ROTC on Memorial Day

By James Fallows

Many more comments have come in about ROTC and the elite universities, which I'll get to shortly. Here are two for Memorial Day.

From a reader who asks not to be named:

I served in the USN for four years, 1968-72, much of that time spent in WesPac, along the Vietnamese coast and rivers. I was personally and closely involved in an operation where the CO received a Silver Star, and after all these years I cannot really remember exactly what was going on, since it was not all that different than what went on most of the time. It was loud, that I remember. I always remember this when John Kerry's service is called into question.

In 1968 I turned 18 two months before I reported for boot camp. I was a blue collared son (Irish Catholic, Philadelphia) of a WWII vet who was the son of a WWI vet. The eldest son of eight children, college was not an option. Though my relationship with my father was always quite contentious, he had passed along to me the responsibility of patriotic duty, despite the growing public opposition to the war especially among so many of my peers, most of whom were going off to college. After finishing boot camp I formally submitted a request to be allowed to transfer to the USMC, since the Marines were a component of the USN. Request denied. All of my subsequent requests were also denied due to the high level of my test scores.

Things happened the way they happened, and off I went to Vietnam, and somewhere along the way - late 69, early 70 I began to see things differently. I returned to CONUS in April 1970 weeks before the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, which exacerbated a moral crisis that had already been set in motion by incidents in Vietnam. This eventually led me to consider becoming a conscientious objector, a nearly impossible status to get while serving in the military. When I finally had to officially declare my intentions I was immediately pegged for transfer - after a thorough 'after dark' beating - to a small ship that was, at the time, off the coast of VN. I was given two weeks leave. I returned home, then travelled north to MA with a Catholic Brother whose 'mother house' was in Quebec- a job, a place to stay.

I cannot even begin to tell you how painful that decision was - to leave the country or stay and fight what would be a losing battle. I eventually decided to stay and caught the ship in Japan a month later. I did not apply for CO status and 15 months later found myself in a combat situation where I was the only person with the kind of experience that was needed to complete a mission. Again, I found myself caught in the vise of a dilemma that many of us had to face: say no and be thrown into the brig or do the job. I chose the latter and it thoroughly changed my life. It was Vietnam where the only thing that mattered was the number of KIAs [Killed In Action], and there were KIAs, though they happened to be innocent farmers. But that didn't matter since they were quantifiable indigenes, which meant you could spin them into being anything you needed for them to be. That decision is with me everyday. This is what Richard Blumenthal has no idea about: the mistakes some of us made, the personal failures we live with, these things we know about ourselves that we wish we didn't. To say - to even insinuate - that he was there is wholly parasitic.

In 1974 I finally made my way to college, a border state school famously known for its basketball program. On a beautiful early fall evening in 1974 while walking across campus I came to the main square and found it taken over by marching ROTC members who were clearly disrupting the flow through a public space. I began a campaign to remove the ROTC from the square, a one-man battle which took me into several offices: the dean of students, an officer in the reserves; the ROTC commander, an Air Force major; and the president of the university. I finally won a battle, and the ROTC was removed. Shortly after, I was approached by a woman, an 'older' student like me, who claimed to also be a 'radical' veteran, speaking for some other 'radicals' who wanted to know if I'd be interested in burning down the ROTC building. (This had been tried a few years before during student protests.) This was clearly a set-up, which I immediately blew off.

Why am I telling you this? I'm not really sure, other than it has all been resurrected - once again - over the past two weeks. Some things don't go away, especially the personal truths we quietly live with. No one who served ever forgets that they served. And those who claim they did when they didn't know another kind of unsettling and very personal truth that speaks to character. Or, perhaps, the lack of it.

After the jump a statement from John P. Wheeler III, whom I have mentioned many times -- a friend, a member of the West Point class of 1966, long ago a leader of the effort to build the Vietnam Memorial, now a leader of the effort to return ROTC to elite schools and someone who feels that ROTC's continued exclusion is a daily expression of disrespect for soldiers and military service.

Jack Wheeler writes:

May I say that in all this debate there is no echo yet, no remembrance of the pain, sting, injury of the raw disdain emanating from what Harvard has perpetrated for 42 years. The discussion so far is all so clinical. But we humans have Right Brains too. Who speaks for the vitriol that Harvard pours on Broken Hearts?...

I go to Arlington Cemetery and I see exactly what is in the attached photos [of grieving spouses and familes]. I was there this week. It is interesting. Women kneeling at the grave in public at Arlington in this way is relatively new. Not of old, in my experience.

I go to the Wall and still see women collapse in tears.

There are wounds and accountability....

You see and feel my wound and anger. It is how the Wall got built. And then the women's statue at the Wall and then the Korean Veterans Memorial, and then the Law Enforcement Memorial and the California State Vietnam Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial.

You of course see the point:

This discussion in your blog is all too clinical. Their are wounds and pain and disdain and vitriol poured on broken hearts, and that is the story.

I don't see things quite the same way, but then, our experiences differ. On this Memorial Day, he deserves his say.

Another correspondent, a foe of ROTC, wrote in with a reminder of the inevitable line from Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/05/rotc-on-memorial-day/57462/