A Peek Inside ROTC

A war correspondent profiles an Army cadet unit at the University of South Carolina.
January 11, 2007

The U.S. Army fields more than 100,000 officers, with close to 7,000 leaving the service each year, and another 7,000 filling in behind. A fraction come from West Point, but the vast majority of officers are commissioned after serving four years with a Reserve Officers Training Corp program located on an American college or university campus.

For a few months during the summer of 2004, the journalist David Axe shadowed the Gamecock Battalion, an ROTC unit located at the University of South Carolina. He then spent countless hours in follow-up interviews discussing the cadets’ experiences stretching back to 2001. For so many reasons, the 80 members of the Gamecocks define the quintessential ROTC unit: They are working class, Southern, racially diverse, have minor problems integrating women, and love to party.

In his book, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War, (University of South Carolina Press, January) Axe finds young men and women -- straddling the line between student and soldier, child and adult -- who are trying to figure out if the military will give them a leg up in life. In the background looms a war in the Middle East that is consuming American lives. Axe has spent several years as a war correspondent for Salon, the Village Voice, BBC radio, and C-SPAN. He is currently a correspondent for the magazine Defense Technology International.

Q: What made you pick this particular unit?

A: I picked the University of South Carolina Gamecock Battalion because it's a good ROTC unit but also because it’s typical in that it's Southern, conservative and racially diverse. USC and the state of South Carolina both have rich military traditions. So they're ideal settings. Mostly, though, I picked these guys because they were convenient. I was living in Columbia near USC, so I could walk across campus for my interviews.

Q: It was a little surprising to discover that so many of America’s universities started out as military colleges.

 A: Yeah, it's true. There was a day when university, military commission, and political participation were all related, especially in New England and the South. You'd go to school to get educated, serve as an officer to prove yourself as a gentleman and citizen, and then leave the service to participate in government -- either as an elected official or as a landowner or other prominent citizen. These days, officers tend to be professionals. Military service isn't just a passage into adulthood and civic involvement -- it's a job. And it’s a job requiring years and years of specialized training.

Q: You write that war is big business in South Carolina. Southerners disproportionately populate the military and the Department of Defense pours huge amounts of money into South Carolina, whose politicians sit on critical Congressional committees. Do you think that this unit is different from an ROTC program at, say, a college in Southern California or upstate New York?

A: It's different than a Californian or Northern ROTC unit, yes, but it’s pretty typical of Southern ROTC units, and they comprise the majority. An example: in 2003, there were protests at ROTC units in California. No Southern university suffered the same way, and that's no accident. Southern culture, being more traditional and more masculine, embraces the military in a way that other regional cultures don't.

Q: The students you profile join for slightly different reasons – some out of patriotism, others because of the excitement of the military, some to pay for college. How do the students handle the rigor of balancing ROTC and their studies when so many of their peers are partying and getting the “college experience?”

 A: Oh, ROTC cadets still party. Boy, do they ever party. And they go to class. And they train and do their early-morning workouts. They manage to do everything other college students do, plus a lot extra. The trick, I've been told, is to stop sleeping.

Q: There is also this need to belong. You point out that many of the cadets are also in fraternities.

A: Yep. And frats are a lot like the Army. There's regimentation. There are old traditions. There are even uniforms sometimes. And frat boys, like soldiers, are known for their alcohol consumption.

Q: Did some join on a lark, or was ROTC always a part of these students' college plans?

A. There were some that were just trying it out, but in my experience those folks don’t last. The ones who succeed were planning on ROTC for awhile, and had even done high school ROTC. The physicial rigor is so hard that the average student who just wanders in can’t handle it. These people are very fit, and they exercise hard just like the enlisted.

Q: Did you find more competitiveness or camaraderie among the cadets?

A: Those two characteristics aren't mutually exclusive. Cadets compete with each other to get top honors in grades or Physical Training scores. But this competition makes them a stronger team, and it keeps them all trying their hardest. 

Q. As the war in Iraq turned sour in 2004, Cadet Command, which oversees the country's ROTC programs, issued a “public affairs guidance” to all ROTC units. The 28-page document even contained canned answers to potential questions such as whether the U.S. should have attacked Iraq. How did members of the Gamecock Battalion handle these questions from college friends and family?

A: Most of the cadets I talked to had no opinion about the Iraq war -- and knew little about it, like most college kids. The best-informed cadets tended to oppose the war, however. Though most cadets are pro-war, patriotic and conservative, there are exceptions to every rule. There are liberal cadets, gay cadets, cadets leaning towards pacifism. It takes all kinds.

Q: When you asked or when they were sitting around, what kind of views did they express about the Iraq invasion?

