• Democratic Dialogue Project •
Our project, The Democratic Dialogue Project, aims to create a forum—a literal space and an intellectual climate—to bring Colorado College (CC) students and United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) cadets into dialogue about issues relevant to American public life. In so doing, the project aims to construct a space for the next generation of citizens and military leaders to practice engaging in the sort of dialogue across the military-civilian divide that is so vital to a healthy democracy and yet is so rarely on display in our nation today.
There are a number of occasions for CC and USAFA students to interact in social and athletic contexts, but there are fewer occasions for these two cohorts to come into contact in an intellectual setting and to discuss matters of significance relevant to all citizens (e.g., the proper response to ISIS, healthcare as a question of equality, the place of religion in public discourse, etc.). This reality often results in a troubling lack of genuine understanding between CC students and USAFA cadets that is merely a subset of the breakdown of substantive dialogue between military members and civilians that marks the national landscape. Given that less than one half of one percent of Americans serve in the military, it is easy to understand this state of affairs in which civilians and soldiers live autonomous existences, their paths crossing only in moments when a civilian says to a soldier, “thank you for your service”—a passing remark that offers little opportunity for a genuine exchange of ideas and experiences. This is troubling given that a fundamental principle of American democratic government is civilian control of the military, a principle that requires substantive and sustained dialogue between service members and civilians. This project aims to create a space for just such an exchange. In so doing, it understands college as an ideal training ground for a more robust civil-military dialogue.
Indeed, if, as Andrew Delbanco has recently argued, college should be a “rehearsal space for democracy,” then our project seeks to introduce into the college experience of CC and USAFA students a genuine democratic dialogue across the military-civilian divide.
••• STudent responses TO campus exchanges •••
Critical Discussion: U.S. Involvement in the Middle East
April 4, 2017 • By Helen Griffiths, Colorado College
At the last Democratic Dialogue Event, around fifty Colorado College students and USAFA cadets gathered to discuss US involvement in the Middle East. Each table was assigned a different country. Participants then worked together to propose a potential military and diplomatic response to the problem.
One table, assigned Turkey, discussed whether the US should publicly denounce President Erdogan’s assault on Turkey’s democracy, free speech, and the rule of law. The conversation evolved into a debate over whether the US should close Incirlik, the Turkish air force base that has been so important to U.S. and NATO military operations in the Iraq-Syria theater. A CC student asserted that America’s reliance on Incirlik has without question increased U.S. reluctance to take issue with Erdogan’s most destructive policies, conferring on him great leverage. Indeed, despite urgent US requests, Erdogan only granted American planes the right to fly from Incirlik a year into the war against the Islamic State. The cadets provided crucial insight into the strategic importance of bases. They advocated for this important forward operating presence in regions around the role. As that discussion wrapped up, political science students debated whether the US should condemn Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish minority groups, and if it should take steps to impede Turkey from undermining the stability of the Kurdish-majority north of Iraq. The cadets and students took different approaches, deploying the arguments from articles that they had read in their separate classes, and displaying a preferences for a human rights, or strategic balance approach.
The cadets assigned to Iraq explained some of what they had learned of military strategies when discussing whether Iraq has an effective strategy for fighting ISIS. The conversation addressed whether there was an exit strategy for the US in Iraq and whether the US should become more involved in promoting stability in Iraq, especially between the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish elements. The sharpest debate emerged around the question of whether Iraq should have been included in the President’s executive order banning visas from select Muslim-majority countries. Though the emotional appeals on behalf of refugees and on behalf of the ban provoked some disagreement, both CC students and USAFA cadets agreed that Iraqi armed forces are fighting side-by-side with American forces against ISIS, and many interpreters aiding US forces have been specifically targeted by ISIS and Al Qaeda. The cadets discussed the importance of understanding the cultures ‘on the ground’ and advocated for the role that local allies play in supporting the military in host countries. The students agreed, asserting that those who risked their lives to help the US should now be freely allowed to enter the country.
