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Harvard welcomes ROTC, but not critique of the military

The Red Line

Last month, the Harvard Gazette, Harvard’s official newspaper, published a story entitled “Back to basics: Army cadets work out at Harvard for the first time in 41 years.” The article notes that, for the first time since the Vietnam War era, Harvard students enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps are training on Harvard’s campus.

Ignoring the fact that the women’s soccer team has probably been doing “high knees” for years, the Gazette fondly describes the exercises done by ROTC students, including push-ups, sit-ups, and high knees, which it describes as a “heart-pumping exercise that resembles skipping.”

Last month’s story was the sixth story about ROTC published in the Gazette in the past year, compared to just seven stories in the same amount of time about the Phillips Brooks House Association (which involves many hundreds of students in public service each year) and a single story on Occupy Harvard. Clearly, Harvard’s official mouthpiece has made a concerted effort to publicize one of Harvard’s newest student organizations, the Reserve Officer Training Corps Association.

More notable than disproportionate coverage in the Gazette, however, is the Harvard administration’s unequivocally positive attitude towards ROTC. President Drew G. Faust is quoted in the Gazette as saying, “The resumption of ROTC training on campus marks a new phase in the historic relationship between Harvard and the military…The increased activity will make the military experience more familiar to many of our students, and it will introduce them to the leadership opportunities that the ROTC has to offer.” It’s quite clear that President Faust views the military fondly. Her academic work centers on the Civil War, and her father, grandfather, and brother have all served in the military. As the President of Harvard University, Faust is, of course, allowed to have political opinions and allegiances.

However, Faust has used her position as the President of Harvard to bring the military to Harvard’s campus without room for critical discourse. This fall, for the first time, ROTC appeared at the Student Activities Fair, ROTC courses are advertised in the Handbook for Students, and some naval science courses taught at MIT may even count for Harvard course credit. (Of course, Niall Ferguson has been teaching a course on “Western ascendancy” at Harvard for years, so perhaps glorification of American military might is not so novel here.) All of the decision-making in this process happened at a distance from student input.

Faust welcomed ROTC back to campus two years ago without invoking any formal procedure to gain student input, ignoring the fact that military policy still excludes transgender people, which not only violates Harvard’s nondiscrimination policy, but also ignores a precedent of student and faculty debate about the military’s role on campus.

Of course, there are outlets for critical discourse about the military on campus. But when the Anti-Imperialist Movement, an anti-war educational and activist organization, petitioned to become a recognized Harvard student organized, they were denied by the Office of Student Life. Instead, they were told to “explore collaboration opportunities with the Institute of Politics and other similar organizations on campus.” Although most would hardly conceptualize the IOP as an anti-war activist organization, there is apparently no other conceivable way to engage with the military on Harvard’s campus than through politically balanced and institutionally vetted discussion. And when students planned to protest Harvard’s signing of an agreement with Naval ROTC last spring, Harvard hosted an alternative “speak-out” later that night, far away from military officials and the media, for students to express their thoughts.

And there are plenty of thoughts to be had. When the U.S. continues an unjustifiable occupation of Afghanistan that has claimed tens of thousands of causalities, it wouldn’t be surprising if students had questions about Harvard’s complicity in the military’s role in the occupation. Additionally, military values aren’t exactly the same as Harvard’s values: the military still marginalizes women (who can’t serve on front lines and who are sometimes silenced when they report sexual harassment) and transgender and intersex people. There’s a lot of discussion to be had there. And when the military industrial complex continues to pull over $1 trillion of taxpayer dollars each year that could be used for social programs and economic stimulus, it’s no wonder students want to protest the military.

Yet President Faust and the Harvard Gazette seem intent on introducing Harvard’s undergraduates to the military by framing ROTC—and the military—in a uniformly positive light. This uncritical and undemocratic ideology not only negates engaged campus discussion about the role of the U.S. military on a university campus, but also runs contrary to the University’s mission of fostering critical academic discourse on campus. Harvard’s new close relationship to the military should not go unquestioned by campus publications, by the faculty, or by the student body. After all, if President Faust wants to make the military more “familiar” to us, the least we can do is make a diversity of opinions familiar to her.