Self-inflicted Wounds: Geographic Homogeneity in the U.S. Army Officer Corps

The belief that the Army Officer Corps should represent the entire nation has a long history in the U.S. Army. President Teddy Roosevelt, in an address at the United States Military Academy in 1902, said this about the demographic makeup of West Point cadets:

(And) of all the institutions in this country, none is more absolutely American, none, in the proper sense of the word; more absolutely democratic than this….here you represent with almost mathematical exactness all the country geographically. You are drawn from every walk of life.[1]

In 1776, Samuel Adams warned of the dangers that a large standing Army posed to the nation:

A standing Army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the Liberties of the People. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens.[2]

Both leaders understood the paradoxical danger that the Army posed to the nation. The same Army that defended the nation could become an existential threat to it. To Roosevelt and Adams, risk mitigation lay in ensuring that the military did not see itself as a group distinct from the rest of American society but rather an integral part of it. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. There is a civil-military divide in the Army Officer Corps that will have negative consequences for the Army and the nation if left unaddressed.

In their book AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from the Military and How it Hurts Our Country, authors Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer craft a finely pointed argument that the United States Armed Forces are neither demographically nor sociologically representative of the people of the United States and that these differences will have long term negative consequences for the United States.[3] Although the causes of this divide are complex, there are two factors that significantly contribute to the civil-military divide in the Army Officer Corps. It is partially a second order effect of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) and partially a result of deliberate resource allocation decisions by the Department of the Army regarding the closure of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) battalions.

Simply put, the more conservative an officer views himself or herself, the less confidence that officer has in those outside the Army.

A survey of Army officers provides some indications that a civil-military divide of the type described in AWOL exists in the attitudes of these mid-career officers. Officers were asked to classify their basic political worldview from very liberal (1) to very conservative (5). The average was 3.45, indicating a group which self-identifies as moderate to conservative. Additionally, the officers were asked the degree to which they agreed with the statements “civilians understand me in my role as a Soldier” and “our political leaders have my best interests as an Army officer in mind.”[4] Among officers who self-identify as liberal to conservative (survey responses 2-4) there is a slight but noticeable negative correlation in confidence in civilians in general and politicians in particular to an officer’s political worldview. However, when those who self-identified as very liberal (1) or very conservative (5) are considered, there is a very strong negative correlation between confidence in civilians and political worldview. Simply put, the more conservative an officer views himself or herself, the less confidence that officer has in those outside the Army.

This general mistrust of civilians in the Army Officer Corps, particularly because it has an identifiably partisan component to it, is not something of which our nation can look askance. The implications of this divide are disconcerting. They include possible loss of confidence by the public in the military as a force for good[5] and loss of confidence by civilian leaders in the objectivity of senior military leaders.[6]

Clearly a civil-military divide exists. What is more difficult to assess is the “why” of its existence. While the question of “why” is probably best suited to a sociology PhD dissertation, a reasonable cause-effect line can be drawn from ROTC battalion closure decisions which disproportionately affected the northeast United States to the current homogenous political composition of the Army Officer Corps.

The implementation of the AVF in 1973 forced changes in how the Army recruited enlisted soldiers. Although the positive impact that the AVF has had on the quality of the United States Armed Forces is not strongly contested, that quality force has come at a high financial and sociological price. Faced with the challenge of persuading young Americans to join the Army, it is not entirely surprising that the Army focused its enlisted recruiting on areas of the country with more limited economic opportunities. This strategy has been successful at meeting Army enlistment needs.

A successful enlisted recruiting strategy does not necessarily equate to a successful officer accession strategy. Unfortunately, that was the assumption that the Army made. That wrong assumption was that an officer is an officer, irrespective of that officer’s demographic, geographic, or sociological background. This bad assumption informed decisions at the Department of the Army to shift ROTC resources from the Northeast to the South and Midwest.

A disproportionate number of ROTC battalions in the Northeast were closed, contributing to an Army Officer Corps that is predominantly Southern and Midwestern.

