Sisyphus’ Lament

Why I hated ROTC

SINGAPORE—The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) was the worst part of college. After over 200 hours-per-student of marching back and forth in the hot sun, we only learned to line up to be shot in a neat row. It was mindless, pointless and an utter waste of time.

My Ateneo de Manila Class of 2001 was one of the unfortunate last batches required to complete the ROTC before the law changed in 2002. That felt so much worse than buying new sneakers the day before a 50-percent off sale.


My platoon grudgingly assembled one Saturday afternoon in Ateneo’s Bellarmine field. Being under the air force, we wore the love child of a blue polo barong and combat fatigues. We looked more like glorified clerks than soldiers.

We learned to follow shouted orders, like puppies, minus the toilet training. The first task was to, on signal, arrange ourselves in neat rows, by height, one arms length apart. We foolishly argued over who was half a centimeter taller. We each memorized who is supposed to be beside who to avoid going through all that again.


An ROTC cadet officer deserves a PhD in psychology. Imagine having to appear enthusiastic Saturday after Saturday about the zombie drills, yet accept that you have no real authority. They cunningly led by sympathy, nudging conscripted drones into humoring them and getting it over with, making sure never to trigger a mutiny. Occasionally, we could be fooled into a fake competition with the other drones across the field.

We then marched in neat rows in longer and longer distances. Turning in neat rows even felt like an achievement. Someone will always turn left when someone shouts right the first few times. Then our officer and psych war genius whispered conspiratorially that we would be taught a special command that would have us turn 45 instead of 90 degrees.

ROTC was on Saturday afternoons, after morning classes, so it effectively devoured half your weekend. Four semesters of Saturday afternoons was over 200 hours of your life.

Even puppies should learn faster, ROTC was demotivatingly slow.

ROTC taught crucial discipline. A few weeks in, my friends scolded me for still having perfect attendance. I called in sick for the next three Saturdays. Our officer even told us in advance which dates not to intentionally use our allowed absences on. I learned to exert the absolute minimum effort to get by.

Some of us were so disciplined that we brought our calculus textbooks, ready to sneak a precious 15 minutes of memorizing Greek symbols each break.

The ideal cadet sergeant is the biggest bully in the group, or at least has the most friends. The officer can string us all along by appealing to the sergeant’s ego. I told the sergeant one inspection that I just had a haircut the previous week. He immediately told me in front of the platoon to make my excuses more believable. So I learned that better excuses preserve friendships.


ROTC gave us great military insight. After several weeks of marching, we earned the right to draw rifles from the armory, ancient M1 Garands modified so they could never be fired. The important thing, we were told, was that they were as heavy as real guns. That was as close as we got to touching actual military equipment beyond our boots.

ROTC instilled deep respect for human rights. We theorized that female students exempt from ROTC were in less danger of flunking accounting. We floated plans for gender discrimination class actions.

My country club-style ROTC cannot compare to national service in Singapore and South Korea, where one might serve in the commandos. For example, army service there is an important social equalizer.

When I began organizing events for Singapore’s Harvard association, a longtime officer and publishing executive named Arthur Lee mentored me. He would recount being a newly minted, by-the-book lieutenant resented by his men. He complained to his commander, asking to be given capable college graduates to lead. He was quickly asked if he wanted to be the first officer in the history of the Singapore army to have his entire platoon court-martialed.

Some of Lieutenant Lee’s conscripts became lifelong friends. His proudest moment came when a noodle vendor’s son ending his service promised a free egg anytime his lieutenant would honor his family stall with a visit. Singapore’s highest grossing local movie ever, 2012’s “Ah Boys to Men,” recalls national service. Evaders spark indignant debate.

If I could enslave every idealistic Filipino college student for 200 hours, what could I force them to do to build a better country that they are not already doing?

I still see my old organizations such as the Management Engineering Association, the Ateneo Celadon and the Ateneo Junior Marketing Association organizing everything from leadership seminars to whole day symposiums and movie premieres, complete with the funding. One readily mistakes what they produce from their laptops in between classes for professional ad campaigns, complete with synchronized Facebook profile picture changes to event posters.

The Ateneo Mathematics Society released various infographics on basic statistical principles when these were being debated after the elections, even though it was finals week. The Philippine Law Journal just hosted a talk on the West Philippine Sea with no less than Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and his ancient maps.

Instead of inflicting nonsensical tasks on our students that supposedly instill patriotism and discipline, perhaps we might try groundbreaking, inspiring tasks that instill patriotism and discipline.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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