There has already been a great deal of discussion about the USG’s proposed resolution barring the ROTC from campus. But even though debate on the resolution has been tabled until the fall—perhaps because it has been tabled—we should continue to discuss the issues that this rather sudden, and suddenly ended, discourse has raised. I’m thinking primarily of the effect of this whole controversy on the vaunted, unofficial motto of our University: “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” (Though the phrase has since been expanded to conclude “and in the Service of all Nations,” and though the ROTC debate of course has implications for international affairs, we should stick with the domestic focus for the time being.)
Supporters of ROTC’s continued presence are obsessed with this phrase. Indeed, Powell Fraser’s new pro-ROTC group is called Supporting Princetonians in the Nation’s Service, and an anonymous cadet is quoted in The Daily Princetonian as saying, “I think ROTC reflects the pinnacle of what Princeton considers the highest calling here: service to the nation.”
The debate over the ROTC issue has profound implications for our University – more profound, perhaps, than most of either the resolution’s supporters or detractors realize. Those who oppose the resolution are correct in focusing our attention on the concept of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” though they fail in their interpretation of it. The ROTC debate is most valuable because it calls into question the very meaning of the phrase, which has been so overused that it is at the point of losing any meaning at all.
Here, right at the beginning of a new century, we have an opportunity to reflect on words that we throw around a great deal: service, the Nation, Princeton. This debate offers the opportunity to rethink Princeton’s role in and responsibility to our country. At a fraught time in our national history, when many people, especially young people, feel at least somewhat estranged from their country and its leadership, it is worth reflecting on the ways in which Princeton should teach us how to best be a citizen of the United States. Because, though many of us entertained fantasies of moving somewhere – anywhere – after the last election, most of us are likely to be citizens of the United States for some time.
I am not opposed to the notion that, merely by having had the opportunity to attend one of the great universities of the world, students here “owe” something to the society which has, through elusive and often random reasons, enabled them to attend. And I am also not opposed to the related notion that we should somehow pay that debt through “Service.” But if we are going to posit that attending Princeton carries with it some degree of responsibility, notably this responsibility to serve, it is certainly worth thinking about what that service should mean.
Powell Fraser, and others who less vocally agree with him, seem to take “service” exceedingly literally. If an activity does not already include “service” in its traditional nomenclature, it is unlikely that Mr. Fraser will admit that it qualifies as being “in the Nation’s Service.” “Serving in the military” is a tried-and-true phrase that undoubtedly involves the verb “to serve,” so military service must be a – or, indeed, the – way to fulfill our service responsibility.
We must find a way out of this paradigm, simply because I don’t find it accurate. Members of the armed forces are in the nation’s service, but not just because they literally “serve” in those armed forces. To use another, related example, I would not consider our distinguished alumnus Bill Frist – who does, quite literally, serve as a United States senator – to be “in the Nation’s Service,” at least not in the way that we should be understanding the phrase, the way in which it makes it very much in our nation’s service to remove the ROTC from this campus.
I am not sure if Senator Frist is at this moment unconstitutionally intervening in yet another individual American family’s private affairs or just as unconstitutionally attempting to subvert the parliamentary procedures of the Senate. Either way, he is undermining our nation instead of truly serving it. Service, for a senator, means, above all, service to our constitution. When he ignores or tramples on that constitution, Senator Frist may very well be “serving” his term in a literal sense, but he is doing quite the opposite of being “in the Nation’s Service.” I don’t mean for this to be a diatribe against Bill Frist, though I certainly don’t mind if it contains elements of such a diatribe; the senator certainly deserves it. I mean only for it to be illustrative of my larger point, which is that we need to redefine our whole sense of Princetonian service. To be in the nation’s service, it is not enough merely to work as cogs in the existing machinery of our society, even if that machinery is as legitimately noble as the military or as posh as the Senate.
Service can, of course, encompass such institutional affiliations, but it cannot end there. Our service to the nation must always be first and foremost the advocacy of the ideals of that nation, even ideals that directly challenge our institutions. When our nation, and specifically its military, seems to have forgotten its ideals – and constitutional requirements – of justice and equality, it is our service to our nation to help it remember. And if such active language as “helping” it to remember scares anyone, it is our University-wide commitment to serving the nation that requires we not be complicit in such a denial of rights. We can be in our nation’s service by opposing that nation’s institutions; sometimes, such opposition is the most meaningful service.
In the speech that coined the phrase I’ve been discussing, Woodrow Wilson declared it the role of universities in a democracy not merely to inculcate a sense of duty in their students, but to illuminate that duty. We would do well to reflect on this call to think beyond the most literal sense of “service.” A Daily Princetonian columnist wrote, before this whole ROTC controversy began, to bemoan the lack of participation by Princetonians in the armed forces. He hoped for moral leadership from Princeton (He did not mention the amicus brief that the University filed with the Supreme Court in the recent cases involving affirmative action, which was nothing if not a display of moral leadership).
I can say quite simply that it would be in keeping with this call for moral leadership for the University to restrict, rather than encourage, the armed forces on this campus. I hope that students who might be inclined to support the removal of the ROTC are not scared into thinking that their position is somehow in opposition to the notion of Princeton in the Nation’s Service. That’s what they’re trying to do, and they are only damaging Princeton in the process. We are in a unique position to rethink our own credo in such a way that our service to America becomes the moral leadership of America. I hope that small-minded interpretations don’t stop us from completing that noble work.