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When ROTC Reported to Me

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A striking collection of retired generals and admirals, 121 of them, just sent a letter to Congress in response to reports indicating that the president’s budget proposal would increase defense spending by 10 percent (about $54 billion) while cutting the State Department’s budget by as much as 30 percent. These military leaders argued persuasively, articulately and intelligently that the president’s proposal was a recipe for disaster.

They made it clear that they believed it would be a grave mistake to cut either the State Department’s budget or our country’s foreign aid budget. Their letter reads, in part, “elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe. We know from our service in uniform that many of the crises our nation faces do not have military solutions alone…. The military will lead the fight against terrorism on the battlefield, but it needs strong civilian partners in the battle against the drivers of extremism — lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice and hopelessness.”

While I was delighted to see this sentiment being expressed, and while I hope its message is well received in Congress, I wasn’t surprised by the fact that it was sent by such a distinguished group of retired military officers.

Although I don’t personally know any generals or admirals, I worked closely with many lieutenant colonels during my fourteen years as dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. During that time, the campus’s ROTC program reported to me and I had the good fortune of working with about eight different individuals who were assigned by the US Army to lead the program.

To a person, each and every one of them was a thoughtful individual who embraced the liberal arts mission of the College. Yes, they were soldiers and most served in combat, but while that experience shaped who they were, it didn’t define them.

They appreciated complexity and the value of examining a situation from multiple perspectives. They knew what it meant to follow orders but they also understood their responsibility to be certain that the orders they were following were legally appropriate.

They were passionate about the role of the military in a democratic society and they were always willing to engage in spirited discussions about that role. Their political views were generally more conservative than mine but every one of them was eager to enter into dialogue about virtually any issue. I learned something from every one of those conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, they all made it clear that the use of military force should be a last resort. They embraced the sentiment so succinctly stated by British politician Tony Benn that “All war represents a failure of diplomacy.”

Having never served in the military myself, these lieutenant colonels taught me an enormous amount and provided me with a perspective I hadn’t gained anywhere else. I developed great respect for these officers as individuals and for the world view they embodied.

Because of that respect, the letter to Congress from retired military leaders urging continued financial support for diplomacy didn’t surprise me in the least. They, perhaps better than anyone else, understand what’s at stake when we resort to force and they recognize the value of working diligently to maintain peace.

I am well aware that there are some who rise to the higher echelons of the armed forces who might well have a more extreme perspective. I am confident, however, that those people are the exceptions. Those who signed the letter to Congress represent the best of the military and their words should be heeded.

Collectively, we should learn from their experiences for, as Dwight Eisenhower said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its stupidity.”

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