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In Response to the Editorial on ROTC in The Crimson

November 29, 2010
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When President Drew Faust issued a strongly worded endorsement of the return of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps upon the release of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I and many other advocates for the return of ROTC were heartened that she gave such an explicit statement on the issue. While I might disagree on whether DADT should be a prerequisite for the return of ROTC, that President Faust gave such a supportive statement is something to be greatly appreciated. This sentiment also aligns with the views of a great number of students on campus. A poll from April 2009 sponsored by the Harvard Republican Club indicated that about 62% of respondents out of 1,700 students indicated support for the return of ROTC. Despite this bipartisan support, ROTC still faces obstacles from within the school, as shown in Wednesday’s editorial in the Crimson by Sandra Korn. While I respect her right to express her opinions in that forum, her piece makes a number of points that I believe are either incorrect or inapplicable to the debate over ROTC at Harvard.

I am grateful that Sandra raised an important part about Harvard’s military history, but unfortunately she did not give it the full attention it deserves. As she mentioned, Harvard University has the most Medal of Honor recipients outside of the military academies, serving in conflicts from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. Both Memorial Hall and Memorial Church commemorate the sacrifices of all of Harvard’s men and women who served, including those who gave their lives. The regimental flag in Annenberg of the 20th Massachusetts Regiment shows that at one point Harvard could furnish enough men to deem it the “Harvard Regiment.” Unfortunately, current levels of participation in ROTC have dropped to a handful, no doubt in part due to Harvard’s unfriendly stance over the last 30 years. In regards to Harvard’s environment, a 2005 Heritage Foundation study of the military’s demographics found that New England in general had only a .73 ratio of recruits to eligible population, significantly lower than any other region’s ratio. While numbers on enlisted soldiers and ROTC participants are not directly comparable, it is clear that there is an unhealthy level of separation between the military and Harvard and its environs. This lack of connection between Harvard and the military leads to misconceptions on both sides and shuts out an important viewpoint that is otherwise present in American society.

Defeating misconceptions is especially important, because unfortunately Sandra in her criticism of ROTC presented a misguided view of the structure and conduct of the military. She conflates regrettable and properly-punished actions at Abu Ghraib by a small number of soldiers with subjects such as private military contractors and foreign aid that have nothing to do with the conduct of officers who would be trained in ROTC. Our military is structured so that the civilian government ultimately has full control. Congress, not ROTC, decides to give military aid to countries, provide funding for private contractors, or engage in wars. While Sandra certainly has the right to criticize Blackwater, American foreign policy, or the overall war strategy of the United States, the civilian-controlled structure of our defense means that she should target her ire over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Congress rather than deprive Harvard students the opportunity to serve within the military. Even her charge of gender discrimination is ironic given the high proportion of Harvard women currently participating in ROTC and the military’s continued efforts to integrate women into more roles, including most recently within submarines.

It is also ironic that Sandra asks that Harvard act in a “socially responsible and just manner” by refusing to recognize ROTC when the military is one of the most important entities for humanitarian aid around the world. The U.S. military’s vast transportation capabilities allow it to deliver aid to disaster-stricken regions around the world and provide security for aid workers. Most recently, the military has helped deliver hundreds of thousands of food and aid packets to Pakistan’s flood-stricken regions. Our military also provides safety to commercial and private boat traffic when passing through areas such as the pirate-infested waters off Somalia. While some may find the U.S. Navy’s commercial slogan, “A Global Force for Good,” a bit simplistic, that is honestly not an unfair description of the military’s vital humanitarian and security roles all over the world. The notion that the military acts “in a manner inconsistent with basic humanitarian principles” is clearly not substantiated by its actions.

I also take issue with Sandra’s echo of the Crimson’s previous opinion that “this University should be in the business of education and not military training,” and her statement that Harvard has no obligation to host ROTC. Frankly, it is somewhat insulting to disparage ROTC by stating that the classes within the program are incompatible with the “business of education.” ROTC’s coursework includes rigorous engineering and strategy classes in the classroom, and outside the classroom, ROTC fosters leadership development. Given how much of an emphasis Harvard currently puts on both engineering and producing leaders, especially in the public sector, the typical ROTC courseload seems to fit perfectly within Harvard’s aims as an institution. The idea that Harvard is somehow ceding authority to the government by allowing ROTC classes is also a specious argument, especially since even fair Harvard must submit occasionally to an accreditation process by a Department of Education-approved accrediting agency. Finally, under the Solomon Amendment, Harvard is in fact obligated to allow military recruiting in some fashion in order to receive federal funding. However, this is not just a question about legal obligation. Sandra is correct in that Harvard’s actions have major repercussions, but unfortunately Harvard’s actions have left a poor impression on itself by failing to give ROTC the proper place it deserves in our university. Perhaps public antagonism against us “brie-eating Ivy Leaguers” would not be so strong if there were not such unfriendly dispositions and actions against the military. President Faust should fulfill her promise to restore ROTC at Harvard and send a strong message throughout both the Ivy League and the nation as a whole that the military is in fact a worthy and noble means for students to serve their country.

-Samuel Coffin, ’14.

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