»  National Review Online

March 27th, 2001

  Fund Junior ROTC


As a conservative, it is with utmost diffidence that I call on the U.S. government to increase their funding of anything at all, but here is a worthy cause that I think needs more money, and it is in the nature of the cause that the money required can only come from the federal government. Bear with me, please.

Like the rest of you, I have friends that I communicate with only at Christmas. These are old friends back in England. When I take a trip over there I try to find time to see them, but I don't always make it. In between times, we exchange Christmas cards, with a few lines to bring each other up to date with family developments.

The particular person involved here is a woman I have known since her just-out-of-college days. I shall hide her behind the name "Amanda," which has no letter in common with her actual name. Amanda was, I have heard, a fierce leftist at college — socialist, feminist, pacifist. Then, a couple of years after graduation, just when I first knew her, she fell for a guy and married him. "May your first child be a masculine child," I growled at the wedding, doing my Luca Brasi impression. It was, and so was the second. The older of these two boys is now 14.

Well, the news this Christmas was that this boy has got into a very good secondary school. It is a state school, not private, but boys-only and with really good academic results.

(NB: Practically all the best schools in Britain are single-sex. Hardly any British people really believe that kids can learn anything in a coed environment. They are, of course, quite right. The evidence is in the "league tables" of British schools nationwide published by that country's Department of Education, based on results in standard examinations. In the league tables for year 2000, for the "advanced level" exams, taken at age 17 plus, the top 20 schools broke down as follows: 11 girls-only, 6 boys-only, 3 mixed. Four out of the five top-ranked schools were girls-only schools. Yes, yes, I know there is a case for coed secondary schools: but it sure doesn't have much to do with academic attainment.)

Anyway, the punch line was, that this wonderful new school Amanda's son has got into has a CCF! Which the boy has joined! And he loves it! Now let me explain about CCF.

CCF stands for "Combined Cadet Force," the British equivalent of Junior ROTC. In my own schooldays every decent boys' school had a CCF contingent. In some schools it was compulsory. That was not the case at my own school, and there was no pressure to join. I think about one in five of us were in the CCF.

Starting at age 12, we mustered every Thursday evening for a parade. We all had uniforms and boots and were expected to be well turned out. There was an hour or so of drill, then a half-hour's instruction in range-finding, weapons care or some such. On lucky days we'd get an Army movie showing, in grisly dare-you-to-look detail, why one should not take live munitions home to use as fireplace ornaments, a thing British soldiers are apparently fond of doing if not shocked out of it.

Three times a year we had "field days," when we would go out into the countryside and stage mock battles. This was royal fun. We were issued rifles for the purpose — the school had a good armory — and half a dozen blank rounds. It was a point of honor to fire at least one of your blanks into a cow pat when the officers weren't looking. Our rifles were the Lee-Enfield .303, the basic infantryman's weapon in both World Wars.

When you got to the senior school, at age 16, you could be a Bren-carrier for your platoon. This was really exciting.

The Bren is a light machine gun, and for training purposes was issued with "bulleted blanks" for automatic firing. A machine-gun won't fire on automatic with a regular blank, because it is the pressure of the expanding gas behind the bullet as it travels up the barrel that drives the mechanism to bring the next round into the breech. So they give you rounds fitted with a wooden bullet, and a baffle that fits over the muzzle of the gun to shatter the round as it emerges, sending the splinters flying sideways in a harmless shower.

I hope I will not be accused of inciting any horrid crimes if I tell you that it is very thrilling, at age 16, to fire off an automatic weapon at your classmates as they try to storm your position.

(Lindsay Anderson's 1968 nihilist movie If … includes a CCF field-day sequence, starting around 1h28m30s here. The schoolboys there are armed with Lee-Enfields and Brens, as we were. Later in the movie the Sten makes an appearance.)

And, oh, there were vacation camps at regular army bases, and range courses where you learned to shoot at 200 or even 500 yards, and "arduous training" courses, where regular Army PT instructors did their best to kill you with 30-mile mountain hikes in the pouring rain, and a lot of other fun stuff. CCF was great, and I enjoyed it.

There were air and naval companies, too. The air cadets were taught to fly — not a bad deal, getting a pilot's license at age 17 as part of your state-funded education. I switched from Army cadets to Navy after two years. The sole documentary evidence of my CCF career is a Naval Proficiency Certificate.

Now, I had supposed that CCF went the way of other features of my schooldays: men's hats, pop songs you could sing, smoking on buses, black and white TV. No: it's still there, and in fact making a comeback, as Amanda's letter revealed.

OK, here's my point. If Amanda, a hard-core 1970s leftist-pacifist, could be whooping with pleasure at the thought of her son being in CCF, there must be a lot of other Moms and Dads who'd like the same thing for their sons. (And in some cases, no doubt, their daughters … but let's not complicate the issue at this point.) If folk feel that way across the pond, a lot of folk probably feel that way over here, too.

And why not? Why — unless you are a committed pacifist, in which case good luck to you and please stop reading — why would you not want your kids to experience the kind of structure, challenge and character-building that comes with a little basic military training?

The U.S. equivalent to CCF is Junior ROTC. So far as I can judge, it is a going concern, but not, at least up here in the North East, a very thriving one. To judge from their web site, there seems to be only one high school JROTC contingent here on Long Island (excluding New York City), a region with dozens of high schools.

Now, we hear a lot, especially from military people, about the great disconnect between the military and the rest of society. It's not healthy. It's especially not healthy in the U.S.A., whose oldest and best soldiering tradition is that of the citizens' militias. Well, here is a way to close the gap a little, while at the same time enthusing (if my friend Amanda is representative of anything) a lot of Moms and Dads, giving the kids some solid character training — not to mention fun — and helping to spread military values, which are part of the core values of any civilized nation. Try John Ruskin, who knew a thing or two about art: "No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers."

It could hardly cost much. We used to learn a lot and enjoy ourselves with what I now know was mostly cast-off stuff from the regular army. Our battledress uniforms were the style before last, our rifles, as mentioned, the old Lee-Enfield .303. The Bren itself had long since disappeared from the regular army. (A pity: it's a fine weapon, when it doesn't jam.)

We still used the WW2 Infantry Training Manual, the one that opens with Bernard Montgomery's famous assertion that:

The task of the infantry is to find the enemy and kill him.

We didn't know everything was second-hand, and we wouldn't have cared. The most basic military equipment — tents, packs, boots, rifles — doesn't change much, anyway.

So there is my plea, Mr. Secretary of Defense. Let's put some resources into JROTC. It is cheap, good for the kids, attractive to parents, and civilizing and unifying for our society. Why would we not do this?