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Challenge militarized society

Michael Poffenberger | Monday, February 21, 2005

The role of the university within society – if nothing else – is to raise questions. As such, the trademark of a quality university education is a student who is capable of both seeing and challenging the structures and assumptions of our world. Scholars from Aristotle to Huntington have had ideas about human nature and the ordering of our social reality, and have juxtaposed those ideas with their respective contexts to provide prescriptions for change.

This mandate holds especially true for a Catholic University such as Notre Dame, which is – at least, in theory – ordained with a mission to spread the counter-cultural values of the Gospels. But this responsibility of the university is being sacrificed by its unwillingness to boldly challenge the most rooted evils in our world. The clearest example of this is Notre Dame’s support for the institution of the military.

Even though the Catechism endorses only two approaches to violent conflict (the just war and pacifist traditions), neither of which is followed in our country, the connections between Notre Dame and the military remain largely unquestioned. We are home to the largest Naval ROTC program in the United States. Our department of engineering receives millions of dollars to conduct research for the U.S. Department of Defense. The CIA and corporations such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, whose factories pump out the most heinous weapons of human history, are invited to recruit freely on campus. Through these actions, the University is not only sanctioning and reinforcing the centrality of unquestioned militarism in our society, but also sacrificing its integrity as a place of objective scholarship. Students with a vested interest in these institutions are not free to question them without sacrificing their own success as soldiers, corporate prospects or even Notre Dame students.

Rhetoric to justify these connections is based on lies. The United States military does not spread Catholic values around the world, and the “Catholic patriot” – while an inspiring concept – is a misleading moniker that is blinding us to reality. Our country has dropped bombs on 22 sovereign nations just since the conclusion of World War II, and either covertly or overtly invaded 46. We are the only country to have ever used an atomic bomb, the most extreme example of civilian nondiscrimination. We support terrorist regimes, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Our militarism extends to the marketplace, in which we are responsible for more than 50 percent of the global arms trade, fueling and profiting from violence everywhere in the world from civil wars in West Africa to turf wars in the Bronx. So much spin and constructed ideology has been invented to justify these realities that it has become difficult to hold one’s head above water enough to see the needlessness of the resulting human suffering.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a determinist, or anti-military or anti-American, whatever that means. But I’m calling the bluff. We are not pursuing a just global order. We are pursuing perceived self-interest. And unless the pursuit of self-interest and the preservation of a hegemonic global order at the expense of others is a Catholic value, then we should be witnessing against our militarized society in favor of true progress based on seeking peace and the common good. In contrast, continuing to build up our military only guarantees that we will continue to rely on it.

Historical confrontations over this reality on campus have been resisted by our administration. The 10 students who blocked the entrance to a recruitment presentation by Dow Chemical during the Vietnam War – the corporation responsible for producing the chemical weapons that have left many, including my own father, with Agent Orange cancer and worse – were expelled from the university. Similarly, a recent protest of Raytheon’s presence at a career fair at Boston College left five students on academic probation. What would the response on our campus be like if we invited a corporation who produces abortion needles and instruments to recruit from our student body? Why are Catholic values being marginalized, and in pursuit of what?

We have a responsibility to engage these questions. Can Christians – or any people of good will – ever justify the taking up of arms? Is there a conflict of identity for American Catholics? Should the military be so embedded in our schools? And is the modern nation state an order we should be supporting?

America has an unprecedented degree of global influence. The entire global “self” has been refashioned in the image of our society. As such, ignoring the far-reaching consequences of our actions as a society and blinding ourselves to the suffering we have caused or in which we are complacent strips the humanity of not only the rest of the world but of ourselves as well. Thoughtless support for institutions that are dehumanizing – such as one whose purpose it is to be the most effective killing machine in the world – clearly violates the sanctity of human life and sells short our potential to craft a healthier social order.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. He can be reached at mpoffen@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.