ROTC, Up Close and Personal
Ask a Harvard student what comes to mind when he or she thinks of ROTC and the response is likely to be negative.
Ask a Harvard student what comes to mind when he or she thinks of ROTC and the response is likely to be negative. A focus of anti-Vietnam War protest in the sixties and of the gay rights movement in the eighties and nineties, ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) has weathered its share of controversy. "The faculty and student body will continue to take a negative position as long as there is no communication between ROTC students and the rest of the college," says Katherine Pearson '93, of Eliot House and Philadelphia, who is battalion commander of Navy ROTC. "There is little conception of what the program actually is, and I think until we have open dialogue, ROTC will be seen as an abstract issue rather than a practical reality."
In 1990 the Faculty Council delivered an ultimatum, pledging to sever all ties with ROTC unless the military began admitting gays and lesbians. A committee was formed to examine the issue and recommend future action. The University Committee Report on the Status of ROTC, released in late October, recommended cutting Harvard's few remaining official ties. At issue is the $128,000 the University annually pays MIT in return for the use of its ROTC facilities. In the report the committee stated that by providing even indirect funds, Harvard is violating its anti-discrimination policy, adopted in 1985. The committee recommends that Harvard treat ROTC as it would a final club, by placing the financial burden of participating on the individual students. That would work out to approximately $1,600 per student per year. The committee has also recommended banning Commencement Day commissioning ceremonies, which have traditionally been held on Harvard premises.
President-elect Bill Clinton's pledge to end the military ban on homosexuals, however, may resolve the issue of Harvard's relationship to ROTC. Rachel E. Cohen '94, of Lowell House and Ann Arbor, Michigan, co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Students Association, says that "if Clinton does stop the ban, there will be no moral principles on which to oppose ROTC at Harvard." Whether or not the ethical dilemmas are removed, it may be time to look beyond
the political aspects of the program to the lives of the 63 Harvard undergraduates currently enrolled in ROTC.
Almost two-thirds of these students are enrolled in the Navy unit. About twenty are in the Army unit, with fewer than half a dozen taking Air Force training. Though many factors lead a student to join ROTC, the primary motivation for most of them is financial. The Air Force and Navy type-one scholarships cover full tuition, while the Army pays for 80 percent of tuition plus $800 for books and a $100 a month stipend. Most ROTC members would be unable to attend Harvard without such aid. "Without the ROTC scholarship," says Margaret Hoefner '94, of Kirkland House and Richmond Hill, New York, and a member of Navy ROTC, "Harvard would have been an impossibility." Tim DeNezza '94, of Leverett House and Tiburon, California—also Navy ROTC—was in a similar position. "It came down to a choice between Harvard with ROTC or Berkeley," he says.
Transferring the economic burden to the students would be hypocritical, contends John Ebel '93, of Eliot House and Rochester, Minnesota, who is a member of Navy ROTC. Harvard is willing to accept military scholarship money, he says, "but they don't want to pay the MIT fee."
Along with tuition, ROTC participants are provided with valuable experience in leadership and group dynamics. Although ROTC is overseen by military officers, Pearson explains, it is basically a student-run program. When tasks are assigned, it's up to the undergraduates to implement and'accomplish them. Pearson feels that "most of my leadership ability was learned through the Navy," and she says she has applied those lessons to other areas of her life.
Candidates find the additional time commitment and academic requirements of the program demanding, forcing them to be efficient and well organized. Requirements vary according to class and position, but every student must take one extra course per semester on the MIT campus. There are also Monday morning drills, which require being up by 5 A.M. to dress in uniform and catch the bus to MIT. Navy ROTC has less intense physical training than Army, but the students must prepare for and pass a physical readiness test twice a year.
A week of boot camp at Fort Devens is yet another ROTC requirement, described by all as an intense experience in which "all the movie cliches come true." Students are instructed to look straight ahead at all times, refrain from speaking to one another, and refer to themselves as "this midshipman" rather than "I." For Pearson, the week of boot camp helped her to become "physically, mentally, and emotionally dedicated" to the program. Kedron McDonald '93, of Kirkland House and Chino, California, publicity officer for Navy ROTC, says boot camp changed her attitude toward Harvard, which had been very negative. After spending a session in Harvard summer school before her first year, she had been prepared to transfer to another college. The friendships that she developed at Fort Devens changed her outlook and made her eager to begin both Harvard and her ROTC training.
