(One of the few artifacts to survive the arson fire on Feb. 18, 1985. Click on the photo for a better view.)
Callaghan Hall, home of Naval and Air Force ROTC programs on the Berkeley campus, was completely gutted two weeks ago in an arson fire. Last December, an unexploded Molotov cocktail was discovered at the rear of the building.
As the Marine Officer Instructor assigned to the Naval ROTC unit, I found myself waiting outside the charred ruins the next day in hopes of retrieving some of my class notes and records when a young coed with a cherubic face passed by on a bicycle. "I'm glad it burned!" she yelled as she pedaled past.
As an academic turned Marine Corps officer, I wasn't particularly surprised at her attitude. But I think she doesn't understand the role of ROTC in our society or what burned up in Callaghan Hall.
After four enlisted years that included a 13-month stint in Vietnam, I went to college in 1969 under the G.I. Bill and wound up with a Ph.D. in English and American literature. I remember the confrontational days of the '60s and was essentially in sympathy with the anti-war movement. It left me with my own reservations concerning the place of ROTC in an institution ostensibly committed to free inquiry and unhampered self-expression.
The realities of the academic market place forced me to take my opportunities where I could find them, so here I sit, a somewhat frustrated academic turned Marine Corps captain.
By the time I was eligible for an ROTC assignment, I began to see ROTC in a different light. I had seen enough militarism to understand that ROTC is founded on the principle that, given our strong belief in civilian control of the military, we need the infusion of liberally educated officers that ROTC programs on college and university campuses provide.
I believe ROTC provides an important leavening force in a system, the military, all too often marked by the sort of hubris our military monasteries tend to inculcate. Such arrogant overconfidence in our ability to command and control any situation played no small role in getting us mired, and keeping us stuck, in Vietnam long after the folly had become painfully apparent.
(Pontificating aside, I volunteered for this assignment for quite selfish reasons. If I couldn't return to academia as an assistant professor, I could at least get back into the academic environment. And all things considered, I would rather be a Marine officer than one of the underemployed Ph.D.'s driving taxi cabs.")
The reaction of the young student to the destruction of Callaghan Hall reminded me of something written by noted educator and literary critic Wayne Booth. "Too early a moral judgment," he wrote, "is precisely what stands in the way of an education for many young people." [My memory was faulty in this pre-Internet age. It was actually William G. Perry.]
I wish I could have pointed that out to that young girl, who had obviously decided we represented evil incarnate, and I wish she could have been there to witness one small part of the fire's aftermath.
I was