Give the Military Another Look

A year ago the events on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 found me alone a few thousand feet above Corpus Christi, Texas. I was about 20 minutes into a routine training flight in my T-45 Goshawk (the Navy’s jet trainer) when the radio traffic suddenly got very busy. Within a few short minutes, I was instructed to abort my flight, return to base and land as soon as possible. Once on the ground, as I shut down my jet, a member of the ground crew climbed up to the canopy and told me over the noise of the flight line that the World Trade Center and Pentagon had been attacked.

The events of the rest of that day are hazy, but I remember immediately thinking about the many Harvard friends I knew who had taken jobs in finance after graduation and were working that day in Manhattan. While I had joined the military two years earlier with the expectation that I would some day be in harm’s way, little did I know that my fellow economics concentrators working in New York City had more to fear than me.

Part of me that day felt a thirst for revenge. The battle had been brought to us with a surprise attack on our home soil that killed thousands of innocent civilians. Who in the world thought they could do this to the United States and get away with it? But that feeling was tempered by the satisfaction I felt in knowing that at some point in the future I would get to play a direct part in the country’s response in the new War on Terrorism.

Fast forward to the present and I find myself near the end of training and only a few short months from being assigned to my first fleet squadron. The F/A-18 Hornet I fly and I are about to become part of the tip of the U.S. military’s spear. And while the tactical air mission in Afghanistan is all but complete, it is still a good bet that carrier-based Navy jets will have a role in whatever military action is required for the next phase of the War on Terrorism—be it in Iraq or somewhere else.

What troubles me, though, is that so few Harvard alums will be out there with me. In a poll taken by The Crimson two weeks after Sept. 11 last year, a large majority of Harvard students agreed that the U.S. should take military action against the perpetrators of last year’s attack. However, only 38 percent of the same students said they would be willing, if called upon, to serve in the military and take part in an attack against those responsible.

Can’t we do better than that? It is one thing to have a moral or conscientious objection to war; it is quite another to think military action is fully warranted, but only as long as is does not interfere with any future plans one might happen to have. What does that say about the character of the student body? Harvard students sometimes claim to be and are often thought of as America’s future leaders. In times of crisis, however, leaders are supposed to step to the front, not cower in the rear.

To the juniors and seniors, then, I issue this challenge: Before graduation, take a second look at joining the armed services.

I realize the last time many students thought about the military as a future career was during the college application process—possibly considering options like West Point, Annapolis or a Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship. Or, perhaps like me, at 18 the thought of joining the military seemed about as likely as joining the circus. If I had been told during my first year at Harvard that soon after graduation I would be getting whipped into shape by a Marine Drill Instructor at the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, I would have responded that the draft must have been reinstated.

Obviously, things changed for me by the time my senior year rolled around. After being set to follow the masses toward investment banking or consulting, I reconsidered. Desk jobs or graduate school could always wait; the chance to pursue my passion for aviation and serve my country at the same time could not.

Naturally, I am not the only one out there who has had second thoughts about the career they had planned out as a first-year. So take a look at the armed services. The military is always looking for talented and motivated officers who are ready to take on responsibility from day one. For those set on graduate school right away, we can use doctors and lawyers. But we also need pilots, nuclear engineers, platoon leaders and intelligence officers.

In the years ahead, as we face perhaps the largest national security threat in the history of this country, the U.S. military could benefit substantially from the talents and perspectives that some Harvard alums might bring to its officer corps. Indeed, this campus has been proudly represented in every major war the United States has fought to date and now is no time for the first string to be sitting on the bench.

Lt. j.g. William P. Moynahan ’99 is currently stationed at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego. He was a senior editor of The Crimson in 1998.