Forcing a Military Option

AS the 20th anniversary of the 1969 Harvard student strike occurred yesterday, it is more than slightly ironic that a full batallion meeting of the ROTC took place on campus this semester for the first time since those turbulent days two decades past.

The Harvard Hall drill inevitably raises the issue of the place of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and of the military more generally, on Harvard's campus. But let us not get so caught up in this relatively parochial matter that we ignore the larger questions the very existence of ROTC in its current state should evoke. For a remilitarized country and a war-torn world exist in spite of a demilitarized Harvard.

One lesson to be taken from our nation's recent experience is that the young people sucked into the military, in war-time or in peace, are not to blame for and cannot be the focus of our anger and shame at our government's policies. Thus Professor Laurence W. Wylie's labeling of ROTC students as "students who wanted to practice killing their fellow human beings" is deeply disturbing.

In an era of skyrocketing college tuitions and dwindling financial aid sources, it is hardly surprising that students should feel pressure to take ROTC up on its offer of big bucks for a few years of service. What should appall Professor Wylie is not those students who are financially forced into ROTC if they want to attend Harvard, but rather the government whose misplaced priorities force students to enter the dastardly deal.

It is, after all, precisely because the government feels no obligation to provide adequate financial aid to students of all backgrounds that some are driven to "the selling away of four years of life to get an education," as activist Jaron Bourke '88-89 put it.

IMPORTANT as the ROTC predicament is, though, it looks like so much fluff when you hear about the proposed Citizenship and National Service Act, introduced in Congress by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Ok.) in January.

The bill--brainchild of the Democratic Leadership Council, an increasingly prominent group of conservative Democrats--at first will merely encourage young people to volunteer for civilian or military service. In return for their volunteer service, they will receive vouchers to be applied toward education, job training or the purchase of a home.

After a five year phase-in period, however, the stakes are raised. For most students, national service will at that point become a requirement for receiving federal student aid.

If this bill becomes law, the very concept of equality of opportunity will no longer exist in practice. Although Senator Nunn claims that the bill will "promote upward mobility," it is hard to see how it will serve to do anything but freeze people's current positions in the social structure.

For if one's parents are wealthy enough not to need financial aid, one can go right on to college from high school. But if one is not so fortunate as to be born to a well-off family, one will have no choice but to enter the "Citizens Corps." The gross unfairness of that situation is itself a damning criticism of the bill: how can we as a democratic nation take seriously a policy that explicitly exempts the rich from requirements made of the citizenry?

Beyond the questions of fairness, though, imagine what our country would look like under a National Service Act. Students reliant upon financial aid, since they will have served in the Citizens Corps, will be a few years older than their richer classmates. It seems likely that the division between financial-aid and non-financial-aid students, currently invisible to the casual observer, will become noticeable and significant.

Such a division could take any number of forms--increased campus or national tension or the expansion of a systems based on birth-right. One can only guess at an outcome, but it surely won't be a pretty one.

THESE fundamental problems of unfairness and division are inherent in any service-for-financial-aid trade-off; they would exist regardless of whether the requirement is for civilian or military service. What makes the Nunn bill even worse is that--in the manner of the current ROTC but on a much grander scale--it would force people into the military. Raymond Davis of the D.C. Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism concludes that, because the proposed military voucher is so much greater than the voucher for civilian service, young people "would be likely to take one of the military options."

The irony of 1989 is not merely that one achievement of 1969 Harvard threatens to be overturned. Much more dramatic and troubling than that reversal is the one that the National Service Act, if passed, would achieve.

It is not simply an issue of finding a campus military presence offensive, it is the more basic issue of achieving a campus presence for middle-class and working-class students--on an equal footing.

The Nunn bill would do more to upset equality of educational opportunity than anything since Plessy v. Ferguson. This is the issue for April, 1989.