CC students and cadets discussing Iran immediately dove into the potential consequences if the US unilaterally broke the multiparty agreement with Iran. A CC student argued that the Iran Nuclear Deal was an example of global powers working together to reduce risk, while a cadet advanced that the deal showed a degree of US weakness and needless conciliation. The stance that cadets and students took depended on how they perceived Iran. One cadet argued that the greatest risk facing the US was a nuclear armed Iran. Another cadet saw Iran as more of a regional spoiler struggling for influence with Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. He argued that it did not pose a direct threat to America. A CC student explained that from her experience in Iran, they were a people as eager for peace and stability as many US citizens.
At the table assigned to Israel, Israel’s settlement policy was the first subject of discussion. One student argued the actions of the Netanyahu government had eliminated the prospect of a two-state solution. The cadets and students discussed how the settlement policy was affecting Israel’s ability to project influence around the world. They considered the isolation of Palestine at the UN and other bodies, with a student declaring that it was not right for these bodies to exclude Palestine and not accept it as a member. The CC students were relatively critical of the fact that Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign assistance, which at $2.9 billion per year, is more than twice as much as any other country. Questions revolved around whether this is an appropriate use of our aid, and if the US benefits from this relationship. The discussion addressed whether our support for Israel undermined our relations with other states. There was broad consensus that US foreign policy towards Israel needed to change, with some students arguing for justice for Palestine and some cadets pushing for a more US-centered approach in our relations with Israel.
I spent the majority of my time at the table discussing Syria where three interesting arguments emerged. At first, the cadets and students discussed whether the US should intervene with military force in Syria. A CC student made a strong argument for the humanitarian imperative for intervention. Another CC student countered by suggesting that the cadets, as part of the potential “boots on the ground” solution, might be opposed to this direct engagement. In class at CC, we discuss the potential or necessity of conflict in abstract and often theoretical terms. We consult Morgenthau for the cases of “just” war and use history books as anecdotes to show that similar arguments have been employed to a disastrous effect in the past. The student’s question sought to understand if the cadets spoke about war in a more direct way, considering their own lives and their own careers. She posited that as civilians, war will always feel further away than it might for those who will be directly engaged. However, the cadets immediately replied that it was not a matter of their individual self-interest. They did not consider how conflict might directly impact them. As part of the military, the cadet considered himself to be serving the country and his fellow men and women. He would never view conflict through the lens of his own potential sacrifice or gains. Another cadet agreed and expanded on this argument. “If you think about it, we are actually training for conflict. We spend every day preparing for the eventuality of war and if there were no war, then we would have been training for nothing.” The CC students fell silent.
I had never considered the world that each institution is preparing its students for and what kind of adopted worldview we might eventually perpetuate ourselves.
I had never considered the world that each institution is preparing its students for and what kind of adopted worldview we might eventually perpetuate ourselves. At CC, we are pushed to consider diversity, equity and the pursuit of a more just world. I imagine that many of us will end up in the non-profit realm. Cadets are being prepared for a world of conflict and see the military as a useful and essential tool that America should employ abroad. A world without conflict would be as if we graduated to find that the local NGO was no longer hiring and that all our developed skills no longer served any purpose. The cadet expressed almost an eagerness for war, as the culmination of his personal and profession commitments. Though we are a similar age, the fact that we attend such different institutions, which prepare us for drastically different worlds, impacts our ability to completely relate.
The discussion later turned to the question of refugees. We considered the quote of a 26-year-old civil activist, Majed, when he said, “The disappointment caused by the West's inaction created a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, who told those who had lost their loved ones that they were their only hope.” Three CC students agreed with Majed, concerned about some of the language used in the United States about Muslims and refugees, suggesting that this exacerbates the resentment and distrust of people in the Middle East. The cadets generally agreed, though one cadet proposed the economic problem of accepting refugees. He said, “There are a lot of areas that we need to invest more in, whether it’s rebuilding roads or working on infrastructure or helping the working class get back on their feet.” My CC friend responded with concern about how this argument might be used to keep refugees out. She employed the image of the Statue of Liberty in tears and the necessity of empathy for the pain that the refugees experience.
