The Soldiers From Standard Oil

In a glowing and laudatory report on college students who join the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at nearby schools while enrolled at prestigious universities from whence ROTC was banned in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the New York Times has eased the way for colleges such as Harvard to ditch their ROTC ban and become in practice, not just in theory, fully supportive of the US government’s militarized foreign policy.

The New York Times (The ROTC Dilemma) presents us with the travails of Harvard undergrads who have to rise at 4:45am and shave then drive or jog across the beloved and revered (no matter how compromised) River Charles in order to reach Boston University, where, “under a system developed by the military that allows host universities to serve nearby campuses”(NYT 10/26/09), they may be trained as officers ready to serve the interests of their country’s leadership. The car used for this daily trip costs between $250 to $300 a month to maintain, the Times also lets us know, as if the civilians of Cambridge and Boston get a discount.

“It’s worse at Yale,” laments the Times’ author, Michael Winerip, who reports that there anyone wanting to be in ROTC must endure a 90 minute drive to UConn and request class notes from a friend. Winerip notes that this June, only 8 ROTC members will graduate while a half century ago, in 1959, 121 seniors were commissioned as officers.

Winerip continues, “The Harvard Crimson, which for decades attacked R.O.T.C., praised classmates who had joined the program. “They demonstrate a commitment to service that should be admired and followed by the rest of the student body,” The Crimson said. The Yale, Columbia and Brown student papers have all published editorials in the recent past calling for the return of R.O.T.C. to their campuses.”

Not only the student body of America’s elite schools but also their preferred presidential candidate endorsed university militarization. “During a campaign visit to Columbia University, Barack Obama, a favorite on the Ivy campuses, called the R.O.T.C. ban there wrong. (R.O.T.C. students at Columbia, in Manhattan, go to Fordham University or Manhattan College, both in the Bronx, for training). “The notion that young people here at Columbia, or anywhere, in any university, aren’t offered the choice, the option of participating in military service, I think is a mistake,” Mr. Obama said.”

Clearly, Mr. Obama was speaking for the class he serves, who refuse to participate in something so undignified as a training regimen outside their pet private universities, such as Officer Candidate School (OCS) or attending another university that offers ROTC.

The most shameful part of all of this rests firmly on Harvard’s leadership, who are either hiding behind a smokescreen of gay rights of who have signed on to the American government’s imperial ambitions and desire to contribute not only future intellectuals and captains of industry, but in addition, fresh cannon fodder. The official position against ROTC is now, officially, that Harvard cannot allow any organization to which open gays and lesbians are refused membership.

Harvard’s president, Dr. Faust, said, according to the Times, “‘Harvard commits itself to training leaders of all kinds, and we should be training leaders for the military.” She added, “We want to have students in R.O.T.C. I am the president of Harvard and I am their president and Harvard is their university. But we also have gay and lesbian students and I am their president and Harvard is their university.””

The campus revolts against both imperialism and the suppression of ideas and speech decades ago led to the removal of ROTC from many private universities. Now, however, the Harvard leadership and, not surprisingly, the current student body, see nothing wrong with the militarization of their environments, as long as that military is gay-friendly. It’s a classic case of the failure of liberalism: eclipsing any analysis of class with concerns for cultural and racial equality only creates a more diverse country club. If the President or Congress repealed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and gays could serve openly in the military then the only difference would be that gays too can now pilot assassination drones, wipe out wedding parties, or be shipped home in boxes labeled, “This side up.” Don’t expect the smart set from a future Harvard ROTC to change foreign policy either; that’s the job of our civilian leaders. If Harvard’s reputation of having the best and the brightest is true and if foreign policy remains the same, then the only thing we can conclude about the results of a future Harvard ROTC program is that killing will be more efficiently managed.

As for free speech and the free exchange of ideas, it’s a wonder how, in an institution that is supposedly a safe haven for such things, President Faust can really claim that she wants ROTC on campus. What do the Harvard students who participate in other ROTC programs think about homosexuality?

“As for the R.O.T.C. members, they have been trained not to answer political questions from reporters. None of the 15 interviewed would discuss their feelings about “don’t ask, don’t tell.””

It gets worse: “I have no personal opinion,” said Vanessa Esch, 21, a naval R.O.T.C. midshipman who graduated from M.I.T. in June. “I was politically active in high school but as I got closer to serve, I got away from the nitty-gritty of these issues. My professionalism as an officer depends on not giving answers to those kinds of questions. The commander-in-chief does that.”

What a disgrace. In the halls of Higher Learning walk students who look like everyone else (except when in uniform) but are, in fact, professionally silent citizens. A program which requires that its members trump integrity with professionalism is desired keenly by President Faust, as long as gay students be given the same “privilege”.

