Why Don't Harvard Graduates Join the Military Anymore?





Mr. Miller is author of Harvard's Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as well as A Carrier at War: Shock and Awe Aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (Potomac Books, 2005). He was an embedded journalist in the Gulf during OIF I and more recently, in Baghdad and Fallujah.

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An important subplot in Harvard’s Civil War: The History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (UPNE, 2005) was the issue of why Northern elites, especially the cultural, commercial and old Federalist elites of Massachusetts, supported the Union during the Civil War. Many in these intertwined classes vehemently opposed the Lincoln administration. By their lights, it stood guilty of mismanaging the war, suspending civil liberties, and eventually including abolition as a war aim. Yet despite the availability of draft avoidance techniques such as foreign travel and the $300 exemption (chump change to most of these families), when war came many willingly sacrificed their most precious assets—their children—to the Federal cause. Using Harvard credentials as a stand-in for class membership, 578 officers and men with Crimson connections served in the Federal army. Of these, approximately 30 percent became combat casualties—killed-in-action, mortally or seriously wounded. If deaths from disease are included, Harvard’s overall casualty rate rose to over 36 percent. The best indication of Harvard’s commitment to the war is found in the percentages of the eve-of-war graduating classes that served in the Federal army and navy: 42 percent of the Class of 1859, 55 percent of the Class of 1860, and 68 percent of the Class of 1861.

As I wrote this book our country became engaged in a war against Islamic terrorism. Like most historians, I use my best efforts to excise any presentism from what aspires to be a strictly historical work; admittedly, the temptation to write a “useful” history was strong as I was repeatedly struck by the sharp contrasts between the 1860s Massachusetts upper classes and today’s cultural elites whose almost monolithic opposition to the war on terror—as well as every other war since and including Vietnam—has become virtually reflexive. The issue was doubly interesting because of my belief that today’s Harvard, like so many nationally-ranked American universities, has become something like a spendthrift heir, living off prestige—of the intellectual and moral variety—inherited from its ancestors, of which the Civil War generation is one of the most important.

Consider the distance between the Harvard of 1865, 1945 and 2005. Before the Civil War had ended proposals circulated to build a memorial to Harvard’s fallen, whose obituaries filled the newspapers. This sentiment eventually produced Memorial Hall. And more recent graduates have answered their country’s call—the columns of Memorial Church are inscribed with the names of 695 university-connected dead from World War II. Yet today, Harvard’s “sacred soil” refuses to bear an ROTC program (interested students must commute to MIT) and the law school agreed to allow recruiters on campus only after its federal contracts with the Pentagon were put in jeopardy. Today, it’s the military’s policy on homosexuals; in the past, it was the Vietnam War. In 2005 the disconnection between Harvard and the military is virtually complete—even if the university wanted to honor recent graduate-veterans, it would have relatively few to name. And what is true of Harvard is equally true for a cultural elite of which Harvard University is emblematic.

One reason for this is the distance that Harvard has traveled from an American public to which it was once vitally connected. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century Harvard arguably contributed more to American culture than any single institution, save the churches and government—and Harvard contributed substantially to both of these. Cultural icons, a usable past, respected histories, national myths, heroes, villains, poetry, novels, theology, political reform, legal theories, scientific discoveries and medical advances poured forth from a wide variety of Harvard-connected men, many of whose names were household words throughout nineteenth century America. Poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier; historians Jared Sparks, John Gorham Palfrey, George Bancroft, and Francis Parkman; legal theorists Emory Washburn, Joseph Story, Lemuel Shaw and Joel Parker, physicians Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (also poet and writer), Jacob Bigelow, and Jeffries Wyman; scientists E.N. Horsford, Asa Gray and Louis and Alexander Agassiz—to name a very few.

What are striking about many of these names are the intimate connections between Harvard and what today would be dismissively termed “popular” (read American) culture. Examples include James Russell Lowell’s enormously popular Bigelow Papers, Holmes’s The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and almost any of Longfellow’s poems; Sparks’s Life of Washington, Palfrey’s History of New England, Bancroft’s History of the United States and Parkman’s The California and Oregon Trail, could all be found on the bookshelves of the middle class as well as in the Boston Athenaeum. When the war came their families contributed their relations, including Longfellow’s nephew, Holmes’s son, three of Lowell’s nephews, Harvard’s Instructor of German, its Professor of Engineering, and a crowd of hoary New England names including Reveres, Paines, Crowninshields, Ropes, Bigelows, Dwights, Welds, and Masons. Arguably, at this time Harvard was never more relevant to America’s life; the university was just as likely to produce soldiers for America’s wars, as it was doctors, lawyers, businessmen and citizens for America at peace. (The soldiers also included a reported 257 Harvardians who served in the Confederate army.)