What struck me were not the different opinions, but the very different ways that the arguments were phrased. The cadet, when discussing the potential economic effects of immigration on the working class, could have structured his argument in terms of the necessity for empathy with the parts of America that have suffered from the relocation of jobs overseas, and the hardship that they face as their plight is too often ignored by a certain group of Americans. The CC student, when making an emotional appeal on behalf of families fleeing warfare, could have discussed the positive economic implications of immigration, as they bring innovation and take on necessary jobs. Though the most convincing argument would have been to frame it in a way that might have appealed to the worldview of the other, we often cannot help but make an argument using the terms and values that appeal to us. It was interesting to watch an open and civil debate, as the argument over refugees reflected a broader understanding of the world and what values are more important than others.
Finally, the cadets and students debated whether the US should worry about Russia creating a proxy state in Syria with permanent access to Mediterranean ports. A cadet began by arguing that the increasing anti-Russian sentiment within the US was destructive, as it crafted an enemy out of a state that was merely concerned with its stability and safety. A CC student reacted by arguing that by interfering in our national elections, Russia displayed outright aggression that was not coherent with a state merely concerned with its direct sphere of influence and region. “What proof is there that Russia interfered in our elections?” came the cadet response. A CC explained that if the Russians spread “fake news” and bots in certain Facebook groups, then this could have influenced people to vote against Hillary Clinton. As the conversation continued, we eventually began to talk about the role of social media in the election. The new role of social media, as it influences our opinions and informs our beliefs, was a point upon which the cadets and students agreed.
The cadets discussed all the photos they saw after the inauguration where the number of people in the crowd might have seemed up for debate. Few CC students had seen any of these photos. Eventually, a cadet and student compared what they saw when they logged into Facebook. The CC student’s was covered in articles about the North Dakota pipeline protests, which the cadet had read little about. “Everyone knows about this, it’s the biggest story,” admonished the student. I began to think about how many times I had actually seen the protest covered in national news. I felt that because I had seen the protests reappear over and over again on my feed that this was surely an issue that was capturing the attention of all. It was interesting to see how, even if we are striving for a lack of partisanship or seeking out “real news” that the place we go to socialize has become political as well. “Facebook is a bit of an echo chamber,” the cadet concluded after considering his own feed through the eyes of the CC student.
The discussion was a crucial opportunity to discuss the role of the US overseas. As we explored the potential military and diplomatic responses to crises facing Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria, we debated a multitude of issues, from conceptions of service to the motivating factors that propelled voters to elect Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Though there were debates and disagreements throughout, the cadets benefited from the engaged activism of students and students gained a more profound insight into the technical role of the military abroad. For two such different institutions to thrive in the same city, there is a strong necessity for events like this where those with potentially contrasting ideological and political views can share their thoughts and listen to the opinions of others.
CC Student Reflects on campus exchange with USAFA
October 4, 2016 • By Aaron Blinderman, Colorado College
My experience at Colorado College has been one of self-set expectation. My obligation to the college is notably broad. I am obligated to attend and succeed in my classes, and I am obligated to “contribute”. In this obligation, I am supposed to be exclusively a student. My academics are first and foremost, but that being a student—that is, to study, and explore—is to be applied in every pursuit in college. It is common to see students to use their time for a variety of pursuits, both for those within the oversight or funding of the college, and those very far without. Students have an impressive amount of time for any use. This was one of the first things that deviated from my reality upon my arrival at the academy. I met my guide in the morning and accompanied him to class, where the students were split up into teams working on the completion of a project that would be used in a very high-profile endeavor by a private company. My host was in charge of the management of these groups in their various pursuits. These students, within a supervised class, had access to and were participating in a huge undertaking that was not just learning, but creation and professional work alongside of paid military experts. While the other two classes I saw were not so “hands-on”, they were equally rigorous. Throughout the day, I was amazed by the organization and drive of all the cadets. Everyone was constantly going someplace, all constantly dressed in uniform, they had little time to themselves during the day, being held to a strict regimen of classes, physical activity, and drills in formation. At lunchtime, the cadets I was talking to froze as colors were presented and the various cadet groups marched in formation to lunch. I felt disorganized and out of sync as everyone else was specifically in tune to the intricacies of protocol that I was unaware of. Throughout the day, I was equally impressed with how documented the students were, any change to routine or deviation from expectations was met with paperwork and a hierarchy of permission. Everything from attending a retirement ceremony to wearing civilian clothing outside of designated hours.
