The Other Public Service

Capt. Paul E. Mawn ’63 is angry. The times have changed on him.
By Alexander J.B. Wells

Capt. Paul E. Mawn ’63 is angry. The times have changed on him. He is a fierce patriot and a proud veteran who served in the Navy like his father before him and his son after him. Alongside a tenth of his classmates, he participated in the Reserve Officer Training Corps—but not for the money, he hastens to add, because there wasn’t any. The native of Lynn, Mass., received a scholarship from the College that covered half of his tuition; he worked and scrounged for the balance of his fees, and when even that wasn’t enough for room and board he slept on a couch in Wigglesworth. Mawn went on to serve for 28 years as a commissioned Naval officer, in active service and the active reserves from Vietnam to Desert Storm. Now he looks with frustration at the place of the military at Harvard.

“There’s a long crimson line of service that has paid the price,” says Mawn. “Freedom isn’t free, and a lot of people aren’t aware of that.”

Harvard talks the talk about service, Mawn fumes, but when it directs its young talent towards the world, it neglects the most important kind. “They don’t consider the military as public service. Anything but the military. They view America as this big bad power with a big stick going after all these Third World countries.”

“The general feeling is that you shouldn’t have anything to do with the military because it’s a trade school,” he says. “Oh, and by the way, it’s fascist.”

Mawn is currently the chairman of Advocates for Harvard ROTC, an organization that reports over 2,400 members who hope to resurrect Harvard’s ties to ROTC and, more broadly, the tradition of national service through the military. It is a plea for the renewed esteem of Harvard’s military past.

Rebecca E. Handlin ’14 is short and thin and tucked into a chair hastily drawn next to the Thayer pool table. She has a lingering, deliberate manner that suggests she is paying proper attention to the people and things around her. She breaks into a goofy grin, and her big blue eyes widen beneath her glasses. There’s something intense about Handlin as she squirms with the discomfort of passion made public but not necessarily shared. “It’s just...have I made it clear how much I love ROTC?”

Handlin was set on military service long before she came to Harvard. Her parents were local public officials, and her brother worked for the military as a civilian. “I always grew up with the idea that giving back was a good thing. Then when it came time to consider colleges and options and so on, I thought, ‘Well, what’s the best way to give back?’ And the military seemed really great for that,” she recalls.

Now she is on track to become a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy, with five years of active service and three years in the reserves after graduation. Like all members of ROTC at Harvard, Handlin travels to MIT to fulfill her training requirements. She gushes about her training and the advantages of having two seemingly disparate worlds at her disposal. She remembers with a laugh how she came straight to Freshman Week from her military orientation camp, how in Annenberg she would be asked in those first flurried exchanges of information whether she did FAP, FUP or FOP, and how other freshmen treated her unexpected responses with awed curiosity.

Handlin estimates that she is one of just seven ROTC members in her class. Usually about as many join the military by other means after graduation. Of Mawn’s class, 23 percent served in the military. During the Korean War, he says, the numbers were more like 60 percent, and even as late as 1959, 121 seniors were commissioned as officers. On the Office of Career Services website, the Senior Survey results show the expected paths of Harvard seniors for the next year—military service is a humble mauve streak of one percent near the bottom.

We happy few indeed. Whatever the reasons, and for better or worse, military service is languishing in obscurity at Harvard.


To get from her dorm to the dining hall, Handlin must pass through the Thayer Gate out of the Yard. Engraved on the wall beside it is an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals after he watched Harvard’s bicentennial in 1836: “...on that day, the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded, and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the Company, of the men that wore before us the College honors and the laurels of the state—the long-winding train reaching back into eternity.” At Harvard, an institution so purposively steeped in its history, it is surprisingly easy to ignore the past.

Joshua D. Foote ’10 is sensitive to tradition. Not six months ago he was living in DeWolfe, thriving in the daily bustle of college life and staying up late to argue about the merits of Kantian morality. Now the Navy Ensign serves on a ship where he sleeps in one of three “racks” in a bunk, each of which has just 18 inches of space above it. All of his belongings fit in a space under his rack, as long and as wide as the bed and about 10 inches deep.

His claim to legacy comes both from his family—he is third-generation Navy—and from the deep historical ties between the military and Harvard. “Memories of the military and its proud shared history with Harvard abound on campus,” he writes in an e-mail to The Crimson. “So while my life changed drastically in many ways I never felt far from the military while I was at Harvard—and I don’t feel all that far from Harvard now, because I have the honor of carrying on the tradition of that shared history.”

With his taste for esoterica and his sense for the past, Foote notices what few others do. He rattles off trivia with aplomb. The first Harvard graduate to die in the national service, he writes, was killed in the Pequot War in the 1630s. Seventeen Harvard alumni have received the Medal of Honor, more than any other non-service college. McKinlock Hall, the main building of Leverett House, is a memorial to a World War I casualty from Harvard. And Annenberg was used as an indoor parade field for the ROTC department before it was the freshman dining hall.