The Paradox

But there is a paradox about Harvard’s antebellum relevance. At no time in modern times was Harvard less diverse, less meritocratic, and a less stimulating place to learn. Classes often consisted of recitations; daily chapel attendance was compulsory, and a complex grading system that combined personal behavior with academic performance determined rank. Class snobbery was pervasive; Boston newspapers frequently inveighed against the cruelty of Harvard’s hazing rituals. Periodic student rebellions were legendary; students’ records reveal that individual rebellions were even more frequent. Nevertheless, this deeply flawed system somehow managed to produce not only graduates who volunteered for a duty that after 1861 was understood to be quite dangerous, but also produced generations of American leaders in the arts, sciences and government.

The paradox is sharpened by another consideration, almost unthinkable in our more narcissistic time: since most of the Harvard volunteers were drawn from deeply conservative backgrounds of Cotton Whigs, Democrats, and old Federalists, they remained bitterly opposed to the Lincoln administration. In letters home many of these soldier-boys fulminated against the administration’s mismanagement of the war, which they blamed for the heaps of corpses (which included those of many classmates) strewn on every battlefield. They lauded Gen. George B. McClellan as a fellow gentleman, counted as friends (and former classmates) many Southerners who served the Confederacy. Yet these men remained in service even after their beloved McClellan was sacked, and emancipation became a war aim. Despite disagreements as profound as any experienced by today’s dissenters, they felt a general duty to support their democratically elected government.

I believe that the paradox is partially explained in the 1860 edition of the Statutes and Laws of Harvard College. Admission to Harvard required a test but also “a good moral character, certified in writing.” Once admitted, the Statutes expressed the hope that “the students may be influenced to good conduct and diligence in study by higher motives than the fear of punishment; and they mainly rely, for the success of the institution as a place of liberal education, on moral and religious principle, a sense of duty, and the generous feelings which belong to young men engaged in honorable pursuits.” The Harvard Faculty, according to the Statutes, was responsible for morals as well as academics, “to enforce the observance of all laws and regulations for maintaining discipline, promoting order, virtue, piety, and good learning in the institution.” What this amounted to was character education. And what lent force to the Statutes was that the values they articulated—good moral character, virtue, piety, good learning—were shared, either in practice or with lip service, by most Americans.

In the 1950s, Harvard President James Conant laudably placed admission to Harvard on a more meritocratic basis as measured by grades and test scores. Why then has Harvard deteriorated so much in prestige among its fellow Americans? Part of the answer is the abandonment by Harvard (and other universities) of any responsibility for character education. University enforced personal discipline was virtually scrapped along with the parietal rules; despite its avid pursuit of “diversity,” the university has created an intellectual version of Fortress Harvard, whose surrounding moat keeps out offending opinion. Within its walls, the university hosts behavior that most Americans find baffling—grade inflation remains rampant because a college that once set the standard can no longer set standards for itself; celebrity faculty plagiarize to winks and nods while students can be expelled for the same offense; Harvard students pose for and sell online pornography and justify their profit making enterprise with the usual appeals to free speech while a Harvard president is nearly sacked for exercising the same right—but on a forbidden topic. (He ultimately saves his job by tossing millions at the interests which threatened him.) Thus is Harvard’s moral authority squandered as the university transitions from leadership to public spectacle.

To retain its exalted position any elite must ultimately base its status on a utilitarian premise—it is accorded the right to lead because it is able and willing to lead. The Harvard of 1861-1865 demonstrated anew, as it had during the American Revolution that it could produce a class fit to lead. By contrast, at today’s Harvard, the endowment swells as its moral authority shrinks. The university’s disconnection from the “Common Defense” is symbolic of Harvard’s larger alienation from American life. If Harvard plans to become something more than a mutual fund with students attached, it cannot have things both ways—it can continue its march to the margins or it can lead—but it cannot do both.


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Barry DeCicco - 10/31/2005

"As far as scrap for armor goes. We did it in WWII as well. Check Deathtraps. No military organization is ever truly ready for war. "

In WWII, the US mobilized from a very small force, with outdated weapons and tactics. In Iraq, the administration wanted to invade Iraq before 9/11, which provided an excuse, not a causus belli. In well over a year before the invasion, the adminstration spent its time and energy on deceiving the American people, not preparing for an actual war.


