This We’ll Defend

Some tactical patience required.

Unlike certain lunchtime eateries in certain science buildings on certain Cambridge campuses, some things never change. If you asked a cadet or midshipman fifty years ago why they decided to join ROTC, or why anyone might decide to join the military at all, you would be told something similar to what today’s cadets, midshipmen, and service members might say: at the core of every contract is service and sacrifice. The military does not ask you to merely participate, but to lead.

What a coincidence! Harvard prides itself on shaping and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders, and many of its students are similarly dedicated to serving their country and communities. (Except those Economics concentrators. They’re just in it for the money.)

Lightheartedness aside, Harvard and the U.S. military have a lot to offer each other, and share quite a legacy of leadership. From Revolutionary War minutemen to Civil War officers, the Harvard Regiment of 1916 to WWII heroes, even Vietnam to the Middle East, members of the Harvard community have been deeply involved in virtually every major combat operation since the nation’s founding, and often continue on to have distinguished civilian careers. Members of the administration routinely highlight the fact that Harvard has educated more Medal of Honor recipients than any other institution save for the two oldest service academies.

The darker parts of this legacy, though, have left some deep stains on the relationship between the two institutions over the last half-century. Before student protests permanently forced ROTC off-campus in the 1960’s, Harvard was commissioning nearly 100 officers total in all three branches every year out of a robust program run on-campus. In almost every year since 1969, no more than 10 officers have been commissioned each year, according to an Advocates for Harvard ROTC 2015 report. (Certainly, the size and needs of the military have changed, and it would be unreasonable to ever expect anything close to pre-1969 numbers. Nonetheless, the change is striking.)

The most profound tragedy that arose from this change was the emergence of a real ideological divide amongst students regarding Harvard and the military. While numerous op-eds waxed on and on about the utility of ROTC and whether or not it was antithetical to Harvard’s mission, it seems like no one cared to consider what ROTC’s expulsion would actually mean for their peers and classmates. At once, the military was out of sight, out of mind.


That is a costly gamble. Future civilian leadership can only benefit from engagement with members of the military here. Harvard students who dream of conducting foreign policy and managing national security tend to study those topics in abstraction, not always realizing some of their friends and peers will be the primary instruments of those policies. It’s one thing to make plans from an air-conditioned office in Foggy Bottom, but it’s another thing entirely to jump out of a plane and become “boots on the ground.”

Against the trends and attitudes of the last few decades, that so many students, faculty, and administrators are now more positive and supportive of ROTC and military members on campus is quite remarkable (again per the Advocates report). There is far more solidarity than division.

Many have lodged fair critiques of solidarity not being effectively translated into support. Since Navy ROTC was recognized in 2011, progress towards greater civil and military integration has felt excruciatingly slow. Air Force ROTC was recognized just last year. (The process of recognition still requires traversing a veritable mountain range of bureaucracy and paperwork, and does take a lot of time.) ROTC ranks have experienced more attrition than growth, and the presence of student veterans on campus is basically non-existent.

I struggle to believe that there are fewer than 10 students in classes of over 1600 that have been selected specifically for their commitment to excellence and community service who would be interested in becoming an officer in the U.S. military.

Neither Harvard nor its military counterparts will get very far on their own. It is encouraging to see within the last year how both institutions have collaborated to increase ROTC and the military’s presence on campus. There was a massive color guard detail for The Game, an exhibition in Pusey Library, and coverage in The Harvard Gazette and The Crimson. Even since my last column, the Harvard Army cadets have been informed that the number of ROTC scholarship recipients accepted in the Class of 2021 could double the size of our program next year. The eight current Navy freshmen doubled the size of Navy’s program this year.

This growth is hopefully indicative of a strengthening institutional relationship. I believe that the Harvard community at large wants this relationship to flourish and has a vested interest in it doing so. But if I have learned anything in the last year and a half, it is that translating solidarity into support takes time, and churning the wheels of two venerable bureaucracies takes even more time. Countless people work tirelessly to improve and manage Harvard and the military’s relationship, and a few years will not completely undo the damage that a nearly 50-year exile has done. Some tactical patience is required.

Grace M. Chao ’19 is an Economics concentrator in Mather House. Her 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.