For Foote, this is the train of ghosts in the Yard. But if his decision to join the Navy was informed by the past, his own experiences at Harvard were equally important.

“I think some people are under the impression that people in the military are there because they like to fight,” he says. “I’ve never met anybody actually who thinks that way. What my blockmates helped me realize is that the whole reason I am serving is that war is terrible, and because it is, when somebody has to fight it, I want that person to be me and not anybody else that I love.”

Foote once met a man from the class of 1959 who had received a commission in the Navy after doing ROTC. Among the other officers on his ship were another Harvard alumnus, two from Yale, one from Princeton and three from Dartmouth. “Eight Ivy League graduates on one ship,” Foote says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

The change, he suggests, has been one in the expression of class distinction; in the past, the elite had the responsibility, as leaders of the nation, to serve in the military. Mawn, like Foote, was compelled by a concept of duty proportionate to privilege. “People have a sense of duty, but it all depends on their own circumstances,” he says. “You don’t expect the lame and the blind to go into the military service, and you don’t expect someone with three generations of unemployment and welfare to become a philanthropist.”

Somehow, in the years since, this ideal has been flipped on its head with respect to military service. Foote tracks it to the divisive legacy of Vietnam, when support for the war was particularly sparse in the upper echelons of academia and among the educated elite. Thus it was not expected of students at top universities to serve in the military. Accordingly, since one’s interests are greatly shaped by the opportunities proposed in one’s surroundings, military service has just not been on the radar for a lot of young men and women.

The shift in attitude turned to radical action in the spring of 1969, when anti-war protesters at Harvard College forcibly occupied University Hall. Police were called in and dispersed the crowd by force, causing an outcry among faculty and students. Hate for war coalesced with hate for soldiers; an ROTC classroom in Shannon Hall was set on fire. Deliberating under fierce pressure, the administration took a series of steps that withdrew support from the ROTC program on campus. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy introduced in 1993 prohibits homosexuals from openly serving in the military; this runs contrary to Harvard’s rules on antidiscrimination, so the University still does not recognize ROTC courses. The culture of military service at Harvard has never recovered.

In recent years, there have been strong moves made to heal Harvard’s strained political relationship with the military. ROTC is still absent from campus, but President Drew G. Faust has hinted that a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law might herald a new welcome for the program. She has begun to attend and speak supportively at ROTC commissioning ceremonies, and the color guard for the national anthem has been re-instituted at football and hockey games.

Long gone are the days of ubiquitous scorn. Handlin says that she is met everywhere with gratitude and curiosity. “When I walk around the Harvard campus, I feel warmly welcomed,” she says. “Most people are interested and respectful. When they see the uniform, they say, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing ever.’” Far from disdained, she’s a novelty if anything. One male friend refers blithely to her as “The Warrior.”

But animosity has turned to apathy, not admiration. “Universities move towards fashion, and the military is just not in fashion,” says James J. Meeks ’01-’02, who joined the Army after graduation and served in Iraq as a second lieutenant. “It used to be out of fashion, but now I’m not sure if it’s either in or out.”

At colleges with a more visible military culture, Meeks claims, students show great pride in their peers that enter the service. “If you go into the military at Harvard, it’s just odd—it’s just weird,” he says.


In 2004, Meeks was leading a convoy of prisoners 15 miles west of Fallujah, Iraq, when his truck was struck by an improvised explosive device. His eardrums were punctured, and he had shrapnel all along the right side of his body. He had known full well that getting hit was pretty much inevitable. The social studies concentrator from Newton, Mass., was not at all planning on joining the military until one decisive moment in his senior year: Sept. 11, 2001. “I felt like that was my generation’s call,” says Meeks. “That was when history just changed.”

For many Americans, the cruel shock spasmed and subsided, and then life resumed as before. For Meeks, however, the peacetime mentality was shattered for good. “Our way of life is not necessarily secure,” he says. “It must be guarded vigorously.” This call of duty led him to the Army and then to Iraq, but not without resistance.

Louis Walter Meeks, Jim’s father, grew up on a small farm in Clinton, Mich., then worked his way through University of Michigan Medical School. He was called up to the draft and had a deeply traumatic experience operating on hundreds of critically wounded soldiers, many of whom did not survive.

“He came home to an inhospitable nation and was called ‘baby killer’ when he stepped off the plane on US soil after his deployment,” his son says. “He never spoke about his experiences, really.” After years of hard work to make a better life for his kids, he met Jim’s acceptance into Harvard with joy.

When Jim Meeks told his family that he was joining the military in 2001, he saw his dad cry for the first time. “He looked at me and he said, ‘Everything I’ve done in my life I’ve done so you wouldn’t have to go through what I have, and now you’re choosing to do so?’” Louis Meeks had hoped that Harvard would lead his son into a world of peace and comfort—a world as far as possible from the stifled trauma of his own haunting war story.