Joseph Steven Ruby - 10/30/2005

Andrew Todd has touched upon several variables in analyzing Richard Miller's article. It would be interesting if he would have looked at more than Havard. I believe Mr. Todd has touched on these other variables.


george larson - 10/28/2005

Currently, I beleive once you enlist they cannot hold you beyond 6 years. Bad time does not count. In WWI and WWII current enlistements were extended for the duration plus 6 months. In the Civil War it was up to your commander to decide your enlistment was up. Men did get held beyond the time they thought they signed up for. Check the 20th Maine. In the Confederacy all the enlistments were involuntarily extended for the duration.

As far as scrap for armor goes. We did it in WWII as well. Check Deathtraps. No military organization is ever truly ready for war.


Paul Noonan - 10/26/2005

1) Miller points out that written proof of good character was requiredin Harvard in the Civil War era. A similar requirement is currently in force at Brigham Young University (http://saas.byu.edu/depts/admissions/forms.aspx)
and may be in force at Bob Jones, Patrick Henry and other conservative institutions. At any rate, such institutions stress "character". Do they have notably higher enlistment rates among recent graduates than Harvard? (I don't know the answer, I would guess it is a little higher, but probably not that much).

2) How on earth can you expect some of the most highly educated young people in this country to put their lives on the line in Iraq when the civilian population of the US is not asked to make sacrifices at all, and is even given tax cuts that a majority question the wisdom of? When our troops are reduced to scavenging scrap metal to armor their vehicles and requesting their parents to purchase and ship Kelvar vests that the military cannot provide them? It is fairly obvious the present government is not fully supporting the troops, so why enlist?

Also, in the Civil War once you served your enlistment you were free to go home and resume your life (assuming you survived, of course). Yes, there were some exceptions to this, but mostly you could go home after you had served your time. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was Harvard Class of 1861. He enlisted for 3 years on graduation, served with distinction and was wounded. When the 3 years was up in the summer of 1864 he went home and started Harvard Law in the fall. (Although he had been wounded multiple times he was NOT invalided out and could have reenlisted if he wished). In today's military enlistments keep getting extended and servicepeople sent back for more and more tours. The only way to avoid what could be a decade or longer committment is not to enlist in the first place.


Andre Mayer - 10/26/2005

Let me be very simplistic: Harvard men's affinities in the post-WWII era, as far as "national security" goes, have been with the CIA rather than the military -- and the CIA was not, shall we say, enthusiastic about Vietnam or Iraq. This made skepticism easier.

The second point I would offer is related to Miller's but not at all the same -- the decline among more "cosmopolitan" Americans of the powerful nationalism of the past, a trend even more evident in Europe.


Carl Dyke - 10/25/2005

Andrew, I found this post illuminating. Thank you.


Barry DeCicco - 10/25/2005

"People oriented to simply getting laid and getting high and getting rich do not seek risk and dangerous service."

True. Related to Harvard, how?


"The present faculty would probably fail the morality and character requirements of 1860 Harvard. "

Well, after the women and minorities (including jews), any atheists or people who didn't have a preacher to vouch for them, and (guessing here) Catholics, were all eliminated, there wouldn't be much left. How would that remnant fail the morality test?


Barry DeCicco - 10/25/2005

"Political and business success no longer place any premium on military service to our nation. The recent Kerry episode about his service in Vietnam "outed" his opportunistic reasons for service - manufacture heroic deeds - secure medals - be celebrated - even in opposition to the war. "

Well, when a vietnam veteran and war hero is slandered mercilessly, while a man who ducked into the TANG until he was too coked up to fly is heralded, it's no wonder that military service loses some luster.

As for something unique about Harvard shucking it's current military 'obligation', perhaps you missed the recent gathering of College Republicans. Even though the US was in the midst of a war against 'Islamofascism', and the Army was short of recruits, there seemed to be no shortage of right-wing men and women of military age, who felt no need to serve.


Andrew D. Todd - 10/25/2005

Well, to clarify:

About ten percent of the population are young men of military age, as a general rule of thumb. That is, there must have been about three million young men of military age in 1860. By 1900, the veterans' administration was recognizing about a million veterans, but that would not include Confederates, of course. Also, there must have been some Union veterans who, for one reason or another, never filed benefit claims. The number serving in the Union army was about two millions, and the numbers in the confederate army were somewhere between six hundred thousands and a million-and-a-half. About a sixth of all young men of military age died.

