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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The War at Home

March-April 2007

Almost every week last year I received an e-mail with the subject line “Iraq Update.” With each message, the number following that subject ticked upward: one, two, three, and then, finally, on December 16, 2006, the line read “Last Deployment Update.”

A friend of mine was stationed in Iraq with the Fourth Infantry Division. A whole year passed as I thought of him, prayed for him, but could not respond to a single one of his e-mails. Shame, confusion, disbelief—there were so many justifications for my silence. Even my joy at reading the words “Last Deployment Update” did not move me to respond.

I wondered, though, how other undergraduates in the same situation behaved, or in what war-connected situations other students might have found themselves. Our college years have been surrounded by such unbelievable global conflict and strife; even though technology has narrowed the distance between areas of violence and our rooms, there is still the increasing sense that we, as privileged students, are more and more removed from those brutal realities. My hope in asking around was not to find a consensus, but to seek out individual perspectives—I wanted to see if any of my classmates had arrived at something more than my own frustrated silence.

Henry Walters ’07 often participates in the weekly Harvard-Cambridge Walk for Peace through Harvard Yard, but he is usually the only student. “There is a misperception that we are at some far-distant remove from this war, but we create that remove,” he says of his peers. “In comparison to other citizens, there is, or there should be, an extra burden on students to acknowledge, react, speak out, demonstrate for or against, but most of all feel a war, feel that it is happening.” Walters wishes that his peers, rather than seeing college as a haven from the wider world, would engage it.

There are students who do attempt that proposition. Roxanne Bras ’09 had always thought of joining the military, and enrolled in ROTC her freshman year. Of being a cadet, she says, “Generally people are pretty supportive, but most don’t know much about the service. It’s unfortunate how little they know of the military, its components, its mission, and its people.”

Olivia Volkoff ’09, also enrolled in ROTC, was raised by two parents who “stressed the importance of service.” Her father attended the Naval Academy and she was raised in Annapolis, Maryland. She realizes, though, that her experience is unusual: “I happen to have grown up around the military, but for a lot of people, it’s a totally foreign entity.” That is why Volkoff emphasizes the value of having an ROTC program at a university like Harvard: “It’s a means for people to put a face with the armed services.” Bras adds, “There’s a stereotype for ‘uniforms,’ but Harvard cadets disprove that.”

For some Harvard students, military service is not an option, but a requirement. Efi Massasa ’09, who spent three years in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) before matriculation, says, “The meaning of war is so different for Israelis. It involves every type of Israeli in the spectrum.” Fellow students here are frequently very curious about his time in the IDF, asking him questions but often challenging him, too. “Even though all students don’t serve, it is important they interact with people who did,” he says, “so they will be able to shape their own opinions about military service.”

Magnus Grimeland ’07, who served in the Norwegian Special Forces before college, agrees that having veterans attend Harvard and having Harvard graduates serve in the military are benefits for both institutions. “If you look at the news media, war is in focus all the time,” Grimeland observes. “So having students who’ve already been in that position can be really valuable.” He remembers his own unique contributions to the popular class Moral Reasoning 22, “Justice,” where he participated in section discussions on force and violence.

Addressing Harvard’s global obligations, Grimeland says, “Think of it, there are hundreds of thousands of American troops around the world. The leadership of these forces should be well educated, have a good perspective on the world, and care about human life.” He expresses some dismay at the career plans of most of his College peers: “If you have an investment banker who makes a mistake, millions of dollars are lost. But if you have a commander on the ground in Iraq who makes a mistake, soldiers die. It’s imperative for Harvard to realize this, to encourage its smart, educated, and driven students into service.” His comments echo those of former University president Lawrence Summers, who said at last year’s ROTC commissioning ceremony, “I believe that our country is best served when great universities like this one stand with those who defend the freedom that makes it possible for us to do all the wonderful things that we are able to do here.”

But it takes more than an institutional ideology to encourage military service. Volkoff and Bras gave their enlistment serious thought before they arrived in Cambridge, realizing they were committing to more than training. Both investigated the financial support the military offers its members and the specific community of ROTC cadets that exists at Harvard, but also thought of their lives after graduation. Volkoff says, “I’m really looking forward to my service. I welcome the opportunity to serve my country, and move on to a new adventure.” And Bras often thinks of the kinds of commissions she might get in the army. Without flinching, she mentions that 73 women have been killed in Iraq, but says she is “ready to serve in any way.”

Joanne Lee ’07 has a close friend who is a fourth-year cadet at West Point and worries about his future after graduation. She says communication is difficult because “anything sympathetic I have to say ends up sounding condescending—I’ll never be in that situation.” She mentions also how difficult it is to imagine that “as a young college graduate, he will be in charge of other people’s lives. He’ll be making decisions there. It’s overwhelming for me to think of it.”

Another senior, Ryan Thoreson, is a pacifist who has been protesting the Iraq War since high school. Rather than taking over University Hall, as in 1969, or storming Massachusetts Hall, as in 2001, the protesters and activists of our era take to the Internet: at Harvard, Thoreson has been an active contributor to the undergraduate blog “Cambridge Common.” “Protest is healthy, and it can be productive,” Thoreson says. But he hopes his peers start “acknowledging that there are bigger ideological and moral stakes. I’ve been attacked for being opposed to the military,” he says, describing some responses to his blog posts, “but that’s not accurate—I’m opposed to the military doing what it has been doing.”

 

Talking with these specific undergraduates, it is easy enough to decide that no one is unaffected by this war. Harvard students are soldiers and activists, citizens and civilians. More fundamental, they are compassionate, critical thinkers. But apathy and disengagement are common alternatives to this critical thinking. For most of us, whatever relationship we have to the war exists alongside the knowledge that we will never risk or sacrifice our lives in the military service of our country.

In my friend’s “Last Deployment Update,” he wrote, “I’m still trying to adjust to being back home.” But even then, after months of his being away, I was still trying to adjust to his having left. I keep all his e-mails together in a file and sometimes, instead of reading the daily news coverage of soldiers around the world, I read his accounts of the number of hours he slept, the kinds of equipment he used, the quality of the food he ate, and all the fears and emotions he experienced while there in Iraq.

Reading them is like handling an artifact. They remind me of his service, but also of my years as an undergraduate at Harvard—reading the newspaper, discussing world events in my classes, debating the war in the dining hall. The benefit of the varieties of student experiences at Harvard is that we learn from one another. Whether as cadets or conscientious objectors, we prove that war is not removed from our campus. And even though I did not find the answer I was looking for, I found individuals whose resolve to do more than make excuses or apologies is enough to encourage me to keep thinking, to keep reading my friend’s letters.   

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