NEW YORK (AFP) – US soldiers today face combat in some far-flung places, but it's the battle for Columbia University, right in Manhattan, that could say most about the country they represent.

At issue is whether the prestigious college will end a ban on a military cadet program known as the ROTC that was exiled from most Ivy League campuses four decades ago during the Vietnam era.

The college Senate meets this Friday ahead of a vote next month that will provide a stark look at how US academia -- long a foe of the Pentagon -- feels nearly a decade into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Zoe Willmott, in her junior year of urban studies, the idea of a great university partnering the military is anathema. "In the military you are taught to obey commands, to follow commands, not to think critically and to question what you're doing," Willmott, 20, said.

"This is about allowing a group on campus that is so fundamentally different to what a college teaches you."

But Jose Robledo, a 30-year-old paratrooper sergeant studying political science, says that kind of thinking shows how little opponents -- and the wider public -- understand the professional armed forces.

"Unfortunately the civil-military divide in American society has grown dramatically," said Robledo, who spent nine years on active service before taking an academic break so that he can become an officer.

"People opposing ROTC don't understand where we're coming from, because they don't know what it's like on the other side."

At colleges across the country, ROTC, or Reserve Officers' Training Corps, is often uncontroversial. The program offers scholarships in which students combine normal academic courses with military training, before entering the armed forces.

However, some campuses, notably the left-leaning, hugely expensive Ivy League institutions, booted out the ROTC in protest at the Vietnam war, then extended the ban over the Pentagon's longtime refusal to allow openly homosexual servicemen.

With last December's repeal of the "don't-ask-don't-tell" rule -- effectively allowing gay soldiers to come out of the closet -- Ivy League campuses are entering a historic shift.

Harvard and Yale quickly expressed strong interest in getting the Pentagon to set up ROTC programs.

Meanwhile at Columbia, scene of major Vietnam war demonstrations, debate has been vigorous, grabbing national attention at times.

Ugly newspaper headlines followed a university hearing in February, when anti-ROTC students jeered and called "racist!" at Anthony Maschek, an Iraq veteran who was shot nine times and spent two years undergoing rehabilitation.

Although students on both sides say the scene was uncharacteristic, bitter echoes of the 1960s do haunt the debate.

Robledo -- who combines his Columbia studies with ROTC courses at another Manhattan university where the program is allowed -- says that many of his student peers have no concept of how the armed forces operate.

Seeing him in uniform, "often times people will stop, have bewilderment in their faces," Robledo said.

Veterans feel picked on, in contrast to the support given to every possible other minority, whether religious or sexual.

"You're discriminating," Maschek, 28, told his opponents in an audio recording of the heckling incident. "It's confusing that you want to be discriminatory toward people."

Robledo says veterans pushing for reinstatement of ROTC can also be closed-minded. "There's sometimes a certain elitism -- that 'I fought for your rights to speak up, so shut up,'" he said. "Some servicemen forget that's why we volunteered: to protect the constitution."

Willmott, member of a student activist group called Lucha, insists she does not oppose veterans or servicemen studying at Columbia. "I'm not against individuals joining the military," she said.

But Rich Hanley, a social commentator teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University, said the ROTC debate indicates a vast gap running through the ivory towers of top campuses and far beyond.

"In the all-volunteer army, it's just that the folks who tend to fight our wars are not tending to go to college," he said.

"There's an enormous class divide in America between the soldiers it sends to fight its wars and the elites who stay home."

The result, analysts say, is that even if Columbia does green-light the ROTC, there may not be enough student interest for the Pentagon to want to establish a program there, or at Harvard and Yale, at all.