Explaining the Uniform

While tabling in front of the Science Center earlier this year with the Harvard Democrats and the Harvard Republicans, Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadets offered students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to sign Holiday Cards to be sent to servicemen and women overseas. Yet even this bi-partisan and non-politically charged event saw Harvard cadets meet with irrational and often frighteningly humorous chides. The most notable came from a woman who dashed by and yelled “fascists!” at the uniformed students. It seemed comical at the time, and I simply smiled, waved, and asked if she still wanted to sign a card.

However, upon further reflection I became troubled and truly began to wonder if she had heard of that small skirmish in Europe and the Pacific a half century ago? Wasn’t it the United States military that helped preserve our freedom by fighting the very men who embodied fascism? It was a disappointing realization that some in the Harvard community equate U.S. military men and women with the Hitler’s Gestapo and Mussolini’s Italian Army.

I’m not convinced the fascist parallel is prevalent among enlightened citizens, but certainly a large distrust and skepticism of the U.S. military still pervades the campus. This distrust was the motivation for ROTC cadets and its supporters to form a club whose main objective is to dispel the ignorance and false innuendo that hurts our image and unfairly blames cadets for issues we have little to do with. The Harvard ROTC Association (HROTCA), aims to “bridge the gap” between the Harvard community and the military. We want to accomplish this goal through education, compromise and friendship, hoping a direct result would be a greater tolerance at Harvard for those in uniform.

Cadets are continually disheartened by the persistent anti-ROTC sentiment on Harvard’s campus. This sentiment, of course, is largely due to memories of the Vietnam War and the “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t harass, don’t pursue” policy that the military was mandated to implement in the mid-90s. HROTCA recognizes these points of contention and strives to remind students and faculty that the military itself is not an autonomous branch of government but is subordinate to the wishes of the president, Congress, and the courts.

Contrary to popular opinion, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy did not result from the scheming of discriminatory military brass, and certainly did not intend to stymie Harvard cadets from seeking an education. Yet, ROTC is counter-intuitively banned from campus and directly associated with the policy’s creation and implementation. Does the ban make any sense? Civilian government, the very people we vote for, shoulders the responsibility for the policy, but groups and events associated with our government here on campus don’t seem to suffer from the protests and banishment that ROTC cadets have encountered. Is it perhaps just easier to protest and target those who don uniforms because they stick out on campus? Does it take less effort to shout obscenities and badger fellow students than to lobby your member of Congress or petition the president? Certainly the loud and powerful voices of those in opposition to ROTC can be heard bouncing off the walls of University Hall, but are they heard reverberating in the Oval Office?

Still, support for ROTC is growing. The leadership of HROTCA has recognized this trend, and has even received substantial support from the Harvard administration. For this, we are immensely grateful. Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers and his colleagues have been very supportive of those in uniform. He’s pushing to increase funding, has written us letters of support and has even allowed us a page in the yearbook. ROTC, it appears, is finally winning its “30-Years War” with “John Harvard.” Yet, a war among our own people is not what we seek. We truly seek compromise and friendship. In the coming months when HROTCA holds its meetings and events, I encourage everyone to come, regardless of personal opinions. These open forums will be provided as a place to voice concerns, meet Harvard cadets and midshipmen, converse with fellow students, listen to guest speakers and learn about the military.

Outside the realm of HROTCA, I also urge you to approach those whom you see in uniform and talk to us. You’ll find that while we certainly have our opinions, we’re thoughtful listeners as well. ROTC cadets have taken a sacred oath to protect the lives and freedoms of American citizens, even sacrificing our lives if duty calls. It is because of this understanding that we have chosen to work together with the Harvard community and not against it.

Charles B. Cromwell ’02 is a history concentrator in Mather House. He is the Battalion Commander of Army ROTC and is president of the HROTCA.

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