On an unseasonably cold Virginia afternoon I gathered with my family on the first Friday of spring break to bury my grandfather. An unremitting wind tore through Arlington National Cemetery and challenged the practiced precision of six young Marines as they reverently unfolded an American flag and held it taut over the remains of one of their own. With unblinking solemnity they stood still and strong against the wind while 50 feet away seven other Marines aimed their rifles at the sky and, on command, fired three sharp volleys. As the echo of the final shots reverberated through the cemetery, a lone bugler on an opposite hillside pursed his lips for the first notes of Taps.
When the last mournful notes of that born-sad song escaped from the open-mouthed breathlessness of the bugle, the six flag bearing Marines before me commenced to fold. Twelve hands worked in silent unison, tucking the flag tightly in on itself until it had been properly folded into a bunched package of star-spangled gratitude. It was given to an officer who held it between his white-gloved hands, knelt before my grandmother, and presented it to her. I could not hear most of what he whispered to her but the strong breezes of that day did carry three words over to me: thank, you and nation.
There is a natural tension between the armed services and academia and this tension flourishes here at Harvard. We order our Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) peers off-campus to practice their patriotism and though we may cloak this distaste in the contemporary persuasive cloth of gay rights, our true military aversion runs much deeper than that. The hierarchy, order and discipline necessary to maintain the military threaten our coveted sense of individuality; the brute spectacle of war comes as an affront to the practice of reasoned discourse that we strive so seriously to perfect. War as a whole might be avoided, we muse in the academic comfort of a seminar room, if only everyone would read Habermas.
More than that, however, the military functions with a certainty of purpose that strikes us as simplistic and often dangerous. Like good academics, we chisel away at the foundations of belief, morality and religion with unbridled skepticism. We’re ever on-guard against dupery.
Two Septembers ago, Social Studies 10 was introduced as, among other things, an all-out assault on Christianity and nine months later it had proven itself to be just that. Though academia may demand skepticism, we are misguided when we impose our principles on other disciplines and suggest that those who believe in anything with the rigid confidence of a tightly folded flag or a crisp salute just have not thought about it hard enough.
Though skepticism may be an essential part of academic life, we err in asserting that it reigns sophisticated where the less suspicious nature stands simplistic. In “The Will to Believe” William James, himself no rube, wrote, “Moral skepticism can no more be refuted or proved by logic than intellectual skepticism can…The skeptic with his whole nature adopts the doubting attitude; but which of us is the wiser. Omniscience only knows.” While it is our prerogative to believe in nothing before we believe in something that could be wrong, it is not the military’s.
While we sit and contemplate, our military must meet very real threats in the world. Though doubt may be a praiseworthy characteristic in an academic, a similar lack of certitude in war leads to troubled places. And war, unlike a point, cannot always be avoided. Where incredulity serves the scholar, conviction maintains the soldier and if the battle must be cast in terms of good and evil to be won, so be it. Who are we to take the consolation of right away from a dying soldier, to ask that he fight while denying the justice of his cause? The military and the university are designed to meet different ends and we undercut the efforts of the former when we criticize it for not operating by our skeptical standards.
My grandfather was 17 when he enlisted with the Marines in 1942. He lied about his age and used a doctored birth certificate in order to prematurely gain the privilege of storming beaches in the South Pacific. By comparison, I cringe to think about the causes for which I have ever falsely extended my age. He would survive his time in the war and go on to lead a successful life that produced, among other things, me. I can only thank him now by hoping that in the world of veritas, there will be a greater appreciation for those who dedicate their lives to defending it.
Kevin Hartnett ’03 is a social studies concentrator in Cabot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.