The shift in ROTC presence from the Northeast to the South and Midwest happened in two waves from 1965-1975 and from 1989-1995.[7] This shift removed or greatly reduced Army ROTC presence in some of America’s largest cities in the Northeast, all the while focusing attention on and devoting resources to smaller population centers in the South and Midwest. A disproportionate number of ROTC battalions in the Northeast were closed, contributing to an Army Officer Corps that is predominantly Southern and Midwestern. Michael Nelson writes:

ROTC moved south, where it was greeted with open arms. From 1968 to 1974, the Army closed 30 units at Eastern schools and opened 33 in the South, both at predominantly white universities like Old Dominion and predominantly black universities like Norfolk State. At the start of this six-year period, there were 123 ROTC units in the East and 147 in the South. By the end, Southern units outnumbered Eastern ones 180 to 93.[8]

Analysis shows further shifts in the late 1980s and 1990s away from the Northeast. During this second wave of ROTC battalion closures, approximately 31% of ROTC battalions across the country were shuttered. However, among the 30 battalions with the greatest populations within 100 miles of the battalion, more than 50% were closed. Not surprisingly, 28 of these 30 were located in the megalopolis of the Northeast.[9]

These closures have not been entirely the fault of the Army. Nelson summarizes some of the external issues that contributed to the closure of battalions in the Northeast. These include resentment by tenured professors of non-degreed officers holding the title of “Professor”, perceived lack of academic rigor in Military Science courses, political pressure from student groups (primarily focused on Vietnam and during the first round of closures), and pressure from faculty and student groups regarding the Defense Department’s exclusion of homosexuals from the Armed Forces.[10] Still, the Army has been complicit, if not tacitly cooperative, in the external efforts to remove or reduce the presence of ROTC in the Northeast. This external pressure provided a conveniently plausible defense to underwrite the decisions to allocate greater resources to areas of the country perceived as more open to ROTC, and by proxy, easier to operate in. Cheryl Miller writes:

Many in the military’s leadership — particularly in the Army — believe that the ‘rough and tumble’ culture of the South and Midwest is more conducive to producing military officers and recruits. In keeping with this cultural bias, the military has been traditionally ambivalent about the value of a liberal arts education to the officer corps, preferring technical majors like engineering.[11]

Major General Robert Wagner, the first commander of the US Army Cadet Command, believed that a liberal arts education of the type many Northeastern schools were committed to providing was at odds with what he believed were the qualities needed in an effective officer: “Physical stamina, decisiveness, and massive common sense.”[12] This limited view of how an Army officer should be educated, external pressures from Northeastern schools over Vietnam and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and financial pressure from Congress combined to create a perfect storm that ultimately led to the near-abandonment of efforts to recruit and train future Army officers through ROTC in the Northeast.

The civil-military divide in the Army Officer Corps is largely a self-inflicted wound. The Army should not stand by and allow it to grow and eventually damage the vital trust relationship the American people have in the United States military. It is within the Army’s span of influence to reduce this divide. One way to do that is by aggressively expanding ROTC’s footprint onto the country’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Doing this would do more than open military careers to many of America’s most talented students. It would also expose the sons and daughters of many of America’s most influential people to the Army. This would begin to close the civil-military divide from both ends. The sons and daughters of America’s upper classes need not be AWOL. What they need is to be asked to serve, and given the opportunity to do so from universities in the Northeast.

Paul Dalen is an Army Operations Researcher. And yes, he has a slide rule on his desk. Among other mathematical pursuits, he blogs about college football analytics at and The views expressed in this piece are his alone and do not represent the US Army or the Department of Defense.

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Header Image: The men & women of the University of Alabama ROTC go through workouts in an indoor athletic facility. (CW/Submitted photo)


[1] President Teddy Roosevelt, “At the Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of the United States Military Academy” (Presidential Address, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY, June 2, 1902), online at (accessed May 26, 2013).

[2] Samuel Adams, 1776, quoted by Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy, The New York Times, May 26, 2013

[3] Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer, AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America’s Upper Classes from Military Service — and How It Hurts Our Country (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

[4] Paul A. Dalen, A Survey of Military Officers in Professional Military Education, Redstone Arsenal, AL, Unpublished, 2013.

[5] Thomas Owens Mackubin, Lessons for a Long War, 2010, quoted online at, (accessed May 26, 2013)

[6] Richard Kohn, “Tarnished Brass,” World Affairs Journal (Spring 2009): online at (accessed May 28, 2013).

[7] Cheryl Miller, UNDERSERVED: A Case Study of ROTC in New York City (Washington, DC: The American Enterprise Institute, 2011), 22-24

[8] Michael Nelson, “The Case for the Academies,” The Claremont Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer 2010): 41-45.

[9] Paul A. Dalen, “ROTC Battalion Changes,”, entry posted May 17, 2013, online at (accessed May 26, 2013).

[10] Nelson, Academies, 41-45.

[11] Miller, UNDERSERVED, 25.

[12] Arthur T. Coumbe, Lee S. Harford, and Paul N. Kotakis, US Army Cadet Command: The 10 Year History (Fort Monroe, VA: New Forums Press, 1996), 212