Choice of Powell Honors Militarism


This year, Harvard University offers General Colin L. Powell an honorary degree and the privilege of speaking at Commencement. Many people oppose this because of Powell's stand on the rights of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in the military. Some of us feel, as a matter of conscience, that Harvard should not honor a proponent of violence. Powell, by virtue of his career in the military, embodies the ethic that violence is a viable approach to conflict resolution. Powell conducted a war which directly resulted in the deaths of 100,000 people and which subsequently caused another 150,000 deaths due to war-related disease and malnutrition.

Our University traditionally honors those whose actions and values Harvard deems worthy of emulation. By choosing Powell, Harvard not only condones but also encourages the acceptance of violence. We are ashamed that Harvard has chosen to honor Powell's achievements. To honor Powell is to honor the institutionalizing of killing. Our university occupies a unique position of leadership in our society and should have found a speaker whose actions affirm a respect for human life. Through its choice, Harvard has reinforced the societal tendency to valorize military institutions and has denied the importance of searching for peaceful solutions.

Because Harvard glorifies the military by recognizing Powell, it seems appropriate to explore some of the consequences of and motivations behind this choice. Perhaps the most divisive question about the use of military force is the concept of the "moral war," where the use of the military is constructed as a force of compassion. The "moral war" has coaxed typically liberal and anti-interventionist people into advocating militarism, most recently in Somalia and Bosnia. However dire the situations may be in these two countries, even a cursory examination in each case reveals that the moral high ground the United States takes is inconsistent with its policy. The United States went into Somalia to help starving people, yet the United States has not aided Somalian refugees in neighboring countries. There has been national outrage and a public call for military intervention in Bosnia, yet the United States has not pressured countries near Bosnia to accept refugees.

Clearly, the United States government does not make the respect for the dignity of human life a matter of policy--demonstrated foremost by the refusal to accept Haitian refugees while moralizing about ethnic cleansing. Because the United States uses the "moral" excuse inconsistently, we believe that respect for human life is not the central motive behind military intervention. This leads us to believe there are other, yet unexplored solutions to these problems.

These points are crucial to our objections to the fact that Powell will speak at Commencement. We feel that Harvard has dismissed the intricacies of a decision to use violent means in favor of honoring a military complex which profits from the simplification and moralization of the issues.


Even if one does not subscribe to the tenets of pacifism, it is fundamentally paradoxical to claim the military should only be used in dire situations and then to honor rather than lament its use. In response to these issues, some of us will wear white armbands to Commencement as a symbol of our advocacy of nonviolence and disappointment in Harvard's choice of speaker. Rebecca Goldin '93   Jessica T. Pisano '93-'94