At the end of the day, I discussed the impressive learning that was being accomplished, and discovered that a normal workload of semester classes is considered 5 classes. Besides that, there were mandated athletic classes that ranged from sports such as tennis to scuba diving and parachuting. In addition, cadets were obligated to attend “honor” classes, which go through lessons of the kind of person that is expected of you from the Academy. In addition to all of this are combat skills, and routine obligations required of you as a military cadet. Throughout the Academy, Cadets are obligated to be students, soldiers, athletes, and honorable individuals with a regimen designed to shape and push the best the best qualities of individuals.
The obligation at the air force academy was both precise and multi-faceted. Their obligations were not simply to study, to observe, and to question with their own direction as it is in Colorado College, it is to be prepared to serve in the Air Force in a variety of pursuits. While within the various mandatory expectations, there was significant room to find what you care about or what you enjoy, Air Force Cadets are expected to perform in character, military expertise, academics, and athleticism. During my visit, all the cadets were shouldering a huge amount of responsibility and emerging out of it exceptional in physical accomplishment, academic accomplishment, and military integrity. In many ways, Colorado College students are expected to perform in their academics, but it is up to their own discretion for any other pursuits, to a variety of results. However, what was most notable to me were Cadets’ expression of opinion. As much of their lives at the academy are spent as representatives of the Air Force, their personal opinion about politics is muted. For them, the expectation is that they serve, and have no bias for whomever the Commander in Chief is, or domestic or foreign policy changes—lest it affects their own ability to perform. I saw many observations and detailed remarks, but actual opinions about policy seemed limited to safety and military policy, and personal opinions about other realms in politics were muted. This highly contrasts CC students, who are encouraged to proclaim and argue opinions, and frequently make their points with “I think that…”. There was less of that in the academy, in that many students kept their personal opinions to themselves.
What really stuck out to me about the day was that I saw cadets conditioned to perform a variety of tasks with a responsibility, drive, and efficiency that was, frankly, almost herculean.
What really stuck out to me about the day was that I saw cadets conditioned to perform a variety of tasks with a responsibility, drive, and efficiency that was, frankly, almost herculean. A student was getting scuba certified, boxed, worked in astrophysics, lectured on integrity, trained in the morning, and studied advanced economics all while being held to a high military standard on appearance, organization, and Air Force readiness. However, throughout all of my visit, the question of why, or taking a larger perspective was not emphasized. When asking about policy pushes from the administration to the Cadets, the reason for the policy push was never discussed. Rather the policies themselves and the results of the push were examined. However, as a professor said to me early on in my college career: “The most important, and the most common, question at a liberal arts school is ‘Why?’”. In many ways, the free time at our institution, and in our academics is hinged on that simple question. Colorado College students revolve around questioning, asking why, and challenging the status quo. This difference illustrated part of the divide that exists between Cadets and Liberal Arts Students.
I left at the end of the day being impressed with the accomplishments and responsibilities that cadets shoulder, but reminded that dialogue between cadets and students is an exceptional and important tool. For students, who are so prone to question why, and to form opinions and sometimes quickly move to denounce others, Military Cadets prove an important foil. Their contrasting experience in learning gives them a unique perspective on topics of policy and current events that is more focused on details and substance rather than on opinion and personal feeling. Being able to bring two passionate groups both equally ready to do good in the world together helps both to understand the approach the other will take in everything from policy to tackling challenges. I saw cadets pursuing their own passions and shaping themselves, albeit under a responsibility to many more factors than themselves. This responsibility can help to illustrate a student’s perspective where a lack of direct responsibility can sometimes lead to too much personal opinion and too little substantive evaluation. After my first day, with all of these contrasts and differences, it helped only to cement the need for more exchange and dialogue to expand and enhance both cadet and student perspectives—which will hopefully help to illustrate the gap between civilian and military and begin to bring the two perspectives somewhat closer. Needless to say, I hope I can be back soon, and cannot wait to hear a Cadets opinion of Colorado College.
Democracy Now! host to speak at cc!
Be sure to join us before the event at 5:00pm for appetizers at the Wild Goose Meeting House. We will "pre-brief" the talk with CC and USAFA students! Click here for the associated reading!