The Human Face of Institutional Change

My parents were initially displeased with my decision to join the Army. My mother is a staunch pacifist who grew up hating Cold War America. Her friends were murdered by American-backed death squads, so her feelings for the U.S. military were ambivalent at best. My father was slightly subtler in his opposition. As the deadline for accepting my Army scholarship approached, he asked me to read “The War Prayer,” hoping Mark Twain’s words would turn me away from the butchery of war.

My father’s tactics failed, but not because I was ignorant. I read "The War Prayer." I knew about the U.S.’s crimes in Vietnam and Central America. I agreed that the occupation of Afghanistan was a poorly managed campaign of mistakes, a catastrophe only overshadowed by the largest geopolitical disaster of the twenty-first century—the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

But rather than dissuade me, my parents’ opinions only vindicated my decision to join. With the overconfidence of your typical 18-year-old, I viewed America’s blunders as a call to arms. The Army needed people like me, or so I arrogantly thought. I could minimize the damage of the Iraq War. I could help turn the tide of war in Afghanistan. I could transform America’s Army into a global force for good.

My freshman year only heightened my sense of self-worth. Our campus culture is that of a divinely-chosen people convinced of their God-given right to lead. After all, our club presidencies and service as athletic captains in high school bought us our tickets to Harvard. Likewise, our status as collegiate leaders (as outlined by our exaggerated resumes) will undoubtedly provide us with “real-world” managerial positions—or so we tell ourselves.

I fell for this myth hook, line, and sinker. By the end of my freshman year, I single-handedly made up 50 percent of the Class of 2018’s Army cadet contingent. Surely the Army would recognize—no, cherish—my rarity. I was Harvard’s gift to America’s Army, a savior destined to redeem my nation’s military sins.


My first session of Army training that summer quickly crushed my reformist dreams of military grandeur. When hiking through the Ohio Valley’s humid, tick-ridden marshes, soldiers don’t want to talk about the President’s National Security Strategy or the harmful relationship between civilian contractors and the Army’s counterinsurgency efforts. Soldiers want to eat and drink. Soldiers want to sleep. More importantly, soldiers want soldiers with the skills needed to make these activities possible (and talking isn’t one of them).

After about a week or so into training, no one bothers to remember what school you go to. No one cares about the research you did with that one professor last summer. No one cares about your blog, social initiative, or athletic achievements. Can you tie a bowline knot? Can you clear a machine gun? Can you march in silence for hours on end? Can you lead a platoon-sized ambush? While seemingly simple, these skills are what distinguish great Cadets from the rest.

I was not a great Cadet that first summer. I was not a complete imbecile either, but my mediocrity bothered me. I hadn’t left any sort of impact on the Army’s warfighting structure. I hadn’t done my part to destroy the bureaucracy currently strangling the Army’s capacity for institutional change. Instead, I struggled to tie knots. I mistreated my blisters. I improperly threw a grenade. I did nothing of consequence.

Yet as I sharpened these seemingly mundane skills, my peers lent me their ears. We shot the breeze, exchanged jokes, and told tall tales. Sometimes we discussed the evils of black licorice jellybeans. Sometimes we argued about the Army’s future as a humanitarian force. Sometimes we found comfort in each other’s silence as we stared into the night sky and thought to ourselves, “Man, I hate this place.”

These smaller, seemingly inconsequential human moments are where long-term change is born. I can’t shape incoming national security adviser John R. Bolton’s opinion of the Iran nuclear deal. I can’t change the President’s strategy for Syria. But I can befriend a future infantryman from Nebraska. I can advise a future general from West Virginia. I can change the mind of a future special operations commander from Puerto Rico. Through doing so, I may play a small role in sparking the cultural change needed to prevent America’s next military disaster.

In an odd sense, our campus culture is right; each of us is a leader in our own, humble capacity. Yes, you can spend your evenings drafting worthless emails. You can spend your days sweating your soul away under the hot Kentucky sun. You can even spend your evenings writing for The Harvard Crimson. And yet, your friends are America’s future voters. Your peers are America’s future soldiers. Your neighbors are America’s future pioneers. Thus, the unplanned moments we share with others provide us with unimaginable influence, an influence capable of driving the institutional change we seek.

So go forth. Debate your roommates. Send that funny email to your coworkers. Convert life’s mundane moments into memorable ones—not only for yourself, but for those around you. You might not trigger the next great piece of legislation, but you might just shape its future authors.

Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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