The Delicate Balance Between the University and the Military
by Robert A. Rubinstein

While there are legitimate functions for the military in the contemporary world, militarism - the organization of society to promote the military as a privileged institution of the state rather than organizing the military to serve the society - is a destructive and distorting force. Economic practices are bent to support the military project. There are high rates of intra-familial violence at military bases and in their surrounding communities, and death and destruction are unleashed when the US military goes to war. The US is now engaged in wars of choice that only the most myopic observers would not see as imperial in their effect, if not in their design.

Rubenstein’s early work with UN peacekeeping missions led him to question stereotypes of the military like the one in the above image. Graphic:
Thus, one might view too close a relationship between the university and the military with some concern - as I do. But, first I want to explain why the relationship is not uniformly bad or necessarily wrong, and how it might provide opportunities for peace activists within the university and community, and for our overall educational mission.

The Transformative Power of Engagement
I became a professional anthropologist just as the Viet Nam War was ending. Some anthropologists cooperated with the counterinsurgency efforts of the US military in a way that led to the killing of the people with whom the anthropologists had worked. This was deeply abhorrent to members of our discipline.

I began studying peacekeeping in the mid-1980s because it was a United Nations effort at cross-cultural conflict management. Some of the military peacekeepers I met confirmed all the negative stereotypes then common in anthropology with which I had arrived. Yet, many others did not. In fact, some were thoughtful, compassionate and deeply opposed to the unnecessary use of violence. I realized that while anthropologists would never speak of other societies or institutions with a homogenizing phrase like "The Arabs," we too quickly spoke of "The Military."

Subsequently, I learned more about the complexity of the military from my peacekeeping contacts. I realized there were significant numbers of military people interested in having their work support multilateral, nonviolent policies. I met those people when they were majors and lieutenants colonel, at the stages of their careers when they would soon move up from tactical, on-the-ground roles to roles in which they would give strategic military advice to their civilian supervisors. I believe that supporting those who would advise for multinational cooperation and against the unilateral use of force can be an important source of institutional and policy change.

As a conflict management professional, I teach that achieving durable agreements among conflicting parties requires that all stakeholders be "at the table," and that conflicts can be transformed when conflicting parties engage one another.

This is the context within which I evaluate the relationship between Syracuse University and the military. My experience is as a faculty member who has contributed to the National Security Studies program (NSS), the Institute for National Security and Counter Terrorism (INSCT), and as the administrator of what I characterized as the home for peace studies at the university, the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts (PARC).

Because I believe in engagement and its transformative power, I think that a relationship between the university and the military should not be rejected out-of-hand. As long as this work does not involve the design of weapons systems or strategies for more effective killing, exposing military officers to the views of faculty and students at the university can be a good thing.

This means, for example, that the officers who come to the NSS program should be taught by, and meet with, as wide a range of the university community as possible. These officers come to the program after 20 or more years of military service. Having them at the university gives us the chance to offer alternative ways of framing and analyzing situations of potential conflict, and to support those among them who value multilateralism.

Our faculty needs to be ready to engage the officers who are at the university. For that reason, I have lectured in the NSS program and I take every opportunity I can to meet the program participants. My talks have met a variety of responses: strenuous objection, engaged discussion and even agreement and approval.

There is a real potential to effect for the better how participants in the NSS program approach their jobs, and INSCT creates a welcome opportunity to demonstrate for students the importance of multilateral action.

A Question of Balance
There is of course also reason to be concerned about the relationship. The distorting effects of militarism are sometimes quite subtle. It is to the possible subtle, distorting effects of the relationship that we must be alert.

When I was PARC director, the administration was keen that our programs display political balance. Thus, for example, when the Syracuse Social Movements Initiative (SSMI) seemed to be engaging only progressive organizations, the administration in the Maxwell School insisted that we make extra efforts to reach out to conservative and religious social movements.

Yet the NSS and other military programs at the university appear to be free of similar pressures to present the full spectrum of views. While there are some faculty who participate in the program regularly, many of the presenters come from outside the university. If the faculty members whose voices might foster the transformations I spoke about are not participating in the NSS program, then the relationship is merely a legitimating façade. Even more dangerous would be that the emphasis on securing external military funding distort the academic decisions made by the administration. Such distortions might show up in the way funding is extended or not to peace and social justice oriented initiatives within the school, in the hiring of faculty to service the security oriented programs, or in the way student support is allocated.

I have seen elimination of core financial support for the undergraduate program in nonviolent conflict and change, and for some peace and social justice projects like SSMI and the PARC research roundtable on structural violence in Syracuse. Priorities change as faculty and student research interests change. But in these three cases, faculty and student interest continued. Institutional constraints other than the pursuit of a relationship with the military might account for these de-funding decisions.

Did these decisions derive from the growing relationship between the university and the military? I have no hard evidence that they did. Still, the NSS program now continues without a Department of Defense contract, presumably with core support from the university, and at a level not given to peace and social justice projects. Syracuse University is a private institution and is not legally required to be transparent about these kinds of decisions and allocations. As a result, members of the peace community, on campus and off, should be vigilant and vocal in insuring that the legitimate relationship between the university and the military does not bear bitter fruit by creating an environment in which peace and social justice scholarship and education is made unwelcome.

Robert is professor of anthropology and international relations at the Maxwell School, a faculty associate of INSCT and a former director of PARC.