Of Jim Meeks’ close circle of six friends, none of whom were in ROTC, four had joined the military within a few years of Sept. 11. The first was Seth W. Moulton ’01, a Platoon Commander in the US Marine Corps who is now a tutor in Quincy House. He had already been to Officer Candidate School the year before; in a way, he says, the rush of volunteers following Sept. 11 had vindicated his extraordinary vigilance. Approval was harder to exact from his family, however. His mother told him that she would only have been more disappointed if he had chosen a life of crime.

“Yeah,” he drawls, as stern irony pulls smiling creases across his face. “She has a way with words.”

But Moulton is serious when it comes to the actual consequences of such harsh dismissal for service men and women. “It’s hard to do something that your peers and your family don’t respect—and it’s especially difficult when that thing itself is hard to do.”

Hard is an understatement. Multivariable calculus is hard; Friday crosswords are hard; driving in rush hour is hard. “My job was to keep 35 young Americans alive,” says Moulton. He ran two tours of Iraq as a Marine Platoon Commander then returned as a Special Assistant to military leadership there.

The will to serve is still strong at the College, to be sure; it has just been redrawn and redirected. Robin Mount, Director of the Office of Career, Research and International Opportunities at OCS, has noticed a lot of student support for military service. “Harvard definitely prides itself on making leaders for all sectors of society,” she says. “But there are other ways of serving the government that are not just in one military capacity.” Education, for instance, is very popular at the moment, both within the country and abroad in places like India and China.

There are plenty of ways to give back, each with its own merits. Yet some forms of service are burdened by moral ambiguity and dangerous partiality, where others are not. Some forms of service involve the possibility of taking other people’s lives, where others do not. Cosmopolitanism is sexy, and Teach for America was nowhere near the Vietnam War.

Jim Meeks is also the co-founder and leader of the 2Seeds Network, an agricultural development project in Tanzania. He is frustrated by this division in what he sees to be an artificial division in the concept of service, another regrettable holdover from the “War That Couldn’t Be Won.” That controversial conflict saw the demise of the national service’s claim to ethical neutrality, as it was no longer considered acceptable that the military remain unswervingly faithful to its commander-in-chief. “That generation has difficulty separating their antagonism towards a certain military conduct from their antagonism towards an institution that obeys its commander of chief no matter what it thinks,” Meeks says.

Thus military service is thought of as less appropriate than other forms. “They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive,” argues Meeks. “I definitely don’t think everyone should join the military, but I think if you’re talking about service then you should talk about it all as one package...Otherwise you’re relegating the defense of the country to a separate part of the population.”

This relegation of duty away from privilege is a far cry from the sense of duty that motivated Mawn and Foote. Of course it’s desirable for Harvard students to pursue more fashionable ways of serving their nation, says Meeks. But for him, that misses a crucial part of the story. “The military is a priori: without it, all the products of cosmopolitanism are moot because they’re always under attack.”

Moulton and Meeks used to work together as ushers in Memorial Church. Above the names of Harvard alumni who lost their lives in war, there is a frieze that encircles the ceiling. “While a bright future beckoned / They freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies / That we might learn from them / Courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”

Jim Meeks certainly did learn the courage to strive after this better world. In July 2003, he graduated from his Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga.; his parents traveled to attend, and his father had been convinced by his mother to wear his combat ribbon on his jacket lapel. One of the young officers in the younger Meeks’ unit noticed the ribbon and asked the veteran, “Sir, I see you served in Vietnam. Could you tell me about it?”

Caught off-guard, his father replied that he would rather not. The young officer paused, checked himself, and then continued, “Well, please allow me to thank you for your service, sir.”

It was the first time anyone had said that to Louis Meeks in 30 years.


Every week, Monday through Thursday, Handlin has to get to MIT by 0600 hours for her Physical Training, Leadership Lab or Naval Science classes. Most of the Harvard campus is sound asleep at this time. She is proud of the military life and among her peers, she feels an emissary’s responsibility for her little-regarded calling. “I’m their only contact with the military at the moment, and it may be thus for the rest of their lives, so when I wear my uniform, it better be right.”

Most Harvard ROTC students have a family member who has been in the military. “That’s how we learned about it and saw it as an opportunity available to us,” explains Foote. But it’s not just from family that traditions are born—that we learn what is desirable and what is acceptable. College life offers new connections and new experiences. What was never before on the radar can suddenly appear as an alluring possibility. Moulton joined the military in 2001; his friends did shortly after. He insists that his impact was one of increasing awareness, not of heroic trailblazing. “It was having a friend who did it that made it a reasonable option, that made it accessible, made it seem not so crazy,” he reasons.

As a tutor in Quincy House, Moulton often talks to students who are considering serving in the military. Many of them, he knows, would not be well suited to the path that he had chosen. “But I think some people would really like it, and just need a little bit of encouragement or motivation.”

On the outside of Dexter Gate—just by Wigglesworth, where Mawn slept his clandestine nights in the ’60s—an engraving famously reads “Enter, to Grow in Wisdom.” The other side is harder to see, high above the tunnel that passes beneath, but it gives meaning to the front. “Depart, to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind.”

A long train of ghosts has proceeded out of the Yard, some with uniforms and some without. The inscription does not discriminate between them.