Politics & Policy

The Rise of the Service Gap

Academics vs. military service.

Yet as the top tier of American academia grows increasingly hostile toward the military and military service, the service gap may go from fiction to fact. As the antiwar movement has grown, so have so-called “counter-recruitment” campaigns, designed to strip the military of the legal right to recruit on campuses.

There is hypocrisy here, as the same activist element that specializes in counter-recruitment also spends a great deal of time bemoaning the supposed service gap. On the one hand, these activists want to blame the wealthy for exploiting the poor to serve as cannon fodder in today’s wars. On the other hand, they seek to ensure that as many affluent young people are kept out of the military as possible.

Few people dispute that the military should represent an accurate cross-section of American demography. Pentagon officials do their best to recruit at all levels of society, but it’s the antiwar and anti-recruitment groups who are hampering the effort. By fighting to keep recruiters from reaching the upper rungs of the American social ladder, they are seemingly determined to ensure that the war in Iraq and the Global War on Terror will be fought only by the middle and lower classes.

The growing service gap, according to Frank Schaffer and Kathryn Roth-Douquet, authors of AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes–and How It Hurts Our Country, damages both the military and American democracy in general. In an op-ed at military.com, the authors said of the recent trend:

During World War I and II and the Cold War, many people from the influential classes served, either due to the draft or by volunteering. Almost half of the graduating classes of Princeton and Harvard entered the service for a tour of duty in the fifties. Today, less than one percent does.

While I frown at the tendency to finger point at America’s ambiguous “rich” or “elite,” Roth-Douquet and Schaffer’s focus on academia is well-founded. It is the most convincing justification for the growing service gap.

This past year, during a time of war no less, Harvard University commissioned a meager three new Army officers out of their entire student body. And, as cited by the authors of AWOL, Stanford’s once-robust ROTC contingent of 1100 in 1956 has been reduced to a pathetic 29. Between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Princeton boasted a commissioning class of hundreds, while today it is under ten. At Dartmouth, the Army corps registers at eight cadets, barely enough to qualify for a full squad.

It’s not America’s elite that is absent from military service, but rather America’s elite institutions. Today, colleges and universities are composed of students and professors who don’t know where to channel their anger over the congressionally mandated policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or the alleged sins of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. In the end, that hatred falls squarely on the shoulders of ROTC cadets, the campus activists’ nearest and most convenient target.

And the cadets do suffer.

During this time of war, Ivy League cadets are forced to attend military classes and leadership labs off campus. While fellow students are granted college credit for courses as obscure as basket weaving and transgender cultural studies, demanding and time-intensive ROTC courses are zero-credit initiatives. At Harvard, cadets are forbidden from drilling on campus grounds, the same grounds where George Washington drilled the Continental Army. At Yale, Air Force ROTC cadets are forced to endure a two-hour round-trip drive to the University of Connecticut to attend aerospace-science classes. Dartmouth’s refusal to offer its ROTC cadets even token support was enough for U.S. Army Cadet Command to substantially cut funding to the college’s tiny ROTC detachment. And the list goes on.

The trend has become a lesson in inverse proportionality. As the Ivy League and other top universities’ hostility toward the military increases, the number of upper-class recruits decreases. It’s not a matter of will among the silver-spooned community (many fight for positions at our competitive-service academies), but a matter of why. Why subject yourself to four years of jeers, jabs, and judgment when you can just as easily go to law school? Or get your MBA?

Unfortunate as it is, the service gap is becoming a reality. Not because of boogie-men scapegoats like “the rich” or “high-society,” but due to the efforts of a small, determined group of academics, who opt to channel their anger over past and present government policies toward young men and women whose only sin is to serve.

— John Noonan is co-founder and author of the military blog Op-For, where he discusses security, technology, grand strategy, and the war on terror.