Justification for this resides in that enduring platitude, “serving one’s country”. But does the “country” in that formula equal, in practice, the people? Clearly not. The US military’s own scholars study exactly what constitutes the “country” the military serves. Dr. Stephen Blank, professor of National Security Studies at the US Army War College, in a paper titled The Strategic Importance of Central Asia: An American View, describes the post-9/11 military actions against terrorists and their potential hosts as only “second” to the task of securing the natural resources of Central Asia for billion dollar corporations:

…important interests for the United States are based on what
might be termed an “open door” or “equal access” policy for American firms seeking energy exploration, refining, and marketing. To the extent that Central Asia’s large energy holdings are monopolized by Russia due mainly to the dearth of pipelines, regional governments are not able to exercise effective economic or foreign policy independence. Therefore, energy access on equal terms with America or other western nations is closely linked to the overarching objective of safeguarding the independence, sovereignty, and prospects for development of these nations and their economies. Again, it is Washington, not Moscow or Beijing, that champions the economic and political freedom of these states.

Not surprisingly, the leitmotif of US energy policy has been focused on fostering the development of multiple pipelines and links to foreign consumers and producers of energy, one recent example including electricity to India. Central Asian energy states recognize that their security and prosperity are inextricably linked to the diversification of pipelines; a goal placing US and Central Asian interests in harmony. Washington has continuously sought the prevention of a Russian energy monopoly related to oil and has received considerable support from other nations in the global oil market. Unfortunately, America has not achieved as much success with regard to the natural gas market. At the same time America has sought to isolate Iran from inroads into Central Asian energy by urging various nations to build pipelines bypassing that country and by placing sanctions against those countries and firms that would trade with Iran.

Anyone able to read can between those lines. Dr. Blank is no doubt correct about the heavy handedness of the Russians and the Chinese. What he fails to elaborate on is the the definition of “economic and political freedom” of which the US is such a champion. The people of Central Asia can only be free and happy by handing over their natural resources to giant American firms. Venerating Corporate America as the Mediatrix of all Political Graces is the official religion of US foreign policy. Only megalomaniacal narcissism explains the psychopathology of the ruling class who not only send armies abroad to acquire other peoples’ natural wealth, but also believe this to be an act of charity that only they can provide. Proposing that a people own their own resources is an intolerable effrontery, as the case of Mohammed Mossedegh proves. Prime Minister of Iran until 1953, Mossedegh attempted to nationalize the Iranian oil industry which had been under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum (BP), a transgression for which he was overthrown during the successful execution of Operation Ajax, the CIA’s orchestrated coup. The “freedom” for which American armies fight is the freedom to work for Corporate America and its Washington tools. Additionally, this is a job that you can’t quit without facing serious punishments, just take a look at that last line about Iran above from Dr. Blank who continues to clarify American goals in Central Asia:

While Washington admittedly seeks energy access for US firms on a competitive basis, it knows full well that it cannot completely supplant Russian or Chinese interests in the region. Rather, in keeping with the geopolitical imperative of preventing any imperial revival in Eurasia, America simply wants to prevent Russia or any other foreign power from dominating Central Asian energy markets.

If images of bombs and blood from an expanding theater of war look to you like imperialism, then the American ruling class would like you to think of US policy as a bit like Magritte’s Pipe: this is not an “imperial revival”. Only the images, the sounds, and the smells are the same. Other than that, claim the ruling class, it’s totally different and totally justified, good, and valorous.

Colleges like Harvard banned ROTC in protest of precisely this rapacious aggression. Now, however, Harvard laments its lack of ROTC and seems poised to reintroduce it if only President Obama would repeal the technicality of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing for an inclusive and properly diverse killing machine.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising. Recently, 80% of the students at Harvard Business School declined to sign a voluntary “M.B.A. Oath” which would have pledged them to outlandish activities such as “pursue my work in an ethical manner”. Meanwhile, the professors and visiting lecturers at Harvard’s JFK School of Government who have any real political influence ask deep questions like, “Should we send more troops or should we send a lot more troops?” The JFK School of Government and Harvard Business School are, respectively, the American empire’s Schools of War and Capitalism. It’s sad but fitting that ROTC might officially return to campus since the university actively supports the imperial project outlined by the military’s own academics. It’s also sad to see some of the most privileged and capable young people in America sign up for the undertaking. Can we honestly tell ourselves that people at a place with the intellectual reputation of Harvard’s have been fooled into thinking that “serving one’s country” meant something else? Can people at a place like Harvard claim ignorance about America’s wars being an enterprise for corporate profits? Most of the world’s peoples belong to the have-nots and we, the haves, make unending war on them to keep it that way. Didn’t you know that, soldier?

In the early 20th century, jokes were made about this or that politician being, “the Senator for Standard Oil” whenever it was abundantly clear that a public servant represented the interests of big business, such as Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, over those of the people. In the future, as the real nature of American war dawns on more and more people, we might look at ROTC cadets at a place like Harvard, whose students have all the options and opportunities of the world, and say there go the Soldiers from Standard Oil.

BRIAN GALLAGHER can be reached at