Marching in Obscurity

For a University that prides itself on unflinching candor and logical consistency in the eternal pursuit of veritas, Harvard’s bizarre relationship with the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) embarrassingly fails to live up to its own standards. Rather than take a decisive and unambiguous stance in the controversy over patriotism and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the University seeks shelter from accountability in a murky ROTC policy that, in the end, pleases no one.

Though ROTC was initially forced off campus in 1969 in reaction to Vietnam protesters, it remains banned from the Yard and barred from University funds only because of the University’s opposition to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals. But instead of rejecting ROTC outright and forcing potential cadets to apply elsewhere, the administration has taken a “middle road” by agreeing that cadets may train at MIT—without the military’s intolerance contaminating the Yard—under the financial auspices of patriotic alumni, whose donations shield the University from charges of directly supporting ROTC.

The intent of this awkward relationship is to allow the University wiggle room between patriotism and diversity. It can claim to celebrate those among us who choose to serve their country, while it keeps the military’s homophobia far enough away physically and financially to prevent protest in the Yard and parsimony during donation season. And to those who might consider such distancing disrespectful to the students who express their patriotism through military service, the University can conveniently respond that cadets have the opportunity—indeed, the privilege—of holding their ROTC graduation right here on campus.

Of course, the University’s ambivalence about ROTC serves only to evade the issues at hand and to insult both cadets and opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Cadets don’t see Harvard as a place where they are embraced for their courage and their dedication to our national safety; they see a place that shows them off when convenient, and respects their right to serve our nation while simultaneously holding them in contempt as scabs in the University’s strike against discrimination. On the other side, opponents of “don’t ask, don’t tell” see a weak attempt to push the problem of ROTC down the river.


Many hoped that renewed patriotism after Sept. 11 might spur a debate about ROTC’s place at the University. But today, four months after the attacks, their hope is supported only by President Lawrence H. Summers’ belated admission that Harvard’s ROTC policy is “unorthodox” and “unusual.” If the patriotism that has engulfed the nation since Sept. 11 stops at Johnston Gate, if we can’t now reconsider ROTC with fresh perspective, then we need to realign our priorities as a University.

On one hand, the ongoing threat to our way of life should only underscore the importance of defending the First Amendment’s protection of free expression. The war against terrorism is often cast as a struggle to defend our essential freedoms; free sexual expression is as fundamental as the right to free speech and just as vital to the pursuit of happiness. Although openly integrating homosexuals would introduce myriad new problems—from locker rooms to family-based leaves of absence to pension plans for spouses—and although there are no simple solutions, these issues are neither insurmountable nor unworthy of the effort to solve them.


If this University is too embarrassed to house even the smallest extension of the military because it will take time to persuade a bitterly intolerant public to swallow its discomfort, we’ve lost sight of the big picture. The safety our military provides gives us the freedom to reject its presence here at Harvard. Only under the umbrella of its protection do we have the opportunity to shape America—and the military itself—into the inclusive community we try so hard to model. When we banish from campus the only military group that dares ask for our support, we disrespect not only the cadets who will one day protect us, but also the soldiers who protect us today and the veterans who have given us a freedom worth protecting. We turn our backs on the very institution that allows our University to thrive.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a backwards policy that Harvard should rightfully contest. The University should support student groups that lobby for military reform and should provide legal council for homosexual cadets who seek to challenge the military’s policy. But we must not reject the military altogether while we work towards inclusion. It may be flawed, but only because of its security can we hope for something better.

Blake Jennelle ’04, a Crimson editor, is a math concentrator in Adams House.