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The University Is a Drama Queen

It’s not rocket science; it’s military science

By Sahil K. Mahtani

“They did not take me in the Army,” Woody Allen used to say. “I was, um, interestingly enough, I was, I was 4-P. Yes. In the, in the event of war, I’m a hostage.” If Wednesday evening was any indication, Allen could have been describing Harvard’s students. At the Harvard College Democrats endorsement of the Undergraduate Council (UC) candidates, presidential candidate Amadi P. Anene ’08 was asked a question about the presence of military recruiters on campus. He said “no,” because of recruiters’ “non-progressive stance on issues like homosexuality.”

I’ll give that an “A” for asinine. Ditto the other UC candidates, none of whom disagree with keeping ROTC away. Yes, the military discriminates against gay students. Yes, this is a remarkably idiotic—not to mention ineffective—policy. No, it should not continue. But severing every relation Harvard has with the military is a disproportionate response—one might call it an excessive use of force. That would be like those wackjob conservatives who dismiss Harvard because of its association with commies, jews, and pinko liberals. It’d be terribly unfair.

What’s also unfair is how this has become a Rorschach test for supporting gay rights on campus, whereas the ROTC issue really isn’t about gay students at all. If it were, you’d see more antipathy toward the Internal Revenue Service when it swindles gay professors and staff from getting a marriage deduction according to the tax code. There would also be more antipathy towards Islamic fundamentalism—the regimes of which routinely torture and even execute gay people—instead of the complacent multicultural mollycoddling worshipped on campus.

What this is really about—and I am hardly the first person to make this point—is the Faculty’s long-standing struggle against military and intelligence agencies that dates back to Vietnam. Homosexuality, as has often been the case, is being used to bludgeon people into a political position—just by liberals this time. What students need to realize is that Vietnam is over; this is not our war anymore. Supporting gay rights here is not inconsistent with supporting the return of the military on campus— some priorities can be deemed more important than others.

But how to be hopeful? Isaiah Berlin once said about Harvard students in 1941, “They are silly and sophisticated at the same time…They are skeptical about opinions and naïve about facts which they swallow uncritically, which is the wrong way round.” The fact remains that the military is more a means than an end; it consists of fighting men, who can use force for both good as well as evil. American universities, and Harvard in particular, have traditionally understood this. In fact, the University’s current anti-military paradigm is actually a relatively anomalous phenomenon in Harvard’s history.

For one thing, Harvard had a Military Science Department, which began during the last years of the First World War and continued till 1969, when it was killed off by student opposition for being, paradoxically, contrary to the spirit of academic freedom, according to a 1968 Harvard Policy Committee—an undergraduate organization which advised the faculty on education. Courses ranged from Military Science 4 on military law and history, to Military Science 2, which involved military engineering. One course even required horses. The students were supportive—a 1915 Crimson editorial actually calls for the creation of the department, seeing in it a public service role for the University to play. That spirit of civic dedication—something that has really disappeared from campus today—even manifested itself among rabid pacifists. The writer John Dos Passos ’16, for example, felt compelled to volunteer for “gentleman’s ambulance corps”—until his father vetoed it. During the First and Second World Wars, Harvard’s ROTC units used to train under the elms of Harvard Yard.

Flash forward to Harvard in 2006. The United States is at war again, but the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has only one course in specific military matters—Government 1730: “War and Politics.” We have the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, but that is more focused on grand foreign policy machinations rather than military realities on the ground. The Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government is on the right track—good liberals that they are, they’ve managed to realize that the military can be used for good ends, like stopping genocide—but it is tiny. Most of the professors at FAS are averse to any scholarship on the military. There are fewer than five courses on the catalog devoted to any aspect of military tactics, intelligence, and the like.

Harvard is being a big baby, and has plugged its fingers into its ears, stuck out its tongue, hoping that the world’s military problems will simply disappear, but of course they won’t. Just because the faculty has an irrational hatred towards the military and the students an irrational indifference towards it doesn’t mean that wars—and Iraq, in particular— are simply going to disappear. Irrational because, given America’s position in the world, both are unacceptable options. Iraq cannot be abandoned; it must be won.

Harvard has basically lost a previously-held pedestal to influence public policy at a crucial time in America. Military scholarship has now largely been outsourced to conservative think-tanks in Washington, which have shoddier standards and are also more likely to be belligerent. Harvard has a natural niche to fill here, and it must begin by incorporating military science research into FAS in a significant way.

What’s also wrong is the elitist nature of the deal. Students from America’s less affluent families are duking it out in Iraq while Harvard’s elite is off doing irrelevant things like running for the UC or campaigning for gay rights at a place that is already a haven for it. Harvard students don’t want to die; de facto, we are asking other people to die for us.

Enter a Harvard dining hall today and one can hear the verdant buzz of college students, pursuing their activities in peace, and remember: this should not be—and has never been—the sound of wartime Harvard. This is the bubble at its worst, feigning the bliss of peacetime. My guess is that tragically, it will take another 9-11 to change that.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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