Note Miller's figures for percentages of Harvard men serving: "42 percent of the Class of 1859, 55 percent of the Class of 1860, and 68 percent of the Class of 1861." A matter of two years produces a drastic fall-off, reflecting men who had been out of school long enough to start careers and families, which they were reluctant to leave. The figures for the class of 1850 must have been rather considerably lower. For an age range of ten or fifteen years, the average might have been more like 30-40%. Now, as for casualties, Miller states that: "578 officers and men with Crimson connections served in the Federal army. Of these, approximately 30 percent became combat casualties." Thirty percent of thirty-five percent is about ten percent. Harvard's casualty rates work out approximately the same as those of the general public.

Look at John William De Forest, _Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty_, a semi-autobiographical novel. De Forest was an officer in the Union army. Admittedly, he was Yale, not Harvard, but the differences would have been minimal. At any rate, he talks about the military ineffectuality of the elite colleges. His character of "Colonel Carter," who is suspiciously like U. S. Grant, is both a military genius and a spectacularly hard drinker, both binge and otherwise. This brings him under the censure of the Yale-Harvard crowd, who, at the time were near-abstainers, shading off into clergymen. The most obvious reason to go to college at the time was with a view to ordination. De Forest remarks that because these people were not tavern habitues, they had no real connection to the working class, and that when the working class was mobilized for the war, this was done by tavern-keepers ("Major Gazaway"), who would eventually become Tammany Hall politicians.

A country which loses a war of national survival ceases to exist. There is no Confederate States of America. This kind of thing is fundamentally different from a war twelve thousand miles from home, as far away as one could get, short of going into outer space. Thoreau's grounds for rejecting the Mexican War were that it was primarily designed to promote the extension of slavery. De Forest likewise referred to wars against Latin America as "carry[ing] the auction block of freedom into Yucatan, Cuba, the island of Atlantis, and the moon." De Forest also links the social corruption-- slavery-- with the personal corruption-- alcoholism. The archetypal planter is a brutal and violent drunk because of his social position, and foments wars of aggression against other countries for the same reason. People like Thoreau and De Forest did not see patriotism in colonial wars-- they saw something analogous to a bar room punch-up. A few years later, the ex-president of Yale, in a letter to the Japanese ambassador, formulated the idea that slavery leads to the spoilage of land. The implication was that slavery ruined land, and occasioned wars of aggression to get more land to ruin with more slavery.

Nowadays, we tend to think in ecological terms, of course. In those terms, we talk about oil and global warming. Colleges have an extraordinary number of people who either walk or bicycle to work, and attach moral significance to the practice. These people tend to regard colonial wars as expressions of precisely those corruptions which diminish our own society, much the same way that Thoreau and De Forest regarded colonial war as an outgrowth of slavery. They use the language of drunkenness to describe people who consume large quantities of gasoline. Energy independence is seen as a kind of corollary of moral regeneration. By implication, Donald Rumsfeld figures as much the same kind of covert enemy of the United States as, say, Jefferson Davis in the 1850's. Harvard will volunteer energetically enough when and if it should be given a war allowing it to fight for the United States against Rumsfeld.


Frederick Thomas - 10/24/2005

The societal issue under discussion here is whether those posed to take much from society need give anything important back. The author clearly believes that they feel they do not.

A second question concerns the role the faculty in this. The usually self-centered drug-snuffing 1960s radicals who today constitute much of the faculty are a case in point. People oriented to simply getting laid and getting high and getting rich do not seek risk and dangerous service. The present faculty would probably fail the morality and character requirements of 1860 Harvard. I notice that charming Law Prof Dershowitz has been exposed as a plagiarist, and that his various defenses of celebrities have been described as callow gaming of the legal system, yet he keeps his job. Shame on Harvard. In 1860 such a man would not have been made janitor.

At the same time, academic standards are so continually dumbed down that no one would want these yahoos as officers. It take intelligence to be a soldier and survive. They would not survive.

I regret more than I can say that this formerly great institution has allowed this to happen to itself. As Mr.Miller concludes, "The university’s disconnection from the “Common Defense” is symbolic of Harvard’s larger alienation from American life." Indeed.


Carl Dyke - 10/24/2005

Much of Professor Miller's argument seems right, but I do wonder about the comparative analysis of Harvard students now and then and what seems like a leap to a moralizing judgment. In particular, he writes:

"But there is a paradox about Harvard’s antebellum relevance. At no time in modern times was Harvard less diverse, less meritocratic, and a less stimulating place to learn. Classes often consisted of recitations; daily chapel attendance was compulsory, and a complex grading system that combined personal behavior with academic performance determined rank. Class snobbery was pervasive; Boston newspapers frequently inveighed against the cruelty of Harvard’s hazing rituals."

It seems to me that the conformist dullards likely to be produced by such a system are exactly the sort of narrowminded jerks who would arrogantly run off to war to defend "their" side, not unlike the young German students Remarque described in *All Quiet on the Western Front*.

