This We’ll Defend

It’s hard to march to two different beats.

The Underground

This cycle's column and the next one are patently unoriginal and likely insufficient. More eloquent and qualified authors have come before me to advocate for and expound upon the relationship between the U.S. military and Harvard University. Members of the Harvard military community have written wonderfully on ROTC student life and composed critical and compelling pieces on the status of Harvard’s support for this community. I can hardly build upon what they’ve already done in any meaningful way, but I can speak to what being a part of this community has meant for me over the last year and a half.

To be sure, a year and a half is not very long at all in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, there are already very different threads weaving through my life than those of many of my peers and classmates. Provided nothing goes catastrophically wrong in the rest of my time here, I have already committed to a full-time job after college for a minimum of four years. (A comforting thought after taking a midterm or final.) Yet despite this post-graduation job security, there’s still a lot of competition for specialized branch service. Imagine the Infantry and Military Intelligence branches as the Goldman Sachs and McKinsey of the U.S. Army.

In this way and in countless others, ROTC is full of apparent contradictions. As one of my comrades once wrote, cadets occupy a strange space at Harvard. We are not completely civilians, as we receive military IDs after we formally commit to post-graduation service. But we are definitely not completely soldiers. We wear the uniform proudly, but we are aware that we haven’t quite earned it.

We have no idea at all what it’s like to be on the front lines, but even our youngest ranks know significantly more about the Army than almost any random person on the street. We haven’t served at all, but we’re thanked for our service in uniform.

ROTC more closely resembles an extracurricular activity than anything else, but it’s an extracurricular activity in which I’ve raised my right hand and taken an oath to defend my country. Becoming a Harvard officer is, at least to me, the ultimate honor, and there is not a flicker of doubt in my mind that I’ve chosen the right path. But I also know there is an opportunity cost to everything.

Inhabiting two such different worlds can be quite jarring, and I fear that it facilitates a deep cultural divide between military and civilian life. I’ll admit I’m usually taken aback when I have to explain the difference between officers and enlisted personnel to someone (they’re analogous to managers and employees in a large retail firm), because to me this should be fairly common knowledge, even to civilians. Explaining the concept of ROTC is occasionally a surprise, because, again, this seems to me like it should be fairly common knowledge.

I know these questions are well-intended, and usually spark great conversations. I know people must surely make assumptions about us when we run around in PT (Physical Training) uniforms that should have been left in the 1980s, or in combat fatigues whose digital camo patterns would not conceal us in cyberspace or Middle Eastern deserts. I understand what leads people to ask me if I’m from a military family (I’m not) and even why some people feel the need to explain to me why they could never join the military or why they would never let their future kids do so.

Talking to people about ROTC or understanding their attitudes towards the military is distinctly different than talking about the rugby team, about politics and religion (my favorite dinner discussion topics), or about career aspirations. Right now, I have way more in common with students than soldiers, but it is hard to shake the occasional feeling of separation and otherness.

While good faith efforts can be made to bridge the gap between civilian and military, I don’t think it can ever be fully closed. The uniform will always be something of a barrier. Heck, it’s a barrier between members of different service components and branches. And it’s not just civilians who fail to overcome the barrier—military members often choose to retreat even farther behind it. It’s not hard to understand why service members and veterans often feel that the only people they can connect with are those who wearing the same fatigues.

Against this backdrop, Harvard and the military face no small task in attempting to facilitate meaningful connections and support between their respective institutions. There are only nine current Army ROTC cadets, 13 Navy ROTC midshipmen, three Marine-option midshipmen, and eight Air Force ROTC cadets. (Hopefully more are on the way!)

It’s no wonder why ROTC students often feel excluded and ignored by the administration. Harvard does a great deal to commemorate its illustrious military past, but its military future is uncertain at best. There’s more at stake for the Harvard community at large in preserving a more certain military future. We’ll look at that next time.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator living in Mather House. Her 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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