Why We Should Bring Back ROTC

Thirty years ago today, members of Students for a Democratic Society stormed University Hall and evicted administrators. Their protest of the United States' involvement in Vietnam was eventually squashed by local police, but they did succeed in winning at least one victory--the eviction of the Reserve Officers' Training Program (ROTC) from the Harvard campus.

Since 1969, undergraduate ROTC cadets and midshipmen have had to travel to MIT to participate in classes and drills. This arrangement has surely caused its fair share of physical inconvenience to the men and women who participate in ROTC, but, more importantly, it has burdened them with the stigma of Harvard's official disapproval. Now, with the shadow of Vietnam long since faded, conscientious members of the Undergraduate Council have introduced a bill that would welcome ROTC back to this campus.

Not surprisingly, supporters of ROTC have been met with passionate resistance, predominantly from the gay rights community. While ROTC was originally ejected from Harvard due to its association with an unpopular war, progressive activists now want to bar its return on the grounds that it is a discriminatory organization. The source of this charge is the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy--approved by Congress--that precludes openly gay individuals from serving in the armed forces.


Whether "don't ask, don't tell" is, in fact, discriminatory is a matter for debate. Gays are not prohibited from participating in ROTC per se. They are merely forbidden from openly proclaiming their homosexuality or engaging in homosexual activity. Many would argue that, by denying homosexuals the right to express their fundamental identity, this policy constitutes a de facto interdiction against gays because they are gay. But on surface it must be acknowledged that "don't ask, don't tell" is merely a behavioral regulation--one of many in the military that govern the sexuality of all servicemen and women. (For example, the military bans sex between officers and enlisted personnel, and it criminalizes adultery.)

Also informing the question of what constitutes unacceptable discrimination is the issue of bona fide occupational qualifications. Current law permits discrimination in hiring practices so long as the basis for that discrimination can be tied to some essential job function. So, is being openly gay a legitimate impediment to successful military service? Most Harvard students would presume not, but both officers and scholars of military affairs have made an interesting case that it does. For instance, they argue that the sexual tension that would result from the presence of openly gay soldiers would constitute an unacceptable threat to unit cohesion. They contend the same logic that demands that heterosexual men and women be segregated in barracks and wash facilities ought to apply in some extension to the matter of homosexuals in single-sex units.


Regardless of where one comes down as to the justice of "don't ask, don't tell," the case for bringing ROTC back to campus is strong. Harvard's non-discrimination policy is certainly an admirable ideal, but there are higher values than non-discrimination. Our support for our armed forces, and more importantly our classmates who serve as midshipmen and cadets, ought to outweigh any discomfort we may feel with the congressionally mandated policy that governs the treatment of homosexuals.

The decision to join ROTC is one of the noblest that a young person can make. Often it is a decision informed by financial considerations, but in this day and age, a hefty package of loans and a post-graduation stint on Wall Street is always an available means of funding a Harvard education. Instead of that route, ROTC students have chosen to commit themselves to the values of self-sacrifice, duty and devotion to country. They are the finest examples of good citizenship that this campus has to offer. We would only do ourselves a favor by allowing these cadets to honor the Yard with their official presence.

Those with a lesser opinion of ROTC should take note that there is at least one compelling pragmatic reason for allowing its return. So long as Harvard shuns ROTC, it surrenders the leadership of the military establishment to graduates of less enlightened institutions. Harvard's current policy discourages students interested in ROTC from enrolling here, and by forbidding ROTC from participating in activities fairs, postering and holding meetings on campus, it suppresses the size of its membership. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the boys of The Citadel will ever see fit to take the initiative and welcome gays into their ranks. Presumably, however, officers who have spent time on this campus would be more sympathetic to the idea. From the perspective of progressives, one must conclude that the more generals with a Harvard diploma, the better.

This past Wednesday, a panel discussion about ROTC was held in Emerson Hall. An audience member asked the participants whether any had actually spoken to any members of ROTC before arriving at their opinions. Across the board the answer was "no." Most revealing was the reply of Alexis Karteron, a council representative who opposes ROTC's return. She admitted, "I haven't talked to any ROTC members because I haven't been able to find any." This is precisely the problem. Ostracism accomplishes no productive end. It only insults affiliates of the military and impedes communication between them and their critics.

Besides the anniversary of the '69 takeover, there is an additional irony of timing associated with the current debate--the ongoing conflict in the Balkans. Harvard students of all political persuasions have rallied behind NATO's efforts to protect Kosovar Albanians, and there have even been calls for the use of ground troops. It seems that when it suits our agendas we have no trouble calling on soldiers to place themselves in harms way. Our moral outrage is apparently not so great that we balk at employing the military instrumentally. Soldiers can die for us, but they just can't train in our backyard.

The sad reality is that violent conflict is an unpleasant affair, and, in order to operate effectively, our armed forces cannot always be on the vanguard of progressive social trends. "Don't ask, don't tell" may be offensive to some, but events in Kosovo should serve as a stark reminder that our military is a force for great good in the world and is worthy of our utmost respect. It is past time that students on this campus grew up and accepted the fact that the enormous responsibilities of some groups in this world mean that they cannot always perfectly conform to the expectations of high-minded non-discrimination policies.

ROTC most certainly deserves a distinguished place at Harvard.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Friday.


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