by Adam Scher
Editor’s Note: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.
As the officer in charge of the United States Military Academy’s debate team, I was excited to learn that this year’s intercollegiate debate topic would require students from around the country to discuss the appropriate role of U.S. military presence overseas. Given their status as both service members and college students, the West Point debate team has a unique perspective to share with civilian students and faculty on the military and the impacts of relevant policy issues on soldiers and their families. This year’s debate topic enables current and future members of the military to better understand the Armed Forces’ relationship to the American citizens we serve and the global community of peoples we interact with through our mission. However, after one semester with this topic, the debate community continues to struggle to embrace this engagement and has responded to our efforts with a form of anti-soldier rhetoric that is at best disheartening, and at worst manifests itself in ways that are antithetical to the debate community’s overarching educational purpose.
It is important to note that debate should be a place where students and teachers challenge the dominant paradigm, leaving them free to deconstruct social norms and challenge assumptions Americans make when they consider the military as an institution. In a June 2015 Gallup poll, after over a decade and a half of war, the military still tops the charts as the public institution in which the American people have the most confidence. “Americans’ confidence in most major U.S. institutions remains below the historical average for each one. Only the military (72%) and small business (67%) — the highest-rated institutions in this year’s poll — are currently rated higher than their historical norms.”[i] The debate community is a unique space that allows students to exchange difficult, sometimes radical ideas about the military’s social status and proper role in our society. Debate can help improve civil-military relations by bringing future leaders together and by exposing both sides to the merits and criticisms of their respective beliefs.
Unfortunately, some of the argumentation we experienced this year was not focused on the military institution or the role of trained soldiers in a democracy; rather, criticism seemed to be almost entirely directed at individual members of the military. Some debaters and coaches have told the cadets and me that all who choose to don a military uniform are morally reprehensible for serving. A few have called their cadet opponents criminals and sexual predators. And one debater even went so far as to ask his cadet counterparts during cross-examination, “how much have or will you be paid to kill people in this room?”
This isn’t the first or only time debaters and coaches have targeted members of the military for attack during a debate. During my tenure at West Point, I have received comments from debaters, other coaches, and judges that indicate a broad misunderstanding of the military’s makeup, role, and mission. “You’re in the military, so you are trained to think like a sexist,” “you’re in the military, you can’t understand oppression,” “you’re in the military, you can never bring change. You’re just white whining,” or, my personal favorite, “look, you own West Point identity because it’s designed to perpetuate global domination.” No coach at any school would ever try to win a debate round by making racist, sexist, or other bigoted arguments that aim to label debaters as bad people because of their identity. This is precisely why the attacks on service members are so dismaying. Worst of all, these ad hominem attacks are winning debates.
There is clearly much room for improvement in the debate community’s discourse, and behind each of these remarks is the potential to have a worthwhile discussion based on valid scholarly research. Instead of calling individual debaters sexists, students could question the effectiveness of the military’s programs to support sexual assault and harassment victims, using evidence from the Congressional hearings about removing commanders’ authority in such cases. Rather than telling cadets they don’t understand oppression of minorities, debaters could present the results of recent Army promotion and command selection boards, and identify the lack of ethnic and racial minorities in the combat arms branches. A recent USA Today article explains this issue:
Fewer than 10% of the active-duty Army’s officers are black compared with 18% of its enlisted men…The problem is most acute in its main combat units: infantry, armor and artillery. In 2014, there was not a single black colonel among those 25 brigades, the Army’s main fighting unit of about 4,000 soldiers. Brigades consist of three to four battalions of 800 to 1,000 soldiers led by lieutenant colonels. Just one of those 78 battalions is scheduled to be led by a black officer in 2015.”[ii]
A quip about global domination could become more academically rigorous by discussing the magnitude of the Department of Defense budget compared to the rest of the world, and inquiring why the United States needs to spend more than many of its allies or potential adversaries combined. A cursory search of US and international newspapers quickly highlight this point. The United Kingdom-based Telegraph is one example: “The United States dominates global spending on defence, with a budget more than double that of the next biggest spender, China. The United Kingdom, Russia and France are the next biggest spenders on defence. All of which are dwarved, however, by America’s spending.”[iii] Arguments based on personal attacks against individual service members detract from these important conversations, ignore the military’s ties to the origins of intercollegiate debate, and fail to recognize debate as a truly transformative activity through which the civil-military divide can be reduced.
In 1947, West Point cadets created what we know as intercollegiate policy debate because they felt like-minded students from across the country could add great value to policy discussions at the dawn of the nuclear age and the Cold War. West Point brought debaters from across the country to its campus, housed the students in the barracks, and coordinated a tournament designed to exchange ideas, improve critical thinking, and enhance the education of military and civilian members alike. And while the National Debate Tournament is no longer hosted at West Point, it continues to attract the most elite debaters from across the country. Today, I am proud to continue the tradition of a diverse debate space that remains a place where oppression is rejected and the social power dynamics that many government policies have created are questioned.
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