When Harvard announced that Army ROTC would return to campus, joining its Navy counterpart, the campus seemed to give little notice to the news. Granted, even the protests against the Naval ROTC program’s return had been quite tepid, especially compared to the raucous building occupations and protests that occurred in 1969. Yet, it seems that the previous return of Naval ROTC had taken the wind out of the anti-ROTC movement’s sails.
A few days later, however, there appeared an editorial in The Crimson criticizing Army ROTC’s return from an angle different from that of the usual anti-ROTC crowd. William Ryan, rather than falling back on the discrimination argument, argues that ROTC’s status as an academic department controlled by the military makes it unsuitable for a university such as Harvard. The presence of ROTC on campus is necessary to bridge the gap between academia and students and the military and studies of military history. Most importantly, the notion that ROTC’s “pre-professional aspect” is an “anathema to the idea of Harvard as a liberal arts college” are far smaller issues than the consequences of excluding ROTC from Harvard.
Ryan’s argument of ROTC rudely violating the sacred halls of academia fits well within the general decline of military study in academia. Victor David Hansen, in The Father of Us All, notes that after the 1960s, the study of military history fell out of vogue after the general anti-war sentiment, to the great detriment of academia. Hanson, in an earlier blog post on the same subject, notes that the military historian Edward Coffman could only identify twenty-one professors out of over a thousand that identified war as a field of focus. While the effects of war on cultures and political decisions are well-studied, these remain meaningless abstracts without a solid understand of the battles which drive these consequences. The pilot program of offering some courses on Harvard’s campus in Fall 2012 bodes well for a greater exposure of Harvard students to military history.
To address one of Ryan’s concerns, ROTC indeed contains much coursework of a “pre-professional” nature. ROTC, however is simply a plan of coursework and not an entire concentration. Certainly, cadets and midshipmen gain instruction in military-specific courses; but, they still benefit from the broader liberal arts curriculum at Harvard. If we are to follow to the pre-professional argument against ROTC, wouldn’t engineering students also be violating the liberal arts spirit at Harvard by pursuing courses in a school of “Applied Sciences?” Harvard certainly should be a liberal arts university first, but this status is hardly shaken by the presence of a very specific department which offers some courses of a “pre-professional” character. Furthermore, the question of whether this violates the “idea of Harvard as a liberal arts college” means little compared to the question of how well Harvard is living up to its duty to serve the United States.
The greater problem is that Ryan characterizes the classes of ROTC as if they were just any “pre-professional” course selection. As he says, “neither the military nor anyone else should be allowed to compromise the fact [that Harvard students are not here for the pursuit of a job].” This sentiment underscores the great disconnect that so many at Harvard have with the military and emphasizes the necessity of a ROTC department at Harvard. How far has Harvard fallen from its history that the military is considered just another job? Harvard may not have the catchy slogans of “For God, For Country, and For Yale” or “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” but the concept of public service certainly carries great weight at Harvard. What should be recognized is that throughout Harvard’s history, “public service” has included fighting, and dying, for the United States. Harvard in fact was a pioneer in Army ROTC in 1916, hosting one of the first units established. Phillip A. Keith, author of Crimson Valor, notes that Harvard University has produced the most Medal of Honor recipients, seventeen, of any civilian university in the United States. Any visitor to Sanders Theater has surely seen the grand nave of Memorial Hall, with its stone tablets of Harvard men who died to preserve the United States in its most vulnerable time.
With due respect to our international students, and recognizing the importance of a global outlook, the fact that Harvard has served the American military must be especially noted. After all, a memorial at Harvard exists for its alumni who died for the Union, not the Confederacy. This university, as a reminder, lies within the United States, and the academic freedom of its liberal arts character has been secured by its alumni and all others who have served in the United States military. In light of the Crimson blood spilled to defend this university and this nation, calling ROTC instruction “trade school” coursework is an insulting understatement. If Harvard has reached the level of moral relativism to the point that it cannot recognize the military’s special role in society, it not only disgraces its long history of heroes, but shamefully fails to recognize such a vital aspect of public service.
For the rest of the student body, the presence of ROTC on campus will provide a vital exposure to the military. Already, half of Harvard’s incoming classes come from regions of the country greatly underrepresented in today’s military. If this gap widens, it will only further hinder military-civilian relations and reinforce the pernicious stereotype of the ivory tower. Even if one considers the presence of any “pre-professional program” a blow to Harvard’s liberal arts character, this is a necessary price to pay. Likewise, Ryan’s argument against surrendering academic administration must been viewed in this light. As a concession, he posits that ROTC could exist on campus if Harvard had full control over it. To have an independent ROTC battalion would completely undermine the structure of the military, and it is clear this proposal is made with the knowledge that the military would reject it. Ryan seems to consider the return of ROTC as a dispensation to a certain group outside the rules of Harvard. Rather, it is a recognition of the military’s unique place within American society and an honoring of Harvard’s long history of service to the United States military.