The American Experience

The Tale of Alleged “Automaton”

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Every so often, my peers express concern that the Army may stifle my “intellectual independence” or “make a robot” of me. Personally, their concerns concern me little. After all, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of operating as part of a large, well-oiled machine. Individual strength pales in comparison to that of a group.

Nevertheless, I understand why my colleagues fear for my individuality. Marching to the beat of a cadence, running in formation, wearing a uniform, and losing my hair all seem emblematic of the government’s attempt to erase my identity. Some worry that ROTC hinders my Harvard experience by providing me with a set of values that run contrary to those of a self-respecting scholar.

However, Harvard has its share of groupthink as well. A disproportionate number of our students come from the Northeast, and a large percentage hail from America’s more privileged upper class. Many come from a long lineage of educated professionals; to them, college was simply the next natural step after high school.

More importantly, the majority of students on our campus share a similar drive: the desire to leave a legacy. Our administrators only encourage our relentless pursuit of success. Every day, we’re inundated by emails and speeches outlining how we’re somehow an integral part of America’s future. We’re told that we’re the spearhead of tomorrow’s social change, creating the illusion that success will befall us wherever we go.

Thus, our diversity is minimized by our assumedly shared thirst for success. We drown ourselves in unnecessary work, partake in an ungodly number of extracurricular activities, and feel pressured to prolong conversations with professionals that frankly don’t spark our interest. We inadvertently compare our summer experiences amongst ourselves and unintentionally push one another to constantly fret about our future. As a result, our alleged emphasis on individual development instead becomes a narrow quest to impress (and sometimes deceive) our peers and ourselves. Soon we become nothing more than a walking resume.

In comparison, it’s not as if the Army is America’s last true bastion of individual freedom either. As any sociologist would gladly explain, the devaluation of the self remains a core component of most military training. As stated in the Soldier’s Creed, one’s mission and comrades always come before the self. Additionally, the Army has its own share of overly competitive individuals, self-styled star-spangled “patriots” who, in their attempts to impress our superiors, regularly assume command even when no one wants them to. Their cheesy attempts to emulate Captain America in both posture and dialogue earn them few friends and fewer followers.

However, the Army has exposed me to what I consider a far more diverse and accurate representation of the American experience than Harvard has. During my past two summer training sessions, I’ve enjoyed the company of crocodile farmers, raccoon hunters, architects, conspiracy theorists, Slovak sergeants, and cannibal boars.

Through summer training I’ve had the pleasure of arguing with rural anarchists, urban ultra-conservatives, and a Puerto Rican socialist. Furthermore, whereas most students come to Harvard as part of their lifelong pursuit of success, I’ve heard a whole host of reasons given for joining the military. Some seek a new beginning; others search an escape from boredom. A few desire glory, while others crave social mobility and the benefits that accompany members of the uniformed services. A significant portion simply think they’re doing the right thing.

Thus, despite the uniforms and exposed scalps, the Army has opened my mind to a greater portion of the American experience than I would have ever obtained through my studies alone. Ultimately, I’m not afraid of any one organization making a robot of me. After all, both Harvard and the Army have their share of automatons. If anything, my experience with ROTC has introduced me to America’s (as well as Slovakia’s, but that’s a story for another time) strange array of forgotten individuals.

And who knows? Maybe my choice to join the Army will come at the cost of other pursuits. Maybe ROTC has led me away from countless opportunities only Harvard had to offer. Regardless, the Army offered me its own invaluable reward, one I only recently realized: a chance to tell the stories of countless individuals worth remembering, stories that compose the full American experience.


Nathan L. Williams, ’18 a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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