What If The Military Were Filled With Notre Dame Grads?

by Conor Friedersdorf

In an op-ed on ROTC and college campuses, Colman McCarthy recalls a conversation he once had with a long time Notre Dame president:

When I suggested that Notre Dame's hosting of ROTC was a large negative among the school's many positives, Hesburgh disagreed. Notre Dame was a model of patriotism, he said, by training future officers who were churchgoers, who had taken courses in ethics, and who loved God and country. Notre Dame's ROTC program was a way to "Christianize the military," he stated firmly.

I asked if he actually believed there could be a Christian method of slaughtering people in combat, or a Christian way of firebombing cities, or a way to kill civilians in the name of Jesus. Did he think that if enough Notre Dame graduates became soldiers that the military would eventually embrace Christ's teaching of loving one's enemies?

The interview quickly slid downhill.

It's a thorny question, isn't it? I have a very high opinion of the ethics curriculum at Notre Dame, so as an American, I'd celebrate if the military ranks were filled with more recruits who'd gone through it. But if I were an orthodox Catholic professor, I'd probably conclude that the War on Terror runs afoul of Catholic just war theory in various ways, and instruct my students that if they enlist in the military, they may be ethically obligated to disobey direct orders and incur serious punishment. McCarthy goes on:

These days, the academic senates of the Ivies and other schools are no doubt pondering the return of military recruiters to their campuses. Meanwhile, the Pentagon, which oversees ROTC programs on more than 300 campuses, has to be asking if it wants to expand to the elite campuses, where old antipathies are remembered on both sides. It should not be forgotten that schools have legitimate and moral reasons for keeping the military at bay, regardless of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." They can stand with those who for reasons of conscience reject military solutions to conflicts.

They can stand with Martin Luther King Jr. and his view of America's penchant for war-making: "This madness must cease," he said from a pulpit in April 1967. Even well short of the pacifist positions, they can argue the impracticality of maintaining a military that has helped drive this country into record depths of debt. The defense budget has more than doubled since 2000, to over $700 billion. They can align themselves with colleges such as Hobart, Earlham, Goshen, Guilford, Hampshire, George Fox and a long list of others that teach alternatives to violence. Serve your country after college, these schools say, but consider the Peace Corps as well as the Marine Corps.

I disagree.

If a Quaker school wants to take a campus wide stand for pacificsm, I'd support them, but the Ivy League and other elite schools hold themselves up as communities of free inquiry that encompass faculty and students with extreme disagreements about matters like just use of force, the categorical imperative, the appropriateness of our military as currently sized, and many other matters besides. Taking an administratively-imposed campus wide stand against ROTC programs would be inconsistent with the larger mission these institutions articulate.