Why Universities Should Not Be Training Military Officers

On April 9, 1969, a group of us marched into University Hall, the main administration building at Harvard, demanding that Harvard abolish its ROTC program and stop evicting working class people as it expanded. An additional demand, to create a Black Studies program, was added later.

We took over the building, evicting the deans and their staff, and mobilized thousands of other students to either join us inside or to rally on the steps outside. We remained in possession until about 3 AM; by that time Harvard had mobilized 10,000 police officers from around the region who massed outside,stormed the building (we had voted to resist nonviolently, by locking arms),and hauled 180 of us out to jail (we were booked for trespassing and released 6 or 7 hours later). The arrests, in turn, triggered a student strike which went on for a few weeks.

One result of these events was that I was convicted of assault and battery on the Dean of the College (testimony showed that I had held his elbow as we escorted him out of the building) and sentence to 9 months in prison. Other results were more positive: Harvard did establish a Black Studies program, it became at least a little more sensitive to its working class neighbors in Allston, Cambridge, and Roxbury. And it abolished ROTC.

So you can see why I might take it personally that Harvard ROTC is now coming back. Congress passed a law some years back requiring colleges to allow ROTC in order to qualify for federal funds. Harvard had resisted on the ground that ROTC discriminated against lesbian and gay people; but with the repeal of Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell, effective today, Harvard has decided to welcome the program back.

1969 was a long time ago – my daughter emailed me this morning, “Well, I guess 40 years is pretty good” – and I don’t want to become obsessed, particularly since I am not at Harvard anymore. But I do want to say that all the reasons we were against ROTC then, at Harvard or at any other campus, are still valid.

What were those reasons?

  1. All over the world, the US military is used to repress people’s struggles for democracy and control of their own economies. They sometimes pretend the opposite – that’s what they are pretending now in Libya; but in the long run, it never turns out that way. When the US military intervenes, democracy does not ensue. What does follow is that repressive governments are propped up and popular movements are repressed violently. This used to be excused as ‘fighting communism;’ now it’s more likely to be ‘fighting terrorism,’ or ‘fighting drugs.’ But it comes down to the same thing. Universities should not cooperate with the military; for that matter, neither should anyone else.
  2. More and more, the military is populated through what is known as the “economic draft.” That is, while no one is drafted any more, the people who end up in the military choose it because they cannot find another way to make a living. ROTC is part of that economic draft – people become cadets because they can’t finance their education any other way. Instead of forcing them to fight, the government should spend the money on lowering the cost of college for everyone. One of our demands at Harvard was that the university should take over the scholarships ROTC cadets were receiving. Let’s scale that up to the national level.
  3. ROTC distorts the purposes of liberal arts education. We are supposed to be teaching students to think critically; ROTC teaches them to follow (and then later to give) orders. This is fundamentally out of place in a university.
  4. Abolishing ROTC is not just a symbolic gesture – the military really needs it to get enough officers. So abolishing ROTC on campuses will impede their ability to start even more wars.

OK – I know Harvard University is not listening to me, and I really don’t want it to become an obsession. I just had to get that off my chest.

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