Military booths at U of M conflict with university values

Military antithetical to post-secondary education’s commitment to pluralism

Students walking through University Centre two weeks ago would have seen a number of U of M career fair stands advertising jobs in various public and private sector industries.

Nestled among the run-of-the-mill, boring employers such as Boeing Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency and PepsiCo Foods Canada was a recruitment booth for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

Alongside the typical brochures, the CAF’s stand featured a display of decommissioned explosive devices and a rocket launcher — an attraction sure to appeal to the type of young people who know the names of all the weapons featured in Call of Duty by heart.

Regular readers may notice that this is the second article to take a stand against military recruitment in universities. They might be wondering — why write another opinion piece about the military booths? Didn’t we already hear about how their exploitative recruiters target young people with promises of free education? Do writers at the Manitoban just have an axe to grind against our boys in uniform?

Well, I raise this issue not simply to reiterate these same arguments or because I’m some radical pacifist who is against the very idea of the military. I am, but that’s a separate issue entirely.

I find it necessary to continue to hammer this point home for a more fundamental reason: the military is diametrically opposed to the values represented by an institution of higher education. Namely, the commitment to peaceful resolution of differences through reason and debate, as opposed to violence.

People make a lot out of the idea that universities should be hallowed sanctuaries of free speech. Often these debates become overblown media spectacles that exaggerate the alleged threat posed by “the left” to the sanctity of free speech, such as Jordan Peterson’s fearmongering about supposed “compelled speech,” or Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre’s pledge to withhold federal grants from universities that fail to meet his standard for upholding free speech.

While this media discourse about free speech can often be vapid and hollow, we should not lose sight of the truth. Universities must remain committed to the ideal that humans, as thinking creatures, can resolve our differences peacefully and arrive at the truth through a careful process of comparing and contrasting opposing viewpoints. Contrast this ideal with a simple, time-honoured observation: truth is the first casualty in war.

It is a well-known fact that in times of war, free speech, dissent and open debate are stifled. Examples of this include Canada’s suppression of “objectionable speech” via the War Measures Act during the First World War, the use of the United States’ Espionage Act around the same time for a similar purpose or laws passed amid the hysteria of the War on Terror — such as the PATRIOT Act — all of which suppress free speech.

The military is not an institution that easily co-exists with the idea that opposing viewpoints can come to a peaceful resolution. Take the tensions between the United States and Iran over the latter’s potential nuclear weapons program as an example.

This diplomatic crisis that had already been peacefully resolved by former U.S. president Barack Obama’s deal with the country in 2016 was complicated by the sabre-rattling of high-ranking military officials from both countries who never supported it. Efforts for peace were ultimately undermined completely when former president Donald Trump backed out of the
deal in 2018.

President Joe Biden’s efforts to resurrect the deal have been challenged by a group of 46 retired generals and admirals, who signed an open letter expressing opposition to renewing any kind of peace agreement with Iran.

Nationalism and militarism breed exactly the kind of groupthink mentality that degrades our ability to find common ground and see the validity in other people’s perspectives. Throw in recent scandals regarding white supremacists and rampant sexual misconduct within the CAF’s ranks, and it’s clear that the armed forces as an organization does not respect the
pluralism that universities thrive upon.

At least we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that military recruiters are hardly effective. In a recent poll, 79 per cent of Canadians said they were unlikely to consider a career in the air force or the army, while 83 per cent said they were unlikely to consider joining the navy.

The CAF is dealing with a recruitment crisis. Rather than adding a planned 5,000 troops to its ranks, the army is facing a shortage of over 10,000 trained members. About one in 10 positions are currently unoccupied.

Few Canadians want to join the military, but many born into lower-income families may not see another viable option to get affordable education. As last week’s comment piece pointed out, the recruitment brochures highlight the CAF’s commitment to pay for the post-secondary education of many recruits.

Maybe instead of allowing our universities to facilitate the military’s exploitation of the poorest members of our society, we should offer post-secondary education free of charge. Our education system’s values of striving for an egalitarian society that offers upward mobility and a space for free expression are consistent with both opposition to militarism and with providing free university.

Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that our nations will always need a military, it seems reasonable to expect the schools committed to teaching our young people the value of thoughtful debate to not allow institutions centred on violence to lure students in with flashy displays and the promise of financial security.

Instead, universities wash their hands clean of the whole moral issue, treating the military as just another organization looking for employees, rather than an arm of the state looking for more recruits willing to be sent into dangerous conflicts across the world.

Maybe this is too much to ask from universities. As establishments deeply interconnected with the network of government institutions and organizations that generally make up the status quo, perhaps a bland neutrality bias and a “both sides” approach is all we should expect.

If that is the case, however, then comparing the actual role of universities to the ideals they claim to stand for leaves a lot to be desired. It is not sedition for universities to recognize the serious disconnect between the aims of higher education and the aims of the military, and to strive to maintain a degree of separation between the two.