Discipline, The ROTC Way

For Harvard's burgeoning officers, training is meant to resonate well beyond the classroom

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Xinran Yuan

Army cadets from the Paul Revere battalion, together with ROTC participants from other branches of the military, form up in a traditional color guard display at the Tri-Service Military Ball at the Cambridge Hyatt Hotel last Friday.

It starts like this: six students sitting around an oval table, eyes on the projector screen, faces barely visible in the sodden light of an early March morning. Their dress is standard-issue—black wind pants, olive green windbreakers, and gray T-shirts. They are attentive. They are quiet. They are getting a lesson in warfare from the Spartan King Leonidas.

It’s 7 a.m, exactly. This is not a class that starts late. Captain Mark A. Chaney, the course’s instructor, has served active duty in Kuwait, Pakistan, and Iraq. A man with half a thumb missing and a handshake no worse for the loss, he speaks with the measured precision and pitch of one accustomed to military discipline.

Chaney’s charges focus on the projector screen as the well-muscled Leonidas—star of the mayhem-laden film “300”—claws his way up a bare rock face. The Spartan commander has only a cloak and a loincloth to protect him from the elements. Despite his formidable abdominals, the climb seems to be giving him some trouble.

“This is part of LDAC, by the way,” Chaney remarks, referring to the month-long leadership test all cadets must complete following their third year of instruction. “You’re going to have to climb a mountain like this, with a cape billowing around your ears.”

He’s joking—kind of.

But Chaney is not showing the movie for comic relief. The day’s lesson is the operations order, a key component of an officer’s duties, which, according to Chaney, Leonidas does not have quite right.And for the cadets of the Paul Revere battalion—a division of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) that includes students from Harvard, Tufts, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—getting it right is serious business. These students must master the kind of discipline necessary to lead soldiers—some many years their senior—in combat. It’s something Leonidas was bred to do. For these cadets, it takes a different kind of instruction.


To some, it might seem strange that the students ever enter this small MIT classroom at all.

“It’s hard to explain to people in doubt that joining ROTC is a personal decision,” Jessica D. Williams ’08 says. “They think you don’t have any agency, or that you’re being lied to, that you’re doing it against your will.”

Students who enlist in Army ROTC earn four years of tuition payments, plus money for books and a stipend.

But as the University continues to rapidly expand financial aid, the highest amount that ROTC money can contribute to an undergraduate’s tuition is $5950, according to Sally C. Donahue, director of financial aid at the College.

“I’m getting exactly the same amount as if I wasn’t doing ROTC,” said David F. Boswell ’10.

In exchange for whatever aid they receive, the students must pledge to serve three or four years in the armed forces after graduation. While not every officer ends up in Iraq or Afghanistan, deployment to a war zone is, at present always a possibility.

Only a tiny percentage of Harvard students join any of the three branches of ROTC—Army, Navy or Air Force. But those that do, enrolled cadets say, are motivated more by an interest in service than by a surrender to economic necessity.

“I’d say generally cadets that join the program have a sense of civic responsibility,” second year cadet Josue V. Guerra ’10 says. “Part of it’s tradition, part of it’s civic duty, and I think part of it is that it’s a challenge, it’s something different, it’s not something that’s expected of you.”

In the midst of a five-year war with no foreseeable end, MIT’s Army ROTC officials say that Harvard’s representation in the battalion has not suffered a downturn. The University currently supplies 17 of the Paul Revere battalion’s 62 members, with the next largest contributor, MIT, accounting for 13, according to battalion officials.

If anything, says Sergeant First Class Kazimir Karwowski, the battalion’s numbers have grown since the start of the war, with this fall’s entering class representing the largest in recent memory.

“Maybe [the war] has had a positive effect, because people want to contribute,” Kawouski says.

One cadet, a first-year Harvard graduate student who asks not to be identified, says that thoughts of the war take a backseat to the more immediate concerns.

“The Iraq War is a complicated issue,” he says, “and debates about whether or not it would have been better to stay out do not affect my task of becoming the best Army Officer that I can—nor do they dissuade me from serving my country.”