A: Like I said, most had no opinion. Others echoed the accepted non-truths or half-truths that many American believe -- that Saddam Hussein had ties to al Qaeda, that Iraq was a direct threat, that the invasion was somehow revenge for 9/11. Just because these kids are going to fight this war doesn't mean that they have any idea what the war is really about.

Q: How did they feel about potentially serving in Iraq?

A: Many cadets, like other soldiers, yearn to serve, to deploy, to fight -- even to kill. It's their job. It's what they're trained to do. Sure, they might have reservations deep down. Lying awake at night, they might be a little afraid. But they know that they belong to the most fearsome army in the history of the world. That tends to instill confidence, even overconfidence.

Q: On a couple of occasions you write about the experiences of the female cadets. In one incident, a female is groped by a supervisor but doesn’t complain. And there are recurrent scandals involving sexual assaults at the military academies. There seems to be this problem of sexual harassment in the military.

A: Absolutely, but no more so than in general society. That's one thing I learned about ROTC and the military -- that in many cases its problems are the same problems, on the same scale, as you see in general society. The Army is hyper-masculine, to be sure, but whatever tendency that instills toward harassment is partially canceled by an equal tendency toward extreme politeness and chivalry. Cadets tend to be simultaneously cruder and more polite than the average college kid. It all depends on context. They're pretty nasty among their peers, but extremely respectful of their elders and superiors and (for the men) especially of women.

Q: Women are also barred from serving in combat units, which is the career highway to top leadership. How did the men and women feel about the fairness of this?

A: I don't know any male cadets who have ever given that a second thought. But many female cadets do indeed feel some resentment. That aside, they're soldiers, and soldiers obey orders. So if the Army says they're not allowed to serve in combat units, they might feel a twinge deep inside, but they're going to salute and go about their business. It's going to take dedicated action by politicians to change the Army's policies towards women. Change isn't going to come from inside the military.

Q: You also write about some of the other tensions between the male and female cadets.

A: There's sexual tension. There are also minor rivalries between men and women. Many male cadets secretly resent women for being, in general, slower, weaker and more sensitive. These same male cadets also resent other male cadets who are slower, weaker and more sensitive. So it's not just about sex. It's more about ability. If you can carry your load and keep up, you're going to win at least grudging respect. If you fall behind, if you're a burden, you're going to make enemies whether you're a man or a woman.

Q: But you don't really touch on gays in the military.

A. Bear in mind, this is the South. It didn’t come up and it wouldn’t come up. It might at a bigger university or at a university in a different region that is more open to homosexuality. Mostly, when it came up, it was when someone was stating adamantly that they were not gay.

Q: Surprisingly, there’s almost nothing about racial tension in the book. But you’re writing about students at a university in the South. What’s happening there?

A: The Army was one of the first national institutions to desegregate, and blacks have long been strongly represented in the Army. In fact, in the non-commissioned officer corps, blacks seem to be overrepresented. Some of the strongest NCOs I've known were black: tough, strong, fair-minded and no-nonsense. There's little or no racism in the Army. The color of your skin doesn't matter. It's what you can do, and whether you take care of your buddy. The service isn't nearly as fair to women as it is to minorities.

Q: Some cadets feel that the hardships are just not worth it. Can you describe what made them drop out, and has Iraq increased the drop out rate?

A: I haven't seen studies indicating whether or not Iraq is hurting ROTC recruitment. I would guess that it is, but only slightly. ROTC can always increase scholarships to make up losses. So I can't really speak to long-term, Army-wide trends regarding ROTC recruitment. But I did speak to cadets who dropped out of ROTC specifically because of Iraq. They are few and far between, however. Strangely, the Iraq war seems to have motivated many people to join the military. It's something of a rallying call, I guess. That phenomenon hasn't totally made up for shortfalls caused by people's opposition to the war, but it has alleviated the losses. The military has managed to sustain recruiting despite the war. Huge bonuses have certainly helped.
Q: One cadet ends up getting booted from the program and then shipped to Iraq. Can you talk about that?

A: Well, what really happened was that he got booted from ROTC, forced to enlist as a result, and then, like most soldiers, eventually got shipped off to Iraq. These days everyone in the Army ends up in Iraq at least once, but in 2004 it wasn't quite so certain. Cadets could imagine that they might ride out the war in college. With this Iraq thing looking to be decades-long, deployments into combat are now an accepted part of an Army career. Just something everyone does.

Q. What has been the feedback from your book and what do you think people can learn by reading it?

A: I haven't heard much since, as of this writing, the book isn't out yet. I hope people will read it and appreciate what these college kids go through as they prepare to serve this country. It's easy to blame the Army for Iraq. But remember that it was our elected civilian leaders that got us into this mess, not our soldiers. They're just doing what they're told by their civilian leaders. Respect cadets for their hard work, for their basic goodness, and for the sacrifices they are preparing to make for an admittedly dubious cause.


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