In a Crimson poll conducted over the weekend, 69 percent of Harvard students said the U.S. should take military action against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attack. Yet only 38 percent of the same students said that, if called to service, they would be willing to serve in the armed forces and take part in an attack against those responsible. The discrepancy between these results seems to show that Harvard students want a military response to terrorism, but they are unwilling to take a personal risk by participating themselves.
If this is true, if Harvard students are in favor of a military response only as long as they can continue to sit comfortably in Cambridge, then one worries for the character of the student body. Certainly most students, and especially most Harvard students, don’t come to college with the intention of dying in a faraway land. But if they are not willing to take that chance, they cannot possibly justify asking others of the same age, but in less fortunate circumstances, to do the same thing.
Furthermore, students were not asked whether they would volunteer for service if America were involved in a protracted war. It is understandable for students to prefer that the professional members of a volunteer military fight in a future conflict. But the students answered that they would not want to fight even if called to service, in which case millions of other 18- to 25-year-old Americans would be in exactly the same situation and might be forced to go in their place.
To be charitable to the Harvard student body, there are possible explanations other than hypocrisy for the poll’s disturbing results. Some students––perhaps many––who favor military action may also demand strict limits on that action, limits that would prevent the level of escalation that a draft would represent. Presumably, these respondents may believe that if a conflict grew large enough to require the use of a draft, then they would no longer be in favor of it, and therefore would be unwilling to serve.
But this new explanation does not reflect much better on undergraduates than the first. The pollsters did not ask, “If the military response involved a draft, would you still be in favor of it?” Students were asked only if they would be willing to serve in the armed forces if called to do so. The mere dislike of a government policy is not enough to justify disobeying it. Serving in the community’s defense when necessary is one of the fundamental responsibilities of all citizens. Only a sincere belief that a war is patently immoral would justify dodging the draft—and if that is the case, one should not be in favor of the military response in the first place.
Perhaps Harvard students are not hypocrites and are not selfish. Perhaps different responses would have been elicited by different questions, or by the same questions in a new order. But such is the nature of polling, and we can only evaluate the results that were obtained and hope that they do not truly represent the feelings of undergraduates nationwide.
We hope that Harvard students consider the implications of this weekend’s poll and reexamine their own opinions. If students are ready to support military action, they must be ready to accept its consequences. And if they are willing to enjoy the benefits of the national defense, they must not refuse when called to serve.