As much as the leprechaun and football, military training has been a part of Notre Dame tradition. Ever since 1858 when the student-organized Continental Cadets began marching across campus in their blue and buff American Revolutionary-style uniforms, Notre Dame has been teaching students how to be good soldiers.
While Notre Dame has embraced that role, the popularity of the training has waxed and waned. Sometimes the University has been a virtual military base, other times the campus has been uniform-free. More recently, the very place of military instruction at a Catholic university has come under attack.
The initial campus enthusiasm for military training abated following the Civil War, but in 1880 University President William Corby, CSC, the famous chaplain who gave absolution at the Battle of Gettysburg, revived the program. Father Corby believed a military regimen would offer Notre Dame students an excellent source of recreation, exercise and discipline. The new Notre Dame cadets, sporting gray uniforms, came to be known as Hoynes Light Guards, after the professor charged with overseeing the unit, “Colonel” William J. Hoynes. Two years later, academic credit was offered for the training. By 1917 it had become a required course for most Notre Dame students.
That same year, the University administration applied to the War Department to participate in the government’s Student Army Training Corps (SATC), the forerunner of today’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). With the World War I draft draining away students, administrators saw participation in SATC as essential to the economic viability of the school.
Notre Dame cadets practiced marksmanship at a firing range between Corby Hall and Old College and marched and drilled, but the training was judged inferior by the government and the bid rejected. Notre Dame President Rev. John W. Cavanaugh, CSC, was furious with the verdict. The University continued to lobby, and in autumn 1918 some 700 students were sworn into the SATC, only to be demobilized in December with the war’s end. More than 2,200 Notre Dame students and alumni served in the armed forces during World War I.
After a 23-year hiatus, military training returned to campus in September 1941 when the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was established at Notre Dame. For all practical purposes the University became a naval base during World War II . Some 12,000 officers were trained at Notre Dame from 1942 to 1946, while only a few hundred civilians worked on degrees.
With the end of the war, Air Force ROTC joined the Navy on campus in 1947 and the Army arrived in 1951, making the University at the time one of only a dozen schools with all three branches of the military. Currently, 43 schools nationwide have all three services represented on campus.
At ROTC’s peak in the late 1960s when some 1,600 Notre Dame students were in uniform. With the end of the Vietnam War and with anti-military public sentiment at its height, the number plunged to 442 in1974. By the time of the Gulf War in 1990, the number had rebounded to 791 students. Currently just 338 students are enrolled in the three branches of ROTC. The combined ROTC programs contributed more than $6 million in financial aid to Notre Dame students this year.
For most of Notre Dame’s history the University’s involvement with military training has gone uncontested. The pacifist stance has never been strongly held in American Catholicism. Not until the anti-war protests of the 1960s, when student activists attempted to burn down the ROTC building, has ROTC’s presence on campus been strongly questioned. Since then the issue has resurfaced with varying intensity every few years.
Intermittent protests have been less inflammatory, although occasionally dramatic as in 1990 when a student spray painted “RAW is backwards” in 6-foot-high white letters on the roof of the Pasquirella Center, the ROTC programs’ building then under construction. In subsequent years silent prayer vigils have been held and leaflets passed and an informal alumni group calling itself ND Peacenet has circulated a petition calling for ROTC’s removal from campus on pacifist Christian grounds.
One of Father Edward Malloy’s first actions when named president of the University in 1987 was to appoint a committee charged with examining the ethical aspects of Notre Dame’s ROTC programs. The committee concluded that ROTC programs were adequately forming the ethical consciences of its cadets but also recommended that “ROTC students be strongly encouraged, even required to take theology and philosophy courses that address the Catholic tradition of war and peace.”
The issue of a mandatory University course bubbled to the surface again last fall as the ND chapter of Pax Christi began a year-long series of discussions on the Christian response to war and peace. About 100 students, including many ROTC cadets, attended each of the first several sessions. A civil but spirited exchange of views has continued in the _Observer_’s opinion pages. In a September editorial, the student newspaper urged the University to require that ROTC students take a course on war ethics.
In recent years about half of all ROTC students have taken the theology elective “War, Law and Ethics” and a few have minored in peace studies, but critics are not satisfied. “The ROTC program hosted at a Catholic institution should conform to the teachings of the Catholic church on war and peace; I don’t think that is happening here,” argues Pax Christi’s faculty advisor Rev. Michael Baxter, CSC , an assistant professor of theology.
Defenders of military training contend that the Catholic milieu of the University forms consciences and the ROTC curriculum itself examines the morality of warfare and attempts to instill high ethical values; critics counter that ROTC courses offer a secular perspective, not a rigorous Catholic understanding of just war theory.
“It’s been my impression that ROTC handles these matters well,” says Associate Provost John Jenkins, CSC, who oversees Notre Dame’s ROTC programs. “These are very conscientious people and they have a deep sense of the moral gravity of what they’re about.”
The debate over ROTC has continued through the spring semester. If the past is any predictor, the wrangling is likely to go on . . . and on . . .
John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.