As the ROTC turns 100 we must grasp what it does for America

The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) is celebrating its 100th birthday June 3. Likely, you haven’t heard that a full century of training young men and women to be leaders in the military—and later in business and the world—has ticked by since the National Defense Act of 1916 was enacted. It’s just not cool or hip for college students to do ROTC anymore.

No, pop-culture has long treated ROTC programs on college campuses the way the still-laugh-out-loud 1978 movie “Animal House” did when it depicted a hapless ROTC regiment, including Kevin Bacon’s debut in film as “Chip Diller,” blindly marching in defense of the starchy establishment.

Nevertheless, ROTC has a lot to do with shaping American character. Over the last century ROTC programs in colleges have prepared more than one million men and women to be officers in U.S. Armed Forces. Today more than 1,000 colleges in the U.S. have ROTC programs. These colleges provide about 70 percent of the commissioned officers who serve us in the branches of the U.S. military.

LTC Chris Belcher, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Cadet Command, says, “The training and experience gained in ROTC has been the foundation for six Chiefs of Staff of the Army, two Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Supreme Court Justice, as well as countless other leaders in government, business, entertainment, science and sports.”

There have been troubling times for ROTC. During the Vietnam War-era ROTC became so ostracized in academia that some leading colleges tossed ROTC off campus and refused to give academic credits to the students who completed ROTC classroom work. This has since changed, though ROTC’s return to institutions that celebrate diversity, like Harvard, Columbia and Brown, was shamefully slow.

Though ROTC is not for everyone—and neither is a Gender & Women’s Studies degree from U.C. Berkeley—the work students in ROTC programs must complete is real and rigorous. I happened to graduate from Norwich University, the university that was the model for the creation of ROTC. Founded in 1819 and fashioned after West Point, Norwich is the oldest private military college in the U.S. I remember an ROTC instructor introducing me to Sun Tzu, to the dogmatic honor outlined in The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual and even to Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and the Code of Bushido, a code that stresses that every person should be treated with the same respect regardless of station or situation.

These lessons are fundamental to honor and leadership and are not just taught, but also practiced. The course and fieldwork in ROTC programs stress accountability and results in an age of moral relativism and participation awards.

Norwich University’s president, Richard Schneider, saw this milestone coming and organized a celebration loaded with a symposium and visits and speeches from military brass, such as General Mark A. Milley, the 39th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

“When General Milley’s helicopters took off late at night, our 1,500 cadets were there to see him off,” said Schneider. “General Milley had come into the Army through an ROTC program at Princeton. He kept telling us how important ROTC is to America’s future as a leader in the world.”

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates once told an audience at Duke University that a “return of ROTC … will not do much good without the willingness of our nation’s most gifted students to step forward.” That isn’t likely to happen until popular culture again recognizes that behind the courage and sacrifice from our soldiers are programs like ROTC shape, even creating, such upstanding men and women.

As the Greek historian Thucydides once said, “A nation that draws too broad a difference between its scholars and its warriors has its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” ROTC has been bridging that divide for 100 years. It is a bridge we need to grow.