A better ROTC

In April 2011, Columbia’s faculty and students voted amid much controversy to allow ROTC on campus for the first time since the Vietnam War.

Now, on the program’s website, Reserve Officers Training Corps at Columbia , you will find a statement replete with promises to teach leadership:

“For 250 years, Columbia University has produced many of the great leaders and thinkers of our time … examples of national service and military leadership abound among Columbia’s alumni. The Reserve Officers Training Corps and other military educational assistance programs provide students with the opportunity to continue that tradition of leadership and scholarship through preparation for a career as a military officer.”

Meanwhile, just this past December, the Pentagon released the latest of many studies exposing the military as rife with sexual predation and violence against women. One quarter of military women report having been sexually assaulted while serving, according to the report, while half say they were sexually harassed. Earlier studies show rates of sexual assault at nearly a third of women and 12 percent of men. In short, there is an epidemic of sexual assault in the military. And it’s not going away.

In the academies—the schools that train military officers—reports of sexual assaults jumped by 23 percent in 2012, the third year in a row of such increases. If student officers are assaulting their comrades at such a rate, how will they go on to treat their subordinates? What kind of leadership is being taught in these academies, anyway?

In the course of my research on women in the military and the Iraq War, I have had the occasion to lecture at several military academies, including West Point. Women are always outnumbered at these places, as they are in the military itself, where they make up some 14 percent of troops. They are also isolated, regarded as inferior, and treated as sexual prey. Most of them have nowhere to turn if they are assaulted or harassed, and no way of reporting the problem without risking their reputation and careers.

This may seem appallingly retrograde, but it is realistic training for what happens in the actual military. Women—or men—who report sexual assault are routinely blamed, sometimes punished, and more often than not silenced. The military is so hostile to anyone who reports sexual assault that the Department of Defense itself estimates that some 80 percent of assaults, including rapes, are never reported at all.

The fact is that the military gives individuals more power over others than any institution in America, and most assailants are of superior rank to their victims. That means the assailants are abusing their power, while their victims are trapped.

So, it is not hard to conclude that “leadership” training, as it is now, seems to be teaching men to assault with impunity, and women to shut up and take it.
We cannot let this happen at Columbia. We cannot allow the vote to bring ROTC back on campus to become a vote to prey on women. If the military culture of misogyny and sexual predation, bullying and hazing is ever going to be changed, the change must start with future officers, here, on our own campus.

Some suggestions:

* For starters, no student with a history of violence toward women should be admitted to ROTC. The same must apply to faculty.

* All faculty and students in ROTC must be given training in the prevention of sexual assault—not training designed by the military, but by civilian experts. This training should be focused on how to recognize and stop bullying, sexual harassment, and assault, not on how women should keep safe. Women don’t cause rape. Men do.

* All ROTC members must discuss the following facts: Rape is a war crime, whether it is against your own comrades or against the so-called enemy. Rape is not sex, but a violent crime that destroys lives.

* Women must be given leadership positions in ROTC.

* Cadets must be trained to protect their troops against each other as well as against an enemy.

* Cadets should be rewarded for responding properly to reports of assault and bullying, and punished for trying to cover such reports up.

* All cadets should have access to a sexual assault hotline and a counselor outside of the military framework. They must be able to reach out for help without anyone else in ROTC knowing and without fear of reprisal.

Yes, we can teach leadership at Columbia. But that leadership must be different from the status quo in the military. Instead of perpetuating the tradition of looking down on women and considering them prey, of brutal hazing and bullying, sexism and homophobia, let us teach our students to lead a new military that respects and safeguards its own.

Let’s welcome ROTC back to campus as an opportunity to really lead.

Helen Benedict is a professor at the Journalism school and the author of two books about women in the military, "The Lonely Soldier" and "Sand Queen." Her work inspired one of the first class-action suits against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted in the military.

To respond to this professor column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Your insulting tone and inflammatory statements towards the majority who serve honorably aside I think some of your suggestions have merit. Of course some of what you suggest is already happening, to little effect unfortunately. I don't know that a journalism professor is the first place I'd go for advice on how to deal with this, but this is such a pernicious issue that I'm happy to consider any suggestions that come my way. I'm particularly interested in improving the ways we screen candidates for military service. As far as I know there is no reliable and legally or ethically justifiable way at the moment to predict who is a future rapist and who is not, aside from past convictions which would disqualify someone from service already. Perhaps you have some ideas on this front?

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Anonymous posted on

Thank you for writing this! I was appalled when CU voted to allow ROTC back, and I don't think the conversation should be over.

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