The Blog

Don't Serve / Don't Tell

The limits of liberal tolerance at Harvard Law School.

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 2005 • By KATE THORNTON BUZICKY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AS MY FELLOW MINNESOTAN Garrison Keillor likes to say, I am a tax-and-spend liberal. I have always been one and I suppose I always will be. I'm also a first lieutenant in the United States Army, attending Harvard Law School in preparation for active duty as a Judge Advocate General's Corps officer. Some assume that the military is only a province of political conservatives and I suppose that the stereotype has some truth in it. But that doesn't mean that only conservatives are welcome in the military and it certainly does mean that its ranks are filled with only Republicans.

But for the last month, I've felt like collateral damage in a campus battle. It's recruiting season, and unlike last year, the United States Army and Air Force were in Cambridge to recruit prospective JAGC officers. Their presence has upset a variety of groups that support gay rights--because of the military's Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy.

WHEN I JOINED THE MILITARY as an ROTC cadet in 1998, it never occurred to me that my political beliefs would matter. Since then, I've come to understand how naive I was being--not because my political beliefs mattered to soldiers. Rather, I'm a walking contradiction of civilian stereotypes about the Army.

At places like Harvard, the military is a rarity on campus. One January morning last year, I was sitting outside a classroom with some classmates waiting for our Civil Procedure exam to begin. A male student stopped to greet us. He was wearing a puffy vest over what looked like an old version of the Army physical training sweatshirt--the oatmeal gray cotton zip-up. I asked him if it was an Army sweatshirt (the vest covered his chest where the "ARMY" logo would be). "No way," he scoffed. "I would never wear that. I hate the Army."

"Oh," I replied, "I am in the Army." He looked at me as if I had announced I had three legs and was born on Neptune. "You? In the Army?" He started to laugh, as if I were making a joke. But when I offered to show him my military ID card as proof he finally seemed to believe me.

At the time, I got a bit of a charge out of defeating a stereotype about the military. But during the current law school recruiting period, things took a turn for the worse. I had the sickening feeling that as an individual soldier I was being kicked about in the name of tolerance. Everyday conversations about the military on campus inevitably turned into lectures: "Don't Ask/Don't Tell is wrong because . . . " I found that many people who claimed to value diversity and respect difference could not reconcile my presence at Harvard. Often people asked me why Army officers did not speak out against the policy, and why "liberal" soldiers simply "accept" discrimination. Some went so far as to imply that they did not feel "safe" on campus with military officers who did not condemn the Solomon Amendment in their midst.

IT IS THE DUTY of every soldier to uphold military policies and respect the regulations, regardless of their personal feelings. Indeed, Army Regulation 600-20 makes it clear that in most situations, Army personnel should not be politically active on partisan issues. Soldiers need to trust their officers, and officers gain that trust (in part) by knowing regulations and applying them correctly. This duty to comply with regulations extends from the size of the earrings I can wear with my Class A uniform, to the way I care for a weapon--and includes a host of other matters in between.

I am proud to serve, and I am proud to put my beliefs aside when duty requires it; many civilians don't seem able to understand this.

Service is an everyday thing; it means that an individual regularly sacrifices for the good of the whole. Sometimes that sacrifice is trivial (maybe I would like to wear bigger pearl earrings with those Class As, but I don't) and sometimes it is serious, such as complying with the regulations that govern political activity among Army Officers. In both situations, soldiers forgo a privilege in the name of a bigger purpose--serving their fellow citizens.

I never ask that my fellow liberals agree with me, just that they respect my sense of obligation and professional duty. But at Harvard, that's a tough sell. Here, the emphasis is on the individual--the "me", the "I," and the "mine." It is difficult to explain a group obligation to people who idolize the first person singular.

But the most difficult part of the recruiting period has been learning the limits of liberal tolerance. It has been uncomfortable to see that the lessons I learned from the traditional liberal platform appear not to apply to me.

Then again, I didn't join the Army to win anyone's approval or adulation, or to prove a point. I did it out of a sense of obligation and I know that that obligation extends to my political beliefs, tax-and-spend liberal or otherwise.

Kate Thornton Buzicky is a student at Harvard Law School and a First Lieutenant in the United States Army.