way that he would later establish the University of Virginia to weed out "political heresy" and keep alive "the vestal flame of republicanism," he now saw the advantages of a national military academy run by Republicans, which would take promising young men from moderate backgrounds—those natural arsitoi whose loyalty and honor he could count on—and train them to become the next generation of officers for the army and the militia.
Today, our problems are almost the reverse. The sons and daughters of our political and cultural elites are breaking down the doors to get into the most competitive liberal arts colleges and universities, and it is the rare 18-year-old from our so-called aristocracy who considers applying to the service academies. Of course, the service academies suffer no shortage of talent; they are filled with Jefferson's natural aristocrats, along with the children of former graduates and military officers. But the "trust-fund babies" and children of our civilian elites are elsewhere. We don't have to force our most privileged classes out of the officer corps; they wouldn't be caught dead in it.
These students—also idealistic and eager to serve their country—enroll in law schools and public policy programs. They seek careers in Washington where they can "make a difference." Just as they didn't consider the service academies when they were looking at colleges, they don't consider military service after graduation. The world of our elite colleges and universities run along parallel tracks, destined never to meet.
It is only because the present Bush Administration has drawn so many of its top officials from the ranks of the unsung '50s generation that his problem has temporarily been overcome. All we need do, however, is recall the Clinton Administration, where neither the President nor his Secretary of Defense, nor his Secretary of State, ever served in the military. As former Secretary of the Navy James Webb noted, "The greatest lingering effect of the Vietnam era on our society is that by default it brought a new notion that military service during time of war is not a prerequisite for moral authority or even respect." And this is dangerous because it erects too solid a wall between our military and civilian cultures, and makes the virtues of each seem foreign to the other. We need to find a way to get more of our best young men and women to think about military service and officer training. As things stand now, the children of the most privileged are largely AWOL.
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Of course, to achieve this kind of cultural cross-fertilization between the civilian and military worlds, we need to think about more than just the role of West Point and the military academies. Not everyone is cut out to live the life of a combat officer. And this is especially true in the kind of commercial republic the Framers established. America is not Sparta or Rome. But it would be a good thing for both the military and the broader civilian society if more of our young people had at lest some minimal experience in the rigors of military life, and some first-hand appreciation of its distinctive virtues.
One way to achieve this is to return ROTC to our elite campuses, from which it was ingloriously evicted during the Vietnam years. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, at the beginning of the 1990s, these institutions would not even permit military recruiters on campus, arguing that the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," violated their moral commitment not to discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. Instead, our elite universities imposed their own version of "don't ask, don't tell": interested students had to meet with recruiters at designated off-campus sites. Beginning in 1994, Congress began to retaliate, insisting that these institutions must either permit recruiters on campus or risk losing their federal funds. But they have come around only grudgingly, letting students know that acquiescence is by no means approval.
This is the climate in which the current debate over ROTC is taking place. At the moment, among the Ivies, only Cornell has ROTC units of all three service branches on campus. Princeton offers only army ROTC; Penn, navy ROTC; Harvard and Yale, along with Columbia and Brown, offer programs with exercises conducted at other institutions, imposing considerable burdens on the students enrolled in these programs. The so-called conservative Ivy, Dartmouth, offers no ROTC programs either on or off campus. If anything, the situation is even worse at the top liberal arts colleges, where there are not only no ROTC programs (with the conspicuous exception of Claremont McKenna College), but there are not even debates about whether to bring it back.
What the presence of ROTC programs on college campuses did was to help bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds, much as Jefferson thought the militia might do. (In fact, here too, ROTC seems another reversal of what Jefferson intended. Rather than West Point graduates returning to lead their militia units, civilian-educated officers serve limited tours of duty in the active army.) Of course, there are the inevitable tensions between the graduates of the academies and the officers coming out of the ROTC programs, between the combat professionals and those fulfilling their short-term military obligations, but on the whole, this kind of leavening is good for the officer corps, and good for the country. This kind of cross-fertilization is still going on, but without the participation of our political and cultural elites.