Participants cite the sense of community as the best aspect of the program. "The most trustworthy people I know at Harvard are ROTC," says McDonald. "I can always count on them." Boot camp, classes, and 6 A.M. bus rides combine to create feelings of solidarity among members. Through ROTC, says Pearson, she's met "some of the most inspirational and impressive individuals at Harvard—more responsible than the average student. They have their feet on the ground." She points to the many social gatherings and community-service projects that keep the ROTC community close-knit. McDonald attributes the group's cohesiveness to a common sense of civic duty. "Military service is my contribution to my country," she says. Adds Hoefner: "I always stand a little straighter in uniform, and I definitely feel proud on the Fourth of July."
At the end of every ROTC member's college experience lie four years of active duty. DeNezza feels that "knowing in four years you will be in the Navy makes you grow up faster. At twenty-one you will be in charge of people who are older and have more experience than you." McDonald says she can't wait to begin active duty, and is relieved not to be scrambling for jobs or a place in graduate school like her classmates. Ebel points to the fact that many students drift during the years after graduation, and he is glad to have the direction the military provides. McDonald, DeNezza, and Hoefner all say they would welcome a chance to be in combat. "I want to do what the Navy trains you for," says McDonald, "and that's war."
Many ROTC participants whose opinion of the program is positive still find problems with the military's treatment of women. McDonald believes women should be allowed in combat, and both she and Pearson believe the infamous Tailhook incident will ultimately improve the attitude of the military toward women by underscoring the need for a change in behavior.
Madhuri Gogineni '93, of Leverett House and Simsbury, Connecticut, who participated in ROTC her first year, had a mixed experience with the military. Her difficulties stemmed from the program's attitudes toward women and its authoritarian structure. After becoming ill on the second day of boot camp, she requested a chance to rest. The gunnery sergeant approached her, she says, and asked if she had dropped out in hopes of receiving attention from him. "You're sweet on me, aren't you?" she says he asked. According to Gogineni, he then undid his belt and said, "Why don't we get it over with right now." Gogineni says she realized the gesture was meant to intimidate, but she felt disoriented by the experience and confused about how to respond, having been taught not to question the acts of superior officers. Though she found her year of ROTC valuable in many ways, Gogineni says she never felt comfortable in the program and believed that remaining in the military would have required subverting her own system of values.
The emphasis the military places on hierarchical authority can also conflict with the college experience. Thomas Aleman '93, of Adams House and Houston, dropped ROTC after his sophomore year. Aleman had been hoping since elementary school to enter the military and become a pilot, but boot camp made him question his choice. "A lot of what we were taught had absolutely no rationale," he says, "like being told to polish the inside of your belt buckle. It was the painstaking attention to detail that I found a waste of time." Aleman says he also found it difficult to "follow the orders of a superior whom I didn't respect."
Another Harvard senior also dropped ROTC because he was unable to reconcile its autocratic nature with his education at Harvard. He felt the purpose of boot camp was to "deconstruct individuality and then reconstruct personal identity as a part of the military machine. ROTC teaches that the military, the government, and authority in general should not be questioned." He says that a freshman seminar on Vietnam, where he learned that the U.S. government lied "both to the people and the soldiers who sacrificed their lives," made it impossible for him to continue his participation in the program.
Still, the most visible and controversial of the military's conservative policies remains the ban on homosexuals. If Clinton holds to his campaign promise to end the military's exclusionary practices, opposition to ROTC is almost certain to fade. Ebel finds it "funny that society makes demands on the military without making demands on itself. The military has a duty to defend the nation," he says, "and it should not also be required to be a social pioneer. The military must be conservative. It is up to the rest of society to change."
You might also like
Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.
The magazine’s football correspondent advises fans to deal with it.
Alan Garber on campus speech, academics, and his other Harvard priorities