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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Let the Military on Campus

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page A27

When a circuit court ruled this week that universities could bar military recruiters from campuses without the risk of losing federal money, many liberals cheered. They should hold the cheering and reconsider the implications of their actions.

Whatever the merits of the ruling, the idea of keeping recruiters away from elite universities is a large mistake -- for the military, for our country and for liberalism itself. The growing separation between the military and many parts of our society, especially its most liberal and elite precincts, is a huge problem. Closing that divide should be one of liberalism's highest priorities. It should be a high priority for the military, too.

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The case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit involved a decade-old federal provision pushed through by the late representative Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.). The law prohibits the federal government from giving money to colleges and universities that block military recruiting. A group of law schools insisted that they be able to keep the recruiters away because the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality violated their own policies forbidding discrimination against gays and lesbians.

In a 2 to 1 decision, the majority ruled that an earlier Supreme Court decision allowing the Boy Scouts to bar homosexuals from becoming scoutmasters created the same freedom of association for the law schools. "The Solomon Amendment requires law schools to express a message that is incompatible with their educational objectives," the majority wrote, "and no compelling governmental interest has been shown to deny this freedom."

Let's accept for the sake of argument that, in a close call, the court made the right ruling in protecting academic freedom. I'd assert further that the universities are absolutely right in opposing "don't ask, don't tell." The policy is both wrong and stupid.

It's wrong because it puts the government in a position of encouraging gays and lesbians in the military to lie about who they are. It is stupid because at a moment when we want our military to have access to all the talent it can get, we should welcome the service of all patriotic Americans, including those who are openly gay. We shouldn't make these patriots vulnerable to intimidation, pressure and even blackmail.

But having won their principle in court, these universities, including the law schools, should now voluntarily open their doors to recruiters. Liberals especially should be worried about the growing divide between the armed forces and many parts of our society. They should acknowledge that if liberals stay out of the military, their chances of influencing the military culture are reduced to close to zero. Above all, liberals should worry about the unfairness in the way the burdens of service are borne.

As former Navy secretary John Lehman wrote in The Post last year, "Our all-volunteer force, for all its many virtues, is not representative of American society. The privileged are largely absent from it. Thus the burdens of defense and the perils of combat do not fall even close to fairly across all of our society."

Lehman was reacting to a notable 2002 New York Times op-ed by Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat. "A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent," Rangel wrote.

One of the most powerful warnings about the dangerous gap between military and civilian life came from Thomas E. Ricks, now a correspondent on military affairs for The Post. In his book "Making the Corps" and in an influential 1997 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Ricks spoke of the increasing distance between military and civilian life -- and in particular the split between the military and our professional civilian classes.

"U.S. military personnel of all ranks are feeling increasingly alienated from their own country, and are becoming both more conservative and more politically active than ever before," Ricks wrote in the Atlantic. He argued that the division between military and civilian life was a symptom of something larger: "the isolation of professional Americans, or the upper middle class, from the broad concerns of society. Ignorance of the military is, I think, just one manifestation of that larger problem."

Yes, and liberal university administrators can do something about it. The best way to change the military and to create greater fairness in sharing the burdens of defending our country is to embrace the call to service, not reject it. By opening their doors to recruiters, our universities can strengthen our democracy.

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