Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War
reviewed by Alan Neville - August 08, 2007
More than four years after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the American psyche is bitterly divided over the conduct of the war. Freelance journalist and war correspondent David Axe chronicles the training program for future Army officers enrolled at the University of South Carolina in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in his book, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War. Axe provides a sobering assessment of the preparation of the United States Armys future military leaders.
Anyone interested in the training of Army leaders, especially parents and future cadets, will find Axes narrative of the ROTC program a realistic and no-holds-barred journal of the preparation that turns young college students into professional leaders during a time of war. He traces the origins of ROTC and lauds the all-volunteer force. ROTC is the best system for preparing officers for military service (p. 9). Axe reveals that well over one-half of all military officers are trained in ROTC programs around the country. The other sources for the officer pool are the service academies like West Point for the Army and Officer Candidates School (OCS.) What is noteworthy about ROTC cadets is that these future leaders are citizen-soldiers. They spend a large part of their time just being college students; that is, cramming for finals, partying with friends, and expressing concerns about Americas involvement in Iraq. But these cadets also do soldier-specific things, such as waking up at 5:30 a.m. to do physical fitness training, rappelling from towers, and learning to kill.
The culmination of the program, or the final exam of ROTC (p. 97), occurs during the summer between the cadets junior and senior years. This test of the cadets skills is called Advanced Camp and here, for approximately four weeks, the cadets perfect their skills in marksmanship, demolition, physical fitness, troop movement and marching, land navigation with a map and compass, and most importantly, their ability to command respect and lead their troops. During this time, the cadets will also determine the branch (like Aviation, Transportation, Chemical, Medical, Infantry, etc.) to which they will be assigned.
The reader is also indoctrinated into the traditions of the Gamecock Battalion, established in 1917 at the University of South Carolina. In 2004, the Gamecock Battalion numbered about 80 cadets, of which 25% were women and 31% were Black (p. 31).
Later, in Chapter 13, entitled The X Chromosome Quandary, Axe explores the gender dilemma facing todays Army. He paints a realistically vivid picture of less than perfect attempts at equality noting, in the U.S. Army the sexes are not equal and the resentment between them is real. (p. 93). Ironically, and perhaps hypocritically, female soldiers are routinely exposed to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), small arms fire, and mortar or rocket-propelled grenades, yet they still are barred from being part of close-quarters combat jobs. Unfortunately, these same combat positions are often prerequisites to career advancement for officers.
No stranger to the combat zone, Axe had, at last count, traveled to Iraq six times. He is all too familiar with the situation on the ground and has written numerous articles for Military.com, The Village Voice, Defense Technology International, Popular Science, and The New York Times, to name a few. Axes experience enables him to navigate the bureaucracy and translate the inexorably incomprehensible military jargon to present an easy-to-read narrative of real military life, particularly that of ROTC cadets.
To illustrate his narrative, Axe presents a varied cast of characters, young men and women who chose to enroll in the ROTC program at the University of South Carolina. Many of these future leaders will be asked to make life and death decisions on the streets of Iraq or Afghanistan in the very near future. If there is a weakness of Axes book, it is that we only glimpse at the cadets during their training programs, but we do not get to see how they ultimately perform on the battlefield. Axe followed the cadets from their enrollment in the ROTC program in 2001 to their commissioning ceremony in 2004. The reader is left to speculate about whether their training was effective and what will happen to these Army officers when confronted with the combat situations found in the battlefields. Nevertheless, the scope of such an endeavor would likely be enough to fill its own book.
The real value of Axes book, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War, is that he dispenses with the rose-colored glasses and the glamorized commercials in favor of realistic description of ROTC training in vernacular that is easy for the nonmilitary reader to understand. He also makes it clear that this program may not be for everyone, much as the all-volunteer military is not for everyone. Military experience requires an understanding that military life, especially in a time of war, is oftentimes challenging and sometimes downright unpleasant. The reader understands that the ROTC program produces leaders who are expected to and will face decisions that may result in deadly consequences for both the leader and those who may depend on him or her. Therefore, the goal of the ROTC training program is to turn out tomorrows officers with the ability to face these challenges with confidence, integrity, and intelligence.
Preparing military leaders for the frontlines of a war zone is serious business. The author emphasizes the importance of such a task in his chronicles of the cadets in one ROTC battalion as they embark on this journey to prepare for future leadership. The reader follows these young people as they prepare to assume life and death decisions at the conclusion of their four-year program. These cadets swear an oath that they:
will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all
enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to
the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations
or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the
duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; so help me God. (p. 111)
This preparation takes a special commitment that only a small percentage of Americans are willing to make and uphold.