David Axe’s Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War is a short (111 pages) examination of the Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). The program, which has a presence on 270 college campuses around the country, allows cadets to get their education at civilian colleges while receiving military training through the ROTC. It amounts to cadets essentially “minoring in the military” according to Axe, with ROTC participants doing physical training several times per week, participating in weekly training exercises practicing military skills such as marching, doing occasional weekend-long training exercises, and spending at least one summer at an Army training school. In exchange, some cadets receive scholarships and guaranteed placement as an officer in the military upon graduating in exchange for an eight year commitment to military service.
Axe’s book follows the experiences of the University of South Carolina’s ROTC unit–the Gamecock Battalion–from 2001 to 2004. Axe describes the day-to-day experiences of being in ROTC by writing of physical training, training exercises, simulated combat, and scrutiny of commanding officers. He presents the ROTC experience in a fairly objective manner, making judgments only about the antiquated equipment and training approaches, but generally allows the experiences that he relates to be read with little judgment from him. The activities of the cadets, from the pressures to succeed in academics to the almost nightly partying, are related in detail throughout the book. More interesting is Axe’s examination of the emotions of the cadets and the fears, hopes, and aspirations that they have about their military service. He explores why many of the cadets enlisted, uncovering a mix of people enlisting for patriotic, family, and economic reasons. Axe provides some confirmation of common criticisms of the military when he writes about cadets not receiving the scholarships that they were promised, sexual harassment of female cadets, and over representation of males and Caucasians in portions of the officer corps. Nevertheless, these criticisms are fairly muted and instead Axe simply relates the experiences of the Gamecock Battalion and allows readers to make their own judgments about ROTC.
While short, Army 101 provides an informative look at one of the military’s more bizarre components, the portion of the military that Axe terms “undergraduates with guns.” Each year, college students masquerade as soldiers using dummy weapons, outdated equipment, and outdated training exercises as the military attempts to prepare them for their future as soldiers. It becomes clear from reading Axe’s book that just in terms of preparing soldiers for war there are problems with the ROTC, but those problems go beyond such tactical issues. As Axe points out, ROTC mirrors the Army’s institutions and ideologies and sexism, misogyny, and racism abound. The book could have been more critically engaging of the ROTC and its promises of college money, as Axe provides no statistics examining how many students actually get scholarships or the dollar value of those scholarships. Such details would have been helpful for evaluating ROTC as a whole. Axe concludes by briefly describing the experiences of some former cadets who have gone to Iraq, making it clear that most cadets are destined to serve in Iraq.
David Axe, Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War, (University of South Carolina Press, 2007).