J.R.O.T.C. Textbooks Offer an Alternative View of the World

One textbook for high school military cadets says girls should wear lipstick when in uniform. Another offers what a history professor described as a “frightening” interpretation of how the Vietnam War was lost. Another blames the death of Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana frontman who fatally shot himself in 1994, on heroin addiction.

A majority of public school textbooks receive extensive professional and government vetting, undergoing revision, rejection and public debate. But the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, in courses taught at thousands of high schools around the country, uses textbooks that have bypassed those standard public reviews.

The J.R.O.T.C. curriculum materials cover a wide range of subjects, with lessons on financial literacy and public speaking, on healthy eating and first aid, on preparing for college and life in the military. Most of them offer a presentation similar to what might be found in any public high school study materials.

But a New York Times review of thousands of pages of the program’s textbooks found that some of the books also included outdated gender messages, a conservative shading of political issues and accounts of historical events that falsify or downplay the failings of the U.S. government.

Here is a closer look at 10 issues covered in the texts:

Gulf of Tonkin

A textbook produced by the U.S. Air Force informs students that the United States entered the Vietnam War after the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.

But the authors never mention a key part of the story: It was the report of a second, full-on attack two days later that led Congress to approve America’s escalated involvement in Vietnam — and that attack, history eventually revealed, never happened.

A review of that history published by the U.S. Naval Institute concluded that the second incident did not happen and that U.S. officials, including the nation’s defense secretary, “distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.”

A textbook that the Navy distributes to J.R.O.T.C. students is more forthcoming than the Air Force book but says only that “evidence gathered later seemed to indicate the alleged attack may never have occurred.”

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The textbooks give students an overview of the dangers of alcohol and drugs, warning especially about marijuana. One textbook from the Navy falsely claims that marijuana is more likely to cause lung cancer than cigarettes.

An Air Force textbook published during a time when states were approving both medicinal marijuana and broader legalization measures offers a critical take of those trends, saying that voters who approved such measures “do not necessarily understand how harmful a substance like marijuana is.”

“These new laws may make it seem as if it’s safe or ‘OK’ to use marijuana,” the textbook says. “However, it’s not OK!”

Air Force officials, in response to a query from The Times, said they would be reviewing that section for possible revision.

One textbook implies that Kurt Cobain died because of a heroin addiction, omitting the fact that it was a gun that ended his life.

Grooming and Etiquette

A Marine Corps textbook tells female cadets that, in uniform, they should wear lipstick and shape their hair in an “attractive feminine style.”

In an era when women are fully integrated into combat jobs, an Army textbook details how men should not sit “until all the ladies at his table are seated.” It recommends that men help women sit down.

“If a lady leaves the table at any time, the gentleman who seated her rises and assists with the lady’s chair,” the book says.

Army officials said in a statement that their pages were designed to “teach cadets about customs, courtesies and etiquette referring to military balls and other formal events.”


An Army textbook begins by laying out the case for diversity, saying it can enrich culture and make people more understanding of others. The text then notes that some people fear that diversity could erode “social cohesion.”

“This could also damage our ideas about the common good, as people become more focused on their own self-interests,” the text says. The section ends by asking students: “Is there such a thing as too much diversity?”

The Army said in a statement that the lesson was intended not as a statement on multiculturalism but as a critical thinking exercise.

Libya Bombing

A Navy textbook describes the U.S. bombing of Libya in 1986, carried out in response to an attack at a dance club in Germany.

The U.S. conducted the bombing “with the agreement of most of its European allies,” it says. But Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in Middle East politics and who reviewed excerpts from the J.R.O.T.C. textbooks, noted that Spain and France were so opposed to the bombing that U.S. flights had to go around their airspace.

Iran Air Flight 655

A Navy textbook puts a defensive spin on a disastrous 1988 incident in the Persian Gulf, when a U.S. Navy missile cruiser shot down an Iranian passenger jet inside Iranian airspace. All 290 people aboard Iran Air Flight 655 were killed.

Mr. Zunes noted that the textbook called it an “unfortunate incident” and downplayed the culpability of the U.S. military, saying the airliner had approached the Navy vessel “in what seemed to be a threatening manner.” But a Navy investigation found that the aircraft had been “on a normal climb” out of Iran and “within the established air route” toward Dubai.

The U.S. Military in Vietnam

Two of the Navy’s textbooks examine why the U.S. military did not succeed in Vietnam, a failure that continues to be scrutinized and debated to this day. One section is titled “Restrictions Hinder Victory” and describes how political leaders limited who and where the military could bomb.

“According to many analysts, America lost the Vietnam War largely because of these limitations,” the other textbook says. (That text goes on to question recent limitations placed by political leaders on the military in conducting an air campaign against Islamic State militants in the Middle East.)

That assessment is far from universal, especially among the many historians who have studied the Vietnam conflict. They have largely concluded that many factors — including, perhaps most important, the messy political dynamics in the region — meant that a U.S. military victory was not achievable within any reasonable cost.

Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, a history professor at Columbia University who specializes in the Vietnam War, said the text gave a false interpretation of the war.

“It’s one of those hawkish, conservative military history interpretations of the war that says if the military had not had to fight with one arm behind its back, it would have won. That’s wrong,” said Ms. Nguyen. “It’s frightening what’s being written.”

Second Amendment

One typical civilian classroom textbook in California, dealing with the Second Amendment, informs students that the courts have allowed the government to regulate firearms. A Texas textbook in a similar section on constitutional amendments does not include information about how the courts have interpreted the amendment.

But a textbook used in the Navy’s J.R.O.T.C. program offers a different analysis than either one of them, saying: “This amendment prevents the government from forbidding citizens to own weapons.”

Robert E. Lee

In introducing freshmen students to the idea of leadership, a Marine Corps textbook offers the Confederate general Robert E. Lee as an example to emulate. Lee, the textbook says, “showed, in his attitude and appearance at Appomattox, that he was an officer and a gentleman.”

Trail of Tears

In discussing the history of how Native Americans were forced from their lands in the southeastern United States during the 1830s, a Marine Corps textbook describes what is widely known as the “Trail of Tears” as a “march” and a “trek” to lands west of the Mississippi River that spanned several months and thousands of miles. But the text omits any mention of the brutal reality of that mass removal: Thousands of Native Americans died along the way.

What the Military Says

Military officials said they sought to regularly review and update textbooks used in J.R.O.T.C. training, relying in part on instructors and consultants to shape the curriculum. Some of the textbooks highlighted were published years ago, they said, and are coming due for the periodic reviews that are conducted “to ensure the information is updated, relevant and accurate.”

In response to inquiries from The Times, some of the service branches said they planned to take a closer look at some of the highlighted passages. The Marine Corps said it was “grateful for the attention highlighting these necessary modifications.”

Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.

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