One Hundred Years
If the cadets in these old photos could talk, what would they say about the debate over ROTC? Would they rail over losing their weekends or cutting their hair? Would they protest the militarization of their academic campus? Or would they speak of service and standing strong for their convictions? Or would they ask us why we even care?
Let’s be honest here. We have no idea what they’d say. Even at my advanced age, I don’t know what college students thought over a hundred years ago or even fifty years ago. But I’ve seen enough episodes of "Ancient Aliens" on the History Channel to arrive at pseudo-scientific conclusions based on scant evidence. (We can all agree, of course, that E.T. is out there.)
Maybe the answers depend on what college or university the cadets were going to. Certainly, the ROTC programs at The University of the Philippines, The Ateneo, and The University of Santo Tomas were all different. As we know from the UAAP, not all school basketball programs are created equal. So, too, the ROTC.
Two photos closely examined by U.P. Vanguard historian Edwin Villarico make the point ever so graphically. Both photos were taken at the Fourth Liberty Loan Parade that took place in Manila on October 12, 1918, to raise funds for the U.S. war effort in World War I which, by the way, ended less than a month later. (I wonder where the money went.) Anyway, the first photo apparently depicts cadets from a college with a Navy ROTC program as evidenced by the lousy sailors’ caps haphazardly set on their heads. The cadets are misaligned and looking every which way. One imagines them asking each other what the hell they were doing there on the street instead of in their cool classrooms. I can imagine grousing about the very same thing myself. In contrast, the second photo is of cadets from the University of the Philippines on the march in perfect step and smartly wearing their Pershing caps. We can’t see their faces, but we can feel their pride in their units and their training.
Surely, the thoughts and words of the trainees also depend on the times. A photo from November 1941 shows U.P. cadets on parade with planes from the U.S. Army Air Corps flying overhead just days before the Japanese invaded. What struck me was how young the cadets looked. How innocent. How healthy. With war on the horizon were they grateful that they had been trained to handle a rifle? Or did they think that marching around in shiny helmets was a waste of their precious time? I can’t help but ask myself whether the round-cheeked boy in the picture survived the war. I hope he did.
In 1917 an American newspaper published a photo of U.P. cadets under the headline “University Students in Philippines Respond Eagerly to Military Training.”
Think of the context, however. The young men in the picture were not so far removed from the Philippine-American War and before that the revolution against Spain. Undoubtedly, they had close relatives who fought, died or were massacred in those upheavals. In fact, only a few years before the photo was taken, military training had practically been banned at Philippine universities presumably because the United States government was wary of training former and future insurrectionists. Thus, if we had the opportunity to privately interview one of the cadets in the photo who had responded eagerly to military training, would we find that he was looking forward to being a tool of the imperialists? Or was he motivated secretly by a desire to avenge the death of his brothers? Or did he simply not outgrow his love for playing with wooden toy guns?
Could the Sponsors have made a difference in what the cadets felt about ROTC? I am absolutely sure they did. These photos from three different eras tell the story better than I ever could.
And there might be kids in the old photos who’d say it all depended on the leaders—the cadet officers. They wouldn’t be wrong.
So here we are: Should reserve officer training be mandatory for all college students? For all male, female and LGBTQ+ college students? Or perhaps something closer to scouting in knee socks and neckerchiefs should be required instead? Can every school across the nation provide meaningful training? Or should only certain universities be accredited to conduct ROTC? Do the previously unthinkable events in Ukraine tell us it’s time to consider preparing our young people to fight? Will war in the future be so completely different that ROTC will not prepare anyone at all?
What can history teach us?
I look at the photos and wonder.
[The photos used above are from research work for the coffee table book project to mark the centennial of the U.P. Vanguard. The final product titled The Chosen Few will be available for purchase in December 2022.]