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Yet even if we could finally manage with the present war on terrorism to put and end to the debilitating "Vietnam syndrome" that has gripped our educated classes and opinion makers for the last thirty years, I do not mean to suggest that we could ever completely overcome the tension between the civilian and military cultures. And here again, our situation seems to be the reverse of the problem Jefferson faced. Jefferson worried about a military culture that did not reflect the values and virtues of the larger republican society. Of course, there are critics of the military who believe that is still the problem with our armed forces today. But I think the problem is that our military has been pushed too hard—often by politicians with no military experience—to reflect the values of the broader civilian culture. As one critic observes, whenever people talk about the need to close the gap between the civilian and military cultures, what they mean is that the military must give way. Now, in one sense this is right and proper, for military authority is constitutionally subordinate to civilian authority. But in a broader sense it is wrong and dangerous, because it imperils the distinct mission of the armed forces.
The military cannot and should not try to mirror exactly the principles of democratic society. The military is not a "civic instrument" that reflects social progress. Nor is it a social welfare agency. The relationship between the military and civilian spheres is more complicated. Although the military defends the principles of democratic society, in cannot fully embody them. Its end is victory, not liberty; its virtues are courage, loyalty, and obedience, not justice and tolerance; its structure is hierarchal, not pluralistic and open-ended. In short, although the military defends democratic principles and is inevitably shaped by the regime of which it is a part, it is not, and should not try to be a microcosm of the larger society. And if this is true when the civilian culture is strong and healthy, it is even more so when the larger culture has grown soft and corrupt. To try to bring the military into closer alignment with such a culture is especially corrosive since it undermines the distinctive virtues of military life while exposing it to all the vices of civilian life. Specifically, the more West Point seeks to emulate the ethos of these institutions, the more it will wind up with the same problems: cheating, drugs, sex scandals, and the like.
At the most theoretical level this means that we need to recognize that the service academies and our leading colleges and universities will nurture and develop different parts of the human soul. West Point will speak to the spirited part of the soul—the part that is roused by anger a righteous indignation to fight for the higher principles to which America is dedicated. It will elevate honor and subordinate self-interest, even the interest in self-preservation. What spiritedness seeks to preserve is not the life of the individual soldier, but a way of life, and in accepting this duty, it is bound back to the sacrifices of warriors gone before: "The Long Grey Line." Spiritedness operates in the grand tragic-heroic mode.
In theory, our liberal arts colleges and universities seek to encourage the love of knowledge, wisdom, and beauty for their own sakes. At their best, they seek to awaken the deepest longings of the soul, though in practice these days they usually succeed only in stimulating the desires of the body. When genuine liberal learning takes place, it calls forth a certain playfulness that is more closely akin to comedy. Often, however, it operates at the level of farce.
At the more practical level this means that the kind of education West Point cadets receive should differ from that of our leading liberal arts colleges and universities. To be sure, there is a place for the humanities and fine arts at West Point, but these subjects should be taught in such a way as to reinforce the kind of heroic character and military virtues that the Academy wishes to promote. It must strive to reinforce a shared understanding of duty, honor, and country among its members, and to unite the present corps of cadets with the principles and ideals of previous generations.
The heart of the West Point education must focus on those subjects that bear most directly on its central mission, which is to prepare its officers for combat leadership. From the beginning, this has meant an emphasis on math and science on one hand and the combat arts on the other. And within the military world a great battle rages over what should be the proper mix of these elements. However this issue is resolved—and we should note that the tension between the scientific and the warrior spirit goes back to the days of Jefferson—West Point can never be just another college. Its mission, in the words of Douglas MacArthur, "remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win our wars." Inevitably, this education produces a different kind of character. Dealing with matters of life and death, with honor, duty, and courage, military men and women may grasp this more instinctively that we civilians do. In the coming months and years, you will be called upon to protect us from a new and more deadly round of barbaric assaults. And in what may be the ultimate Jeffersonian irony, it may well be the military officers—along with their civilian counterparts—who lead us as a nation back to the republican virtues of patriotism, courage, and steadfastness. Because these are the virtues West Point has always sought to instill in its officers, the days ahead, whatever the hardships, will be better days for you. And they will be better days for America because of you.
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This article is adapted from a speech delivered at a conference at West Point in honor of its bicentennial in November 2001.