Pettigrew: the military shouldn’t train on campus

The argument against a Canadian Officers Training Corps


Photo by The United States Army

Last week, another prominent Canadian restated the proposal that Canada should bring back The Canadian Officers Training Corps, a campus-based program that was discontinued in 1968, but championed in a recent film by Robert Roy.

Lee Windsor, Deputy Director of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick, supports a program whereby undergraduates register as cadets and get military training on campus while pursuing their studies, after which they may or may not choose to sign up in the reserves or the regular forces.

The new proposal has been widely reported, but not widely endorsed. We should keep it that way.

Though military booster Alain Pellerin claims the project wouldn’t cost a lot of money, the truth of that depends on what exactly the program would entail, and what your idea of a lot is.

Would cadets be paid for their time? Would they get tuition waivers? Certainly there are the costs to administer and advertise the program. Of course, the government could find the money for it, but wouldn’t that money be better spent on facilities, on teaching, or reducing fees for everyone?

Besides, the existing Regular Officer Training Plan allows students interested in a military career to attend university as they prepare for their subsequent military service.

But the point of a revived COTC would not be train undergraduates to be officers per se, but to give them some military experience and teach them the values that come along with military training.

And that is the real problem I have with this idea.

Military training builds discipline, fitness, and teamwork. But so does, say, dance, and there is no call for a national dance program. Before you object that dance is trivial compared to the military, ask yourself this: would you rather live in a world where no one danced, or a world where no one fought wars?

Of course, military service, when performed with honour and dignity, is, at this moment in history, something to be proud of. But we should not fall into the easy, self-congratulatory patriotism that equates all things military with all things good. Service in uniform is a worthy mode of service, but it is not synonymous with “the idea of service itself” as Windsor has it.

We need military officers. For now. But we should not let that practical reality blind us to the fact that if we are looking in the very long term, we ought to be working towards a world where we have no need of armies or commanders to lead them. Presuming that military training is an unambiguous benefit for any student is not a good place to start.

Todd Pettigrew is Associate Professor English at Cape Breton University.


Pettigrew: the military shouldn’t train on campus

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t argue that “the values that come along with military training” — specifically, values like unquestioning obedience — may be antithetical to the values taught at institutions of higher learning.

  2. Mr Pettigrew,

    Oh where do I start with your critique. One of the fundamental observations out of the Somalia Inquiry was that all officers in the Canadian Forces needed a university degree to help ensure the officer corps reflected Canadian values and beliefs and to develop critical thinking skills. Yes the Royal Military College does graduate officers, but cannot generate all the officers needed in all the specialties needed. In fact, the officer better reflects society, when the officers are educated at civilian universities.

    There is the Direct Entry Officer program which takes individuals with university degrees and gives them a immediate commission as a Second Lieutenant, and once done their specific military occupation training, a initial promotion to Lieutenant. The Regular Officer Training Program (ROTP) has two components: 1. Red uniformed cadets at RMC who do academic studies Sept to May, and then military occupation training in the summer, and 2. ROTP-Civvy U which is what is colloquially called which means you attend a civilian university during the normal academic year and military training in the summer. Unlike RMC cadets, you have no military duties during the academic year.

    • Sorry, accidentally hit submit. To further my comment…

      So, these Regular Force officers are already on Canadian civilian university campuses. You just do not see them.

      Most universities are also located in cities where there are Reservist Regiments. There is also a Reserve Entry Training Program which sees reserve officers attending local universities receive nearly the same training as their regular brethren but they get their commission earlier once they receive the required training. RETP officer actually parade with a reserve regiment one to two night per week. These officers you may see on campus because they may be living in university residence, done their uniform at supper time and head out to their regiment.

      The COTC program was the formation of actual units of university students who would do local training while attending university. They may be affiliated with a reserve regiment, or do their own training, not unlike the after hours training occurring with cadets at RMC.

      So the idea would be that the resurrected COTC-like program would help ROTP-Civvy U officers get additional experience to put them on par with their RMC brethern.

      The COTC program was more popular right after the two World Wars and Korea. the 60s and 70s peace movements and the Viet Nam war helped “end” the program an in part it was because of a downsizing of the CF in 1968 under the Trudeau government which saw the reduction of the Regular Force by 54% (from 120,000 to 80,000).

      So the idea of the revised COTC program does have merit in a Canadian Forces that is trying to recruit longer serving members post Cretien cutbacks and the Afghanistan war. It does make sense to try to establish a stronger connection between the student member at a civilian university and his actual employer, the Canadian Forces, by getting the student member to perform military like duties throughout the school year.

      So to reiterate, if you want your military to reflect the norms, values, and beliefs of your society, then one of the best ways is to recruit your officers from civilian universities.

      (A note of disclosure: I was a Reserve RETP officer from 1987-1994 and then a Regular Force Officer from 1994-1996. I have been a Lecturer in Military History and Political Science for the Royal Military college since 1998 in their Officer Professional Development program.)

  3. Considering the attitude I see in a lot of undergraduates at university, military training would do them a world of good. The military does not teach unquestioning obedience. Rather, it teaches officers to think for themselves, so that they know when orders should be obeyed (most of the time) and when they shouldn’t (when they are in violation of ethics, colossally stupid or dangerous, or when things have radically changed since the orders were given.) Army officers aren’t simply robots, blindly following orders. They are intelligent men and women, trained to think carefully and make decisions.

    The men and women I know who serve are some of the smartest, kindest people I know. They are the ones who would do anything to help a neighbour in need. They care deeply about each other and look after each other. And yes, they have discipline and are excellent team players, something that is sadly lacking in most of today’s youth.

    Military life isn’t for everyone, but for those who are suited to military service, it can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

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