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Social Agenda vs. National Security

Justin Wong

In a thoughtful and well-considered opinion in The Tech [“The World Is Getting Smaller and Flatter,” Oct. 25], Hector Hernandez states that MIT should “assess the inclusion of the ROTC as a student group on campus.” However, I am unable to divine what specific actions he advocates by his somewhat vague assertion that MIT should “assess” ROTC. I will give Mr. Hernandez the benefit of the doubt and assume he is not advocating the expulsion of ROTC from MIT, but in any event, I will offer reasons why expelling ROTC should not be an option.

While I agree that the military policy in question is behind the times, I do not believe ending ROTC at MIT is worth the costs to our community, in particular to our peers whose enrollment at MIT depends on ROTC scholarships. Ending ROTC would deny these outstanding young cadets and midshipmen the opportunities that should be open to them on the basis of their merit. They have the double distinction of being considered among the world’s greatest minds as well as the finest candidates for positions in our country’s armed services. As an institution that values intellectual inquiry, MIT should nurture the quest of students for independent moral self-discovery, and some students may conclude that early preparation for leadership in the armed forces would best fulfill the value they place on service to our country. We should not hinder the pursuit of these selfless dreams of our fellow students.

Removing ROTC from MIT would also deprive our military of officers educated at one of the most technically rigorous institutions in the country. In the modern battlespace, don’t we want creative people well-schooled in technology to be defending us? Banning ROTC would diminish the flow of technical expertise into the military at a time when American superiority increasingly depends on advanced science and information technology.

ROTC midshipmen and cadets wouldn’t be the only members of the MIT community affected by a removal of the ROTC detachments from campus; researchers who rely on the federal government to butter their bread would be affected as well. Schools that ban ROTC are prohibited from receiving federal money. The money will just go to other universities that do keep their ROTC detachments.

The professional image of MIT, which educates innovators and leaders of industry, would also suffer. As many students know from short summer experiences, political apathy is one of the most widely observed but unwritten rules in the corporate world. MIT should set an example starting in college. Some students, myself included, and alumni/ae, have been disturbed of late by MIT’s apparent inability to remain above the fray of other social and political issues, such as by filing an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in 2003 in the University of Michigan affirmative action case. In addition, MIT also served as a friend of the court in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ MIT should realize that the Institute harbors a wide diversity of opinions and should not purport to speak on behalf of those who disagree.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to keep ROTC on campus is that expelling ROTC may actually hurt the cause of achieving full equality for gays and lesbians currently serving and who wish to serve. A recent poll indicates that an increasing number of servicemembers wouldn’t mind serving alongside openly gay personnel. This undercuts the rationale put forth by supporters of the current ban, who say that openly gay personnel give others distracting fears of being a target of homosexual desires, undermining unit cohesion and military readiness. Given the increasing tolerance of homosexuals even among members of the military, there is no need to provoke unnecessary backlash by forcing the inevitable. In fact, removing ROTC from MIT would prevent potentially more forward-thinking MIT graduates from changing the defense establishment from within.

The present thinking is that homosexuality undermines military readiness. If this is truly the case, I would defer to those in the military who would know better than I do, though I consider their logic to be suspect. I pay good tax money for protection by the most fearsome fighting machine in the world, and I expect the military to do everything it can to ensure that it remains so. It’s not like these experts are recommending martial law be declared — so there is little need to remove ROTC from MIT, and there would be little impact if it were.

Gays and lesbians can still serve in the military, just not openly. Little attention has been paid to the actual provisions of the gay ban, so to clarify, homosexuals are prohibited from serving, but commanders are also prohibited from asking servicemembers to disclose. Effectively, if gays do not disclose their orientation, the gay ban cannot be enforced. These principles are embodied in the words: don’t ask, don’t tell.

Perhaps little-considered thus far is the effect of banning ROTC for gay and lesbian students who wish to serve despite the gay ban. If they wish to forgo the catharsis of disclosure because they believe their values to be worth more, it is not our position to deny them the chance to serve. In fact, if they serve exceptionally and come out later, it further increases pressure to lift the gay ban.

Additionally, MIT already goes out of its way to provide support for LBGT students, including safe havens, literature and video, and disproportionate amounts of funding for their extracurricular activities. Our gay and lesbian friends have also made great progress in society outside of the military. This past year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R-NJ) signed into law the first civil unions in the country to be legislatively enacted without a court order. Since he was elected, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) signed into law a comprehensive domestic partnership package. Legislatures in Vermont and our own state have also passed same-sex union laws at the behest of court rulings bypassing the democratic process.

To conclude, the costs of kicking ROTC out of MIT outweigh the benefits of a hollow, largely symbolic gesture unlikely to change the minds that matter. It would avail gays and lesbians nothing more than could be obtained by building more positive bridges to communities in which they work and live, outside the military. The gay ban should probably be scrapped, but kicking ROTC out of MIT would be counterproductive to that goal. The problem of discrimination in the military cannot be solved by discriminating against the military.

Justin Wong is a member of the Class of 2007.