Still, the student says, he cannot discount the effect that the war had on his decision to join the battalion.

“If there were no Iraq war,” he says, “I wouldn’t have thought about, ‘what if I die’?”


Even in peacetime, there’s no questioning the pressure cadets face.

The 28-day Leader Development and Assessment Course—or LDAC, as it is so often called—is a case in point. The result of the four weeks of assessment is a national ranking that determines cadets’ priority for military division and geographic post. Those that rank high will end up at the place of their choosing—places like Hawaii are popular, Captain David Gowel, an ROTC instructor, explains. Those who find themselves farther down the list won’t be nearly so lucky.

Despite the stress, Karwowski says that ROTC instructors try to respect the other obligations in the lives of students who come from some of the nation’s most highly regarded universities.

Such understanding may be part of the reason why the battalion’s numbers remain steady.

“If the cadets need time to finish a paper or finish a class, they just contact us,” Karwowski said. “You know we’ve got MIT. They say they’ve got a problem set. And we say, ‘you need some time? Okay.’ I think that’s the way it should be, because they’re here because they want to be.”

But an accommodating attitude doesn’t change the fact that the cadets are being trained for a career that can’t be simulated in the classroom.

“It’s kind of a significant change from living in Cambridge, going to school, hanging out at Starbucks, to a year maybe two years later, finding yourself in Iraq in charge of 16 to 40 people and responsible for making decisions that affect their lives,” Gowel says.

In their ROTC class, the cadets have reading to do and notes to memorize, but book-learning is not the only priority.

“Especially in this job, we just don’t want you to work on getting good grades,” Gowel says. “’Okay you passed, you got a B,’ but there’s certain skills you really need to be proficient.”

As soon as they graduate from college, the cadets will become officers in charge of leading enlisted soldiers.

“You need to come to the point where you can now not only take care of yourself but a large group of people,” Gowel says. “A lot of the time these people are going be older than you, they’re going to be more skilled.”

Fresh-faced Ivy grads will inevitably face a steep learning curve.

“It’s a little bit of a change from academia,” Gowel says.


Throughout the whole of its regimen, the Paul Revere battalion only appears to have one speed—brisk. Even words aren’t allowed to loiter in the mouth. In fine military style, the outfit shortens most anything that can be shortened: operations orders become “opords,” fragmentary orders “fragos,” warning orders “warnos,” and meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—are united under the simple moniker “chow,” or sometimes, if ovens are involved, “hot chow.” When the cadets leave their classroom to make their way towards MIT’s indoor track, their footfalls are quick on the wet sidewalk.

This is the second part of the morning’s training, something that never shows up on a Harvard transcript: physical fitness.

“One of the great things about the military is that they pay us to stay in shape,” says Lieutenant Colonel Leo R. McGonagle, a spry-looking man in his mid-40’s who serves as the battalion’s commanding officer.

After giving his legs a full stretch, McGonagle takes off on the next lap, giving it a go with cadets more than two decades his junior. Karwowski, who shattered his knee playing football with a group of cadets only a couple of years ago, is already on the track.

Closer to the center of the gym, where cadets are doing sit-ups under Chaney’s watchful eye, the task of fitness-building seems less glamorous. A cadet struggles, torso trembling, as he approaches 50 repetitions.

“Man, I saw you smoking and eating pizza on Friday night,” another cadet shouts at him, attempting to spur his comrade’s performance. Relief comes a second later, as Chaney calls time and the cadet, spluttering, lurches to a stop.

But the respite is short-lived. Even with exercises over, the cultivation of discipline continues. The cadet leading the morning’s physical training notes that some students are unshaven and others are out of uniform.

Push-ups are the penalty. The cadets drop to the ground.

—Staff writer Christian Flow can be reached at
—Staff writers Sophie M. Alexander and Charles J. Wells contributed to the reporting of this story.

For comprehensive coverage of the Iraq War's impact at Harvard five years later, check out The Crimson's Iraq Supplement.



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