Harvard President Drew Faust has many fine things to say about the military. Her eloquent words recently graced the air at West Point, where she delivered a remarkable, literary speech, complete with the ancient advice that guided Achilles, “To be speakers of words and doers of deeds.” She told the cadets to craft words and deeds for the ends of leadership — for each other, for the humanities and for the nation. Faust expressed admiration for the audience’s soon-to-be officers, and said, “I wish there were more of you.”
But is that really true? Does she? While Harvard graduated 100 second lieutenants in 1963, since 9/11 they’ve averaged about seven per year. When one considers today’s military is half the size it was fifty years ago, Harvard’s steep drop is even more striking. In her speech, Faust mentioned that at graduation in 2008 she congratulated five newly minted officers — while only four saluted on graduation day last year. During her tenure, the numbers have actually gone down.
So what gives? How can a leader speak so passionately on the critical importance of military service, and yet represent a culture and institution that clearly does not live up to that ideal? What explains this discrepancy?
Let’s start with culture. As critic William Deresiewicz noted, Ivy Leaguers actively seek jobs in which they can win individual victories. Harvard’s kids are the masters of convention — acing tests in fields like medicine, law, politics and finance, all of which offer relatively rapid positive feedback. In 2007, half of Harvard students with jobs lined up after graduation were committed to finance or consulting. These professions offer status, while the military offers sameness. In the military, progress in rank occurs at a prescribed, metered pace. For uniformed folks, accumulated experience weighs heavily because shiny credentials can’t stop the inbound storm of steel. Lives filled with A+’s and gold stars produce exceptional hoop jumpers and excellent sheep. At war, excellent sheep make for excellent slaughter.
On some level, the military and Harvard are natural rivals: the military respects Ph.D.-ability with a barfight mentality, while Harvard respects JD-ability with a sue-the-barfighter mentality. Financial objectives divide us too: the military offers no exponential growth, 10X or scalable profits, just a single life to give, one country to protect.
Harvard students are special, indeed, as their breathtakingly low selection rates attest. But a culture of specialness — that sees itself beyond service — transcends percentages and is more noteworthy for indicating what Harvard values as an institution. Investments are indicators, and with a $37 billion endowment, Harvard can afford to do a lot of investing. And yet, Harvard indirectly forces ROTC students to other schools in a sort of perverse, reverse “Field of Dreams” strategy: “If you don’t build it, they won’t come.” The main support Harvard provides their ROTC kids is a few funded Zipcars to drive them off campus.
From the parking lot to the classroom, as Frank Schaeffer put it, “The lesson the Ivy League teaches has become: I am the most important person in any room.” In contrast, the military teaches all are unique; no one is special. While Harvard might prefer the lone genius, the power of one, in the military we know our fates are linked from day one. Gen. George Patton was a prophet on this point. In his famously vulgar speech in 1944, he pointed out, “Every man in the army has a job to do and he must do it. Every man is a vital link in the great chain.” He showered praise on truck drivers, quartermasters, cooks and highlighted a story about “one of the bravest men” he ever saw, a soldier-repairman fixing a telegraph wire amid a “furious firefight in Tunisia.” We all have a role, a part to play, and we must all live up to the responsibility, as the Army’s 80s-era jingle went, to “Be All You Can Be” — never for yourself but for the good of the unit and country. Non sibi sed patriae.
It could be Harvard graduates have climbed ivy so high they can’t inhale the smoke of battle or feel the fog of war. But that’s precisely what leaders are for — to shape cultures and institutions. This is President Faust’s personal Tunisian task: to climb the ladder that needs climbing, to lead, no matter the conditions of cultural resistance and institutional rigidity, and to reconnect the wires between two vital actors, Harvard and the military, for the good of society. Patton would be proud.
President Faust’s speech was a “who’s who” of historical accomplishment. One that apparently ended up on the cutting room floor was William Tecumseh Sherman, who wrote, quoting a friend, in 1888, “Mere knowledge is not power, it is simply possibility. Action is power, and its highest manifestation is action with knowledge.” Knowledge matters to history professors and Harvard presidents alike, but whether it’s Sherman, Achilles or Patton’s words that inspire President Faust doesn’t matter. What matters is the action that follows. She’s spoken the words. Now it’s time to do the deeds.
Major ML Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army strategist and a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @MLCavanaugh. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.