Columbia Enrolls Veterans, but it Doesn’t Produce Them
Originally published in the Columbia Beacon on February 22nd, 2020.
Ask any student on campus for directions to Columbia’s war memorial and most wouldn’t even know that the university had one, despite the high chance that they have walked by it. Unlike the prominent statues spread throughout campus, this one is just a simple plaque tucked away inside Butler Library. While it is immediately visible upon entering the building — just look carefully above the security guard’s right shoulder — its neutral design and high placement on the wall don’t grab much attention from anyone walking by.
On one hand, the inconspicuousness of this plaque is a shame, given the gravity of the sacrifice it memorializes. On the other hand, it is a blessing that points to the relative peace we experience today that allows such blissful ignorance. But when contextualized within Columbia’s long and storied history of military service, this plaque’s anonymity on campus becomes representative of a concerning national trend: while military veterans are exalted and cared for to unprecedented extents, fewer Americans are willing to become them.
As the online Columbia University War Memorial shows, Columbia students and faculty have participated in each of our country’s major conflicts since the French and Indian War. They fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, built up fortifications on Harlem Heights during the War of 1812, and joined the marches into Mexico in 1846. They participated heavily in the Civil War and fought against the Spanish in the Caribbean. During both World Wars, Columbia practically became a Manhattan West Point — look at old pictures of campus from the 20th century and you’ll see hundreds of students marching down Broadway carrying rifles and standing in formation on Low Plaza.
But during the post-Korean War era, Columbia’s relationship with military service started to disappear. The widespread counterculture movement in the 60s, which was catalyzed by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, eventually erupted in the infamous ’68 protests that pushed Columbia’s ROTC office off campus. For the first time in school history, Columbia was largely unaffected by a major war. Among the 700,000 service members deployed to the Middle East for the Gulf War, only a few Columbia reservists participated.
This trend persisted into the Global War on Terror when, despite the 9/11 attacks’ relative proximity to Columbia, there was little enthusiasm about military service on campus. At a time when a hundred thousand troops were occupying Iraq and twenty thousand continued to secure Afghanistan, only one member of the class of 2004 graduated from an off-campus Army ROTC program.
Throughout the 2010s, however, military presence began its return to Columbia. Only this time, instead of joining the military after graduation, students came here as veterans already. The combination of an expanded G.I. Bill and General Studies’ dedication to supporting veterans allowed what was then a tiny community to grow rapidly to more than 500 student veterans today. However, while this change is a remarkable example of social mobility, it is also evidence of an increasingly apathetic and diverging society.
It’s important to note that, even during all of the turmoil and unpopularity of the Vietnam War, Columbia graduates — along with hundreds of thousands of men from across the nation — still volunteered to serve overseas in the U.S military. Today, however, as James Fallows of the Atlantic noted back in 2015 while waiting in an airport, Americans couldn’t even be bothered to look up from their phones when President Obama was speaking on television about a possible return to Iraq.
While this isn’t to say that Americans should have been rushing the recruiting booths in 2015 as if it were December 7th, 1941, Columbia’s slow detachment from military affairs over the past few decades is symbolic of a growing apathy among American society. Despite having much more contact with military veterans than the average citizen, Columbia graduates are just as indifferent about service as the rest of the country. Our own Army ROTC program is out of sight and out of mind over at Fordham.
This phenomenon should concern us. As the military becomes even more detached from the society it serves, those with power — many of whom come from Columbia — will be even further removed from the consequences of its use. 80% of new entrants into the military have a near relative who was a veteran; 25% had a veteran parent, even as the country’s relative veteran population declines. The increasingly concentrated demographics of the military undermine its ideal as a national service, leaving a sort of politicized “warrior-caste” in its place instead.
Although this trend is a blessing in that fewer Americans are affected by war, if it continues, our nation’s voters will begin to view the military as a panacea for foreign policy, without ever having to experience the consequences of military action — send the troops over, as long as it doesn’t affect me and my current career path.
While there isn’t much Columbia could do to help reverse this nationwide trend, perhaps the least we can do is look up and acknowledge the memorial plaque as we walk by it in Butler. The tremendous sacrifices it memorializes were borne by people just like us, who selflessly put their lives on hold after graduation to serve their nation, despite the high cost.