The United States military has an undeniable anti-gay bias. This fact is incontrovertible. Despite the imposition of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the last decade, which has substantially reduced the problem, there remain rules that restrict and deter homosexuals from joining the armed forces. For instance, if a soldier is so much as seen with a romantic partner of the same gender off-duty, he or she can be discharged. This is wrong and has no place in a society, unlike those of which we have read so much in recent weeks, that places a high value on civil liberties.
Regardless of this flaw—and, in fact, because of it—Harvard must bring back the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) now.
Policy decisions, whether they be those of a nation, a university or a household, are never about adherence to a strict rule or value system, for the simple reason that oftentimes different rules and values conflict. All policy decisions are inherently and fundamentally about trade-offs; in economic terms, do the benefits outweigh the costs? The ROTC debate is no different. The question to ask, therefore, is do the benefits of encouraging the brightest students of our generation to have a career in the military outweigh the unmistakable unfairness of the military’s anti-gay bias? I think that the answer is yes.
On a national level, this trade-off becomes ridiculously obvious. Not even the fiercest gay activist, of whom my late uncle was one, would advocate the disintegration of the armed forces due to its discriminatory policies. The need for national defense clearly outweighs the negative consequences of discrimination. This result is less clear, but no less true, for the microcosm of the Harvard community. Discouraging interested students (and for that matter, discouraging incredibly intelligent and accomplished students) from joining the armed services can only be detrimental. Now, as the country mobilizes for a war in which covert intelligence will matter far more than brute man power, the need is more important than ever for military officers with the same intellectual capabilities as our doctors, scientists, professors, economists and authors. For Harvard to discourage this in the name of an anti-discrimination policy is simply a bad trade-off.
In fact, Harvard’s policy, in the long-term, will do more to hurt the fight for equal treatment of gays than it will to help. The student populations at elite schools such as Harvard are overwhelmingly civil libertarian-minded and supportive of equal treatment of gays in the military. Rather than encouraging these people to join the military and progress through its ranks, Harvard stifles them. The best way to change the military’s policy is not a boycott that only increases the proportion of military policy-makers who advocate the status quo, but rather the encouragement of progressive thinkers to join and rise to the pinnacle of the military elite. After all, one of the foremost advocates of the softening of restrictions on gays was current Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a man who places a high value on civil liberties.
Not that Harvard is doing anything but acting in its own rational self-interest. It is revealing that when Harvard workers are living in poverty, the institution’s social consciousness lies dormant, but it suddenly perks up when the decision of whether to allocate funds for an ROTC program arises. I would hope that now, in the wake of a national crisis and on the eve of a battle like none before, Harvard would examine its role in the broader spectrum of national interest and consider not only the unfair treatment of gays, but also the national need for future military leadership.
As a member of the Student Affairs Committee of the Undergraduate Council, I will move to open a dialogue on this issue between all members of our community. The first step is to invite representatives of the ROTC program, both leaders and students, to speak before the Undergraduate Council and all interested students, and answer all pertinent questions. I will invite the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters’ Alliance especially to come and ask the representatives very specific questions about the military’s policy towards gays and how this might affect a gay Harvard student who joins ROTC.
The next step is to question sincerely the nature of our anti-discrimination policy and its often silly applications. The fact that Harvard uses it not to recognize fraternities and sororities clearly has nothing to do with preventing discrimination. Even more absurdly, the council cannot give a grant to the Freshman Musical because it discriminates against sophomores, juniors and seniors. We all know what prejudiced discrimination is and is not; the question for students to decide with regards to ROTC is whether the degree of discrimination inherent in the military outweighs the program’s numerous benefits, both to students and to society.
Finally, we should come to a consensus on the manner in which ROTC should be re-integrated into the Harvard community. It is probably unrealistic to bring military training exercises to our campus because there are too few Harvard students involved in ROTC to make up an individual unit (no doubt a result of the administration’s current policy). However, policy changes could include the funding of transportation of students to MIT, the participation of ROTC students in ceremonial activities (such as the color guard at football games), the listing of ROTC as an official Harvard extracurricular activity, the inclusion of credit earned in ROTC classes on students’ transcripts and the approval of ROTC units to recruit and poster on campus.
Anti-gay bias in the military must stop, and I am confident that it will in our lifetime, provided the most sympathetic of us rise to top positions in the armed forces. But for Harvard to sever all ties with the military is an insult to all the good done and all the lives lost in the proud history of the institution: revolutionary soldiers fighting for democratic ideals, northern factory workers giving their lives to free black slaves, family men beating back fascism and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Most importantly, it insults the memory of all those who died on Sept. 11, by discouraging young women and men from fighting to avenge the terrorist attack and to prevent future one. The U.S. military, despite its flaws, remains our country’s most selfless institution and the ultimate protector of our civil liberties.
John F. Bash ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. He is a member of the Student Affairs Committee of the Undergraduate Council.