Rethinking War

On Mar. 4, President Faust signed an agreement allowing the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps back on campus. The ROTC debate on campus continues to revolve around a very important issue, LGBTQ rights, but what continues to surprise and shock me is why nobody at Harvard opposes the presence of the military on principle. Why is there no debate over what the military represents to an institution like Harvard? Are students too busy to care about why America is fighting abroad and the human cost of American military adventurism?

At the signing ceremony, President Faust described the military career as “an honorable and admirable calling.” There is some truth in this statement. The military establishment has allowed America to grow as a country, and the American military can be said to protect core American values like liberty, freedom, and democracy. Nonetheless, these arguments should not be exaggerated. We need to reexamine our respect for the military, and one way of doing so is by looking back at what Harvard went through in the 60s and 70s. During the Vietnam Era, antimilitary and pacifist movements at Harvard erupted into action, resulting in ROTC’s removal from Harvard's campus. The leaders of these movements came from diverse parts of society; they included professors, politicians, and professionals. In other words, they were not a marginal group. The arguments of pacifism and antimilitarism are worth revisiting today because they help us understand why we take war for granted today, and they shed new light on the ROTC debate.

Pacifism, which is distinct from antimilitarism, is opposed to violence on moral grounds, claiming that non-violent resistance is more powerful than military coercion. It is a multifaceted movement, but one of its most powerful arguments is that violence can never convince, only force. Pacifism is strong because it recognizes the fundamental human aversion to coercion. No one enjoys being forced to act in a certain way, but when we understand that act, we have fewer problems with it. Pacifism sheds light on the potential tension between the military, which forces, and an institution like Harvard, which convinces (or tries to at least).

Antimilitarism, on the other hand, is not opposed to violence in itself, but to the state control of violence. It thinks that warfare creates a new set of unrelated interests and problems requiring more war. Today, antimilitarism provides a powerful counter-argument to those who claim the military protects American values. Any look at the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan calls into question how much values are motivating the conflict, rather than special interests, nationalism, and ignorance. How often have wars lost track of their original goals? And how often are these goals actually rooted in reality?

Whether we are talking about pacifism, antimilitarism, or any other theory of violence, the difference between today and the Vietnam Era is that today we no longer criticize war as an act in itself.

So what happened to Harvard’s antimilitary and pacifist movement, to marches, boycotts, and protests, to actually standing up for our values? There is no single answer. Some say we were all brainwashed by corporate and special influences; others point to apathy. All I can say is that I don’t consider joining Facebook groups or signing online petitions genuine support for or disapproval of a war.

One of the reasons why the Vietnam War aroused so much protest amongst American youth lies in the fact that draft threatened to personally involve them in warr—and they didn’t like it. Today, however, war is far, far away for most Americans, not just because it is centered on the other side of the globe, but also because the internet and media have given us the impression that we’re part of a war when, in fact, we’re glaring at a computer or TV screen.

Maybe that’s the problem. We take war too casually, and delegate the responsibilities of war away from us and to our army. Part of what Harvard represents is the need to reevaluate the assumptions we make, and the military is no exception. I would like to express my anger at the University’s decision, not only of entirely excluding student opinion, but also of failing to meets its standards of intellectual integrity in the present debate over ROTC.

Felix de Rosen ’13, a social studies concentrator, lives in Leverett House.