In 1915 Harvard University established one of the first ROTC
programs in the country, but in 1969 the faculty voted 207-125 to
deny course credit for ROTC and revoke faculty status of ROTC
instructors. Nearly four decades later, the animosity of the Ivy
League towards the military remains strong. This is taken by many
as a symbol of a modern gap between America's elites and her
Numerous Princeton, Yale and Harvard graduates signed up for
service in World War II, and many universities offered "war
degrees" for undergraduates in a hurry. In 2004, just nine members
of Princeton's class of 2004 entered the military, the highest in
the Ivy League, according to Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer
in their book, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper
Classes from Military Service-and How It Hurts Our
The book is a semiautobiographical journey of two self-described
liberal intellectuals who experienced an emotional awakening to the
service, duty and patriotism of America's soldiers. Their story is
powerful and eloquent, and at the crux is a frustration that the
sacrifices of today's soldiers are not being shared, or hardly
felt, by others in society.
They know their material-both authors have family in harm's way
(one is a Marine's wife, the other is a Marine's father). Yet it
must be said that, despite their critical tack, the authors remain
blinded by their own elitism. This year's graduates of West Point
and Annapolis couldn't care less that a trifling of Ivy Leaguers
are in uniform, nor do they think of their own institutions as
intellectually inferior. The authors, to put it bluntly, have
confused what it means to be an elite.
The strongest theme in the book is that the American mainstream
has lost touch with a sense of duty. We all understand that
fighting terrorism will entail sacrifices, yet there is a
widespread resistance among many Americans to allow military
recruiting in their neighborhoods. There are active campaigns to
block recruiters from schools in Cambridge, Mass., and San
Francisco, Calif., as well as lawsuits to bar students from ever
hearing from recruiters. Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer mockingly ask,
"So not being asked to even consider service is now defended as
some sort of new civil right?" There is a fundamental assumption
that military service, and by extension raw duty, is beneath some
Half a century ago, the mainstream public held self-sacrifice and
duty to nation as unquestioned virtues. Over time, those virtues
have seemingly shriveled into a military subculture. David Lipsky
identified this tension in describing the four-year experience of
the class of 2004 at West Point in his book Absolutely
American: Four Years at West Point. Lipsky's book is a
valuable companion to AWOL, with insights into what
motivates some of the nation's most promising teenagers to "waste"
their potential on a military career.
Terry Moran of ABC News recently said he senses "a deep
antimilitary bias in the media." The authors agree, noting that
words such as "honor, valor, heroism, selflessness [and]
loyalty" are virtually absent from modern reporting.
From all this emerges a growing divide between the troops and ...
who, exactly? The authors argue the gap is between elites and the
military. By elites, they mean to say upper-class families. They
reason, inductively, that a few antirecruiting drives in some
wealthy neighborhoods mean that all wealthy neighborhoods are
homogenous and united against letting their children
This deeply flawed logic is woven into the fabric of every chapter
and almost every page of AWOL: the assertion that
America's upper classes are not serving in uniform. "One class of
Americans has been absent," write Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer, yet
they offer almost no facts or statistics other than passing
reference. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had just begun as the
book was being written. At the time the myth of the underprivileged
soldier was rampant in the media, and some members of Congress were
calling for a draft. But recruiting data said otherwise. I
published a study in 2006 showing that the average enlistee (not to
mention officer) is from a wealthier neighborhood than the average
civilian. Actually, the only class that is lowering its
participation in the military is the poor. The percentage of
recruits from the poorest fifth of U.S. neighborhoods declined from
18 percent in 1999 to 13.7 percent in 2005.
With such data available, the book's conclusion that the
all-volunteer force should be replaced with conscription looks
irresponsible. Logically, using volunteers instead of draftees
implies a higher quality recruit.
What's really at issue is not a divide between the military and
rich Americans, or smart Americans, or any other demographic
category. There is a gap, but it is a political one.
But the authors pretend otherwise. For example, they write in the
introduction, "This is not a Democrat-versus-Republican issue." In
a later chapter, they write that "both sides of the aisle are
contributing to the alienation of the military." The sad fact is
that the liberal elite has lost touch with the military.
AWOL is a book with one deep and tragic flaw. Class,
race, education, income-these are not dividing lines in uniform.
Rather, those divisions among Americans have been largely resolved
by the meritocracy and solidarity prevalent in the armed forces.
Roth-Douquet and Schaeffer are at their best when they reflect that
many African-Americans achieved the rank of general in the military
before even one had achieved the rank of editor at the New York
Times. If merit and equal opportunity were the core values of
self-proclaimed elites, America could indeed be a better
Tim Kane, Ph.D., is
an economist at The Heritage Foundation. He is a graduate of the
U.S. Air Force Academy and a former Air Force intelligence