Further, the uniformity of the student body can be questioned. Miller cites many distinguished graduates of Harvard, but were those intellectual stars the same ones who signed up for war? Or was it more the nitwits using Harvard as a glorified finishing school for their class privileges, as for example Adams described in his *Autobiography*?

Finally, I would point out that a current standard of a moral liberal education is the ability to see issues from a variety of perspectives and to respect diversity of views, hardly the mindset that makes shooting people seem like a good idea. So I'm not sure that what's at stake is so much character education as the transition from classical to modern character standards.


Michael Beatty - 10/24/2005

What is the point of Mr Todd's argument? I'm completely lost.

He attacks Mr Miller's statistical foundation, but Miller doesn't argue statistics in support of his thesis. Miller does cite casualty rates as percentage of Harvardians who served in the Union Army, and cites percentages of late-Antebellum graduating classes who served in blue.

These statistical ratios are easily arrived at by comparing the University's records of graduating classes with the names engraved on the tablets on Memorial Hall, and with the Union Army's muster rolls. If an attack on Miller's statistics is to be made, it would be better made against the validity of the numbers ("578 officers and men with Crimson connections served in the Federal army . . .") on which Miller bases his calculations.

Mr Todd's assertion that "The Civil War deaths amounted to about half a million, out of a total population of about thirty-one millions . . . [and] would be equivalent to about five millions out of our present population" is questionably relevant at best, and may actually be specious. No serious statistician will assert that a population can be randomly distributed according to the average values of each parameter (e.g., Harvard affiliation, death in combat, death from combat-related injury, etc.).

That is to say, if the Harvard men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War suffered a ~30% fatality rate, (as opposed to the ~1.67% fatality rate of the general population), then the Harvardians' casualty rate is not invalidated by being so disproportionately greater than that of the general population. So I'm not sure what Mr Todd's point in arguing a statistical analysis against Miller was.

On the other hand, Mr Todd's last paragraph completely baffles me. His first sentence, "The problem is that Miller is trying to conflate colonial wars with wars of national survival" makes mae wonder who's conflating what. Is Mr Todd attempting to make the polemical point that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq were/are colonial wars? If so, let him write affirmatively, and not stray off-topic while responding to Mr Miller's excellent insights into the state of Harvard University.


Clark David Richards - 10/24/2005

A few thoughts for consideration. Military service was at one time a gateway for sucess. Military service as an officer with it's "gentlemenly" overtones conferred a degree of honor, duty, sacrifice and manliness upon the veteran. That is no longer seen as true for an ivy leaguer. Political and business success no longer place any premium on military service to our nation. The recent Kerry episode about his service in Vietnam "outed" his opportunistic reasons for service - manufacture heroic deeds - secure medals - be celebrated - even in opposition to the war. While these thoughts do not apply to all - they are worthy of research and evaluation concerning the attitude of many of the ivy league educated. Contentious wars, liberal institutions, the desire for instant gratification and the fact that one could get killed and not have the opportunity to secure the promised riches of an ivy league education also play a role. Post WWII research would probably indicate that the South is the fertile ground for "volunteers" and the Northeast has developed a tradition of not being supportive of military service.


Andrew D. Todd - 10/24/2005

Richard Miller's argument is based on bad statistics.

The Civil War deaths amounted to about half a million, out of a total population of about thirty-one millions, both North and South. The vast majority of young men fought on one side or the other. The Civil War deaths would be equivalent to about five millions out of our present population. Harvard's casualties were approximately proportionate to those of the whole country.

I think the Indian Wars or the Mexican War would be a better comparison to the various post-1960 conflicts. George Armstrong Custer's army was pretty much like the French Foreign Legion. The 7th Cavalry was full of Irish immigrants, refugees from the potato famine, not Harvard graduates. The Northern Pacific Railroad bore approximately the same relationship to the Little Big Horn that Haliburton bears to Iraq. In that case, Harvard's tradition would include Henry David Thoreau, going to jail in protest over a tax to support the Mexican War. Of course, Thoreau and his friends later bankrolled John Brown. Different war, different issues.

The problem is that Miller is trying to conflate colonial wars with wars of national survival. In 1876, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were occupying land of problematic value, which is, to this day, a mixture of national parks, national forests, and Indian reservations. They did not represent any kind of clear and present danger to the Republic, and, as the Canadian example shows, less aggressive policies were surely possible in dealing with them. Many of the white settlers who had been so energetic in taking land from the Indians eventually found themselves driven off by droughts, blizzards, and falling crop prices.