A Laudable Battle

The University should not shy away from military scholarship

Walking through Harvard Yard, it’s hard to believe that we are a nation at war. With a volunteer army, few sacrifices being asked of the average American, and the controversy surrounding the conflict, the ethos of “everyone doing their part” that has been a part of past American wars simply does not exist. It does not register that someone our age may have just perished. For all our devotion to the values of academia, we hardly study the war in Iraq and its ramifications.

Finally some in the ivory tower are starting to take notice. At a roundtable discussion during its annual meeting last month, members of the American Political Science Association expressed their worry that many college students lack a clear and thorough understanding of American military institutions in a time of war. The speakers were especially concerned about students who can understand power dynamics within international organizations like the United Nations but have little or no idea about how the Department of Defense functions. Not only do we agree with their assessments about the American academy in general, but we are also concerned about the situation at Harvard.

Since the social uprisings of the late sixties, Harvard has distanced itself from the military. The Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) was banished from Harvard in 1969, the same year as the student takeover of University Hall to protest the Vietnam War. With it went the close ties between Harvard and the military that defined the institution during World War II and even into the Kennedy administration. While bringing ROTC back to campus should not be conflated with studying war, both stem from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ continuing apathy toward a more comprehensive study of national security.

The biggest misconception is that the study of war implies a support for conflict. Yet if pacifists renounce the study of war, they surrender expertise to its natural adherents: the hawks and perpetual gladiators who cannot imagine a world without conflict and will not prepare the world for peace. The university will have capitulated to the think-tank.

Nor is the study of war a small and specialized field best left to the military academies. It goes far beyond mere tactics and covers a broad swath of knowledge that touches many conventional disciplines from political science and international relations to economics, sociology, anthropology, and public policy.

Harvard has a handful of war scholars and courses directly related to the subject. But the topic is so vast and important to our nation’s immediate and long-term future that we believe Harvard—and academia at large—should devote more resources to its study and teaching. Otherwise, the University will have abdicated an important part of its mission—to educate wise and informed citizens.