April 13, 2003
PRINCETON, N.J. -- A military uniform attracted catcalls and antiwar slogans on many U.S. campuses during the Vietnam era. But these days, as Army ROTC cadet Joseph McConnell walks to his military science class at Princeton wearing camouflage, the main reaction is curiosity.
Students want to know how the sophomore feels about the Iraq war and other military-related issues.
" 'Should we be over there?' Questions along those lines," he said. "I guess they believe I might have some unique insight into the situation. If debate does spring up, it always seems to be respectful."
It took nearly 25 years for a proud ROTC tradition at Princeton -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to the university on a Naval ROTC scholarship -- to recover from the antiwar sentiment spawned by opposition to America's involvement in Vietnam, said Lt. Col. Matthew McCarville, the commander of the school's Army ROTC unit.
But now, McCarville and others say, ROTC programs occupy a more comfortable place on campus. Among the reasons are a surge of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks, a hike in scholarship money, and a generation generally more interested in quiet discussion than protest.
The absence of the draft, which caused huge resentment during Vietnam, also has contributed to peaceful coexistence, said Harry Haines, an associate professor of communications at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
"During Vietnam everyone was, potentially, in uniform," he said. "For a lot of people who didn't want to be in uniform, there was an emotional response when they saw someone who was."
Kirstin Roberts, a University of Illinois at Chicago sophomore and a member of the Campus Anti-War network, said peace activists are sensitive to the difference between soldiers and the Bush administration officials who ordered the troops to war in Iraq.
And, Roberts added, a bond that unites all college students cannot be discounted.
"I think there is a sense of solidarity with people who joined the military to pay for school because so many of us are close to that ourselves," she said.
Antiwar protests affected only a few ROTC programs directly as the Iraq campaign built up and got under way.
Vandalism at the University of Iowa's Army ROTC building prompted officials to temporarily grant cadets the option of not wearing uniforms on campus.
In early March, the 120 members of the Air Force ROTC at the University of New Mexico also were advised not to wear their uniforms after someone spray-painted antiwar graffiti on the unit's building.
Noting the lack of tension between the cadets under his command and other New Mexico students, Lt. Col. Richard Trembley blamed the vandalism on an outsider "trying to re-create the '60s."
Activists' mild response to the officers in training comes as Army ROTC is experiencing a resurgence, with nearly 1,000 more students (30,824) enrolled in the program than at this time last year.
The current enrollment in Air Force ROTC is approximately 17,000, while 5,831 students are participating in the Naval ROTC program.
Of the 33 members of Princeton's "Tiger Battalion," 14 are freshmen and only three are seniors. McCarville said the ROTC's growing presence on the liberal Princeton campus serves a dual mission.
"Clearly my purpose here is to provide the Army with future leadership," McCarville said. "But I am also here to represent the Army on campus, and to educate college students about their country's military."
Sophomore Fairy Pardiwalla recently encountered the educational side of McCarville's responsibilities. As McCarville watched, she wrote "this war is unjustified" on a Princeton bulletin asking for a "broad spectrum of ideas" about the Iraq war.
That prompted a respectful, impromptu debate between the two. It ended after a few minutes with neither party budging from their positions, and McCarville produced a business card. "Here," he said, handing it to his adversary. "Feel free to harass me any time."