During my last layover, I needed to charge up my computer and was sharing an electrical power outlet with a soldier returning from Baghdad on his way home to Hawaii for leave. Opening his laptop, he asked me whether I wanted to see what “Iraq was really like.” How could I say no? After seeing a person hit by a .50 caliber machine gun in the head, another guy turned into a kind of jerked human by the shockwave of a tank’s shell and an innumerable number of dead bodies disfigured by improvised explosive devices, I wondered why this never made it on the news. Whether you’re watching Fox, CNN or PBS you seldom see the contorted faces, the torn and charred flesh. We only get the most vague and abstract sense of what a war is: x dead, y injured, cartoonish maps showing where the fighting is going on. In the popular mind war is being turned into a largely abstract game.
There is a good reason for this. Most of the educated elite of this country will never, ever have to fight. They make the decision as to who does fight. The economic reality of the world is that those who can earn a living elsewhere doing something more profitable generally do so—the armed forces are largely for the poor or those who cannot otherwise get funding for a college education. These people seldom go on to senior positions in the State or Defense departments. Those positions go to Ivy League graduates who speak great things about international politics, soft power, credible threats and so on.
The only way this educated elite can develop even the slightest idea of what war is in the visceral sense is by interacting with the military at the entry level. You cannot send the members of the executive branch to a war zone when they are in office, as much as it would please some in the Democratic Party, and having compulsory military service would be a waste of most people’s time, among other problems. There’s nothing noble in killing people for your country, and for the vast majority of people there are better things that they could do with their time.
The logical solution would be to encourage those who seek civil service and political careers to join ROTC in college. It is not the same as going to war, but it does give a student destined for high places some idea as to what is involved in armed conflict and is likely the only way people can find out what it is really like. With the squeamishness of the American media and the folly of embedded reporting, it is unlikely that people are going to find out for themselves through mainstream media outlets. Under current Federal Communications Commission guidelines the average American viewer would be just as likely to see the kind of graphic wartime violence shown in Fahrenheit 9/11 on network television as he’d be to see Janet Jackson’s nipple again.
Currently, ROTC is not a serious option for Harvard students. If you want to take part in the program you get shuttled off to MIT at the crack of dawn in order to keep Harvard’s ideological stance against discrimination intact, as if Harvard were somehow able to dictate terms to the federal government. I would like to have the section of my taxes devoted to the Farm Bill and the War on Terror remitted to me, but sadly we can’t pick and choose. Harvard has to accept that if it is in the business of training and educating no small number of politicians and future leaders, not having ROTC available on campus is an act of negligence. So long as there are Harvard students who may be making decisions in a decade or two as to whether they should send a country to war or not, they should be allowed to grasp what exactly is involved.
There are such things as just wars or wars that somehow have a net benefit to the world. That is beyond a doubt. The problem is that the cavalier attitudes of the current U.S. administration to the planning, costs and human toll of this conflict may be indicative of an elite forming which has no real appreciation of what a war is. Not giving the educated elite at this school a chance to see war for what it is, is to bury the nation’s head in the sand. If we really want to make this place as good as it possibly can be at what it does—educating—we are going to have to grow up and accept that some things are more important than whether we make a vain stand against “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Alexander B.H. Turnbull ’05 is an economics concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.