The Committed Among Us: For ROTC cadets in Claremont, war hits close to home
Cadets in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at the Claremont Colleges are in an awkward position. For most students here, high school was a haven safe from adult decisions. We just had to get into a good college in order to get a good education and be deemed worthy of an exciting and/or well-paying job. For most of us, college is a place where we can work hard but also have a lot of fun. Blue skies are all we can see ahead; and for the freshmen and sophomores, graduation is just too far away to be relevant. Afghanistan is even farther away, except for a few of us.
To onlookers, ROTC may seem like a club or sports team. While at times it may be less athletic than the football or cross country teams, all foster similar camaraderie at whichever communal table they eat at in Collins. Like the football team, cadets have their non-ROTC friends and their ROTC friends, each of which exist in their own sphere and sometimes overlap. At the same time, they must seem like a club. ROTC is a student-run program, so the cadets have all the e-mails and unofficial meetings to which any other serious club is accustomed. After the soccer team finishes practicing on Parents Field, they are replaced by men and women in camouflage uniforms marching around and yelling, only to be replaced by students wearing green bandanas and pretending to zombify each other with plastic Nerf guns. ROTC is a blip on our colleges’ eclectic activity radar.
In reality, most cadets have signed a contract to serve in the U.S. Army for eight years after graduation, at least four on active duty. This can isolate a cadet from his fellow students, since the anticipated deployment is just not on their friends’ minds. For certain people, it can even be uncomfortable to talk about. When people casually ask what being in ROTC means, the answer usually surprises them. This is because the war hits home. The war that they had compartmentalized as something far away and silly suddenly becomes personalized in the 18-year-old freshman they are just beginning to like. “I wish it wasn’t so awkward,” a friend of mine in the program said. “They should just be comfortable with it and be like, ‘So that’s what he’s doing.’”
Even those who want to work in the military for the rest of their lives admit that the oath is a heavy one. It is one thing to read the oath, but to be saying it and realize its connection to the paper just signed can be an incredibly sobering experience. Everything that makes the oath of a new ASCMC Senator unimportant is what makes the enlistment oath incredibly weighty. One comes to realize, “Woah… I am swearing that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Not some statistic. Not some actor in a film. Not my roommate. I just put pen to paper, and they’re going to hold me to it.”
This commitment is made four years before it is expected to be fulfilled, so it is really a consignment to some future self. During those four years, cadets undergo training, but it is a marginal part of their lives compared to how central the military will be once their oath is called upon. No one else at the colleges has had to make this promise or another promise equal in weight.
I firmly believe that one can understand war only in the abstract unless one has participated in it. This puts the cadet in an odd limbo in between student and soldier. Even those who are knowledgeable of what they are getting themselves into – the most determined and devoted – must hear closing doors slam and see other opportunities melt away. They wonder, “I want to do this, but how can I truly know this is what I want? I do not know what war is. What if it’s not what I think it is? What if I’m a different person four years from now and I no longer want it?” Cadets must deal with this. Contracting also opens many new doors previously unavailable. Hopefully, those that sign the contract see the doors opened as better than the doors closed.
So, while Afghanistan feels much closer for these cadets since it directly affects them, they are also preparing for a war they cannot entirely understand. War is still abstract and unknown to them. The training only gives cadets some perspective of what they will be doing for eight years after college. Combat drills are a part of training similar to practicing football plays – except they are tactical maneuvers. After running to the right flank someone yells, “Assault through!” and a line of them runs across the field, clapping their hands. The clapping symbolizes firing their rifles. It becomes easy to take the training passively and not think of what will replace the clapping in a not-so-distant future. Not every cadet will face combat; some will not even go to Afghanistan. However, every cadet must face that possibility. Even if they are not involved in combat arms, Afghanistan is a dangerous place and they will be responsible for their subordinates’ safety.
To prepare cadets, ROTC tries to train leaders. While the Claremont McKenna community often touts the phrase “leaders in the making,” this program offers leadership skills that no other club or activity at the 5Cs can possibly aspire to. Since the program is cadet-run, the success of all activities is primarily dependent on one’s ability to organize and lead others under pressure. Leadership performance determines individual success, and military officers and senior cadets strictly evaluate students. Upperclassmen must constantly act as role models for younger cadets. For example, in “STX” lanes, a third-year cadet leads about 15 younger cadets to complete a mission. These exercises require a variety of skills, such as navigation, time management, foresight, and adaptability. The “Leader Development and Assessment Course” in the summer after junior year is the culmination of the program’s training. Cadets’ scores largely determine their freedom to choose their career in the military. What other club requires its leaders to have such finesse under pressure? What other club holds its leaders this accountable? What other club not only trains its members in leadership concepts, but repeatedly tests their mastery of these concepts?
These cadets are not better than their fellow students, but they are not the same. Their world is different. They are committed to something they cannot fully understand, something happening soon, but not too soon. They are surrounded by people who have no similar commitments. Perhaps if more students realized this, Afghanistan would be closer to us all.