Respecting ROTC


Harvard has a curious way of demonstrating its commitment to national defense. Colinear with an ostensible commitment to just this goal, Harvard is one of the American colleges most opposed to entertaining any semblance of a military presence inside its gates. The tradition started in 1969 when the University administration crumbled under the pressure of antiwar protestors and ejected the Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) from campus. And ever since, the Paul Revere Battalion has not existed on Harvard’s campus in any appreciable way, except via the school’s graceful permissiveness of Harvard students to become cadets.

Participating in ROTC-in-exile makes a difficult task all the more difficult. Drawn by a sense of duty to their country or by the ROTC scholarship that lets students go to pricey schools, ROTC cadets are certainly some of the most committed people at Harvard. In addition to taking a full slate of Harvard classes, the cadets hop on a shuttle van daily at about 6 am to make the trek to MIT. There, they participate in grueling physical drills as well as classes in military science.

Were they MIT students, these Harvard cadets would get the credit they rightly deserve for the cerebral half of their ROTC training, which involves complex courses in ethics and history. But Harvard will have none of it. Harvard cadets receive no academic credit and no official recognition (with the exception of a small commissioning ceremony) from Harvard whatsoever.

On its face, the reason for Harvard’s banishment of ROTC has moved beyond mere hatred of the military to a more legalistic one: the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. To put it clearly, the policy is clearly inconsistent with the University’s anti-discrimination policy.

It is regrettable that the military has been stuck with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. It’s a policy which (if they were ethically permitted to speak about it) most Harvard cadets would rightly decry. More than discriminatory, its ostensible raison d’etre—to create a unified fighting force—is dubious at best. But ROTC never asked for the policy and has little interest beyond a legal one in enforcing it. Rather, it is a creation of Congress, signed into law by President Clinton. And those who would find fault with the military for discrimination should note that opposing the military altogether, and wishing for its whole removal from campus, is an act entirely disproportional to the offense, which has been thrust on the military by a legislative overseer.

Moreover, student anti-ROTC activism seems to have relatively little to do with gay rights. If it did, much more would be made of compensating cadets who are discharged for their sexuality and then are stuck with thousands of dollars in debt. Indeed, if gay rights was the primary and only objection to ROTC, Harvard’s activism would be focused at lobbying Congress to change the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law. But this is hardly the reality. Last week, half of the Law School’s professors asked the University qua petition to challenge the Solomon Amendment, a law that allows an education institution’s federal funding to be stripped if it does not allow military recruiters access to campus.

The law professors aren’t looking to change the military’s policy on gays in the army; effectively, they’re looking to keep out recruiters from the University entirely by stopping the enforcement of the Solomon Amendment. Given an unpleasant campus history with the military—one that includes burning draft cards, denouncing the armed forces as fascists or more recently as “occupiers,” and flights to Canada—it is rather clear that anti-ROTC activism has more to do with an antipathy toward the military, rather than its exclusion of homosexuals.

As the University administration attempts to decide whether to challenge the Solomon Amendment in court, it is time again to ask a pertinent question: who would recruiters, or even a full-fledged ROTC establishment, hurt? Would recruiters go out of their way to harangue students, or actively repress homosexuality on campus-—just the things that the anti-discrimination policies are meant to prevent? Would there be any lack of warnings or teach-ins admonishing would-be cadets of the existence of “don’t ask, don’t tell?” Hardly. It is not Harvard’s job to act as chaperones to those students who might, by some opponents’ logic, fall prey to military recruiters. Rather, it is Harvard’s place to foster an open and democratic debate and, as an American institution of higher education, to support our country’s armed forces. Harvard’s antidiscrimination policy may have been made with the best of intentions, but ROTC's presence would not imply Harvard’s official imprimatur, and would hardly intimidate or threaten homosexuals on campus—the symptom the policy seeks to quash.

The extended presence of ROTC on campus would not, to be sure, cohere with Harvard’s anti-discrimination policies. But banning it outright, and forcing cadets to participate in a ROTC-in-exile, is inconsistent with Harvard’s mission of training leaders of all varieties. Moreover, ROTC is not an institution so riddled with a discriminatory nature, as is the Ku Klux Klan, that Harvard has a moral imperative to banish them from campus. Rather, ROTC’s de facto purpose is not to intimidate minorities, but to supply our armed forces with competent leaders. And its continuing expulsion does not ban an institution filled to the brim with bigots, but an organization that is fundamental and basic to our national identity.

The battle over ROTC is one where students’ rights have conflicted with one another. Those who deserve the right to freely associate with an institution that is, by and large, virtuous are put against those who abhor the mere existence of ROTC on campus. The only real effect of Harvard’s refusal to allow ROTC a larger establishment is to make life harder—much harder—for those cadets who wish to exercise their right to free association.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.