Books & Bullets

Russian, Rifles, and Readiness

When cleaning a weapon, you operate in a strange sort of stasis; your hands work independently as your mind drifts into the unknown yet blissful waters of mental purgatory. Or so I’m told. For the majority of the three hours I spent cleaning M-16s last Sunday, I was pretty stressed. With good company, one can make even the most menial tasks exciting. But unfortunately, the thought of my upcoming Russian exam kept me from finding the therapeutic merits of rifle cleaning.

The transition between cadet land and Harvard makes for hectic weekends. One moment, I’m running through the woods fighting the South Atropian People’s Army (SAPA, a fictitious guerilla force made up of senior ROTC cadets). Next thing I know, I’m in line to return my rifle as I come to the horrifying realization that Uncle Sam took all the time I needed to finish that essay that’s suddenly due tomorrow.

The expectations cadets encounter are what make the transition between school and ROTC both humorous and difficult. At Harvard, people think I’m some kind of tactical genius because I happen to wear an Army uniform. Sure, I understand some Army acronyms, but my tactical prowess has yet to emerge. In late February, for example, we ran a platoon operations simulation, during which I forgot to bring a map. Let’s just say the operation didn’t start as planned.

Then come the expectations from other cadets. Every summer, cadets from across the country are flown to Ft. Knox. Last summer, I found myself among these cadets, surrounded by people from just about everywhere. Upon my platoon’s discovery that I attended Harvard, things got…interesting. You see, people have one of two expectations when they discover you’re from Harvard. Either 1) you’re a pretentious loudmouth, or 2) you’re some soft spoiled kid who’s absolutely useless in the field. And no matter what you do, there’s no escape from confirming either stereotype.

For starters, my field skills weren’t the most refined. I was a Boy Scout, so I knew a few knots, but most of the other cadets had spent their entire lives living in areas I deem inhospitable (growing up in Los Angeles made me weak). My experience with firearms was limited to firing a .22 rifle once. Conversely, most of the other cadets already knew how to take apart an M-16. When instructed to set up a hooch (a primitive tent of sorts) in the field, my living space resembled that of a sad, drenched caterpillar that failed metamorphosis. My peers, on the other hand, found themselves warm and dry in their five-star shelters.


Making conversation presented a whole other problem. You see, the Paul Revere Battalion has grown accustomed to my strange breed of political humor (or so I hope). My Soviet at ego and reliance on the word “comrade” has earned me a special position as the battalion’s resident commie. However, some cadets from other regions aren’t too familiar with my kind of humor. My jokes regarding revolution, communism, and the collective convinced a few cadets that I was indeed a Russian infiltrator sent from Harvard to destroy Ft. Knox from within. My enrollment in Russian isn’t exactly helping me deflect these accusations.

Cadet Initial Entry Training was almost a year ago, yet here I am today, fumbling my way through the government department and the field. Can I clean a rifle? Depends on your standard of cleanliness. Have I mastered Russian? Я говорю по-русски плохо (not really). Have I learned to sympathize with my colleagues who think a 0830 wakeup call is early? Of course not.

Yet, oddly enough, despite their discrepancies, there are moments when Harvard and ROTC operate in peace—maybe even in tandem. Getting tear-gassed last summer at CIET provided me with excellent material for dining hall conversations. The factoids I’ve learned throughout my time at Harvard have granted me verbal ammunition with which to entertain my fellow cadets when we’re bored beyond belief.

About two weeks ago, we started reading Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time” in Russian class. In the novel, Pechorin, a cruel yet clever Russian officer, finds himself battling fate as he’s thrown from one mishap to another. Despite his intelligence, during one of his misadventures he loses a bet due to a pistol’s misfire. Serves him right; every officer should ensure that their soldiers properly clean their weapons.

I’m not nearly as handsome as Pechorin, nor half as clever. However, being caught between Harvard and ROTC has taught me something Pechorin lacked: a sense of how little I know, and a willingness to talk about it.

Nathan L. Williams '18, a current Army ROTC cadet, is a government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Harvard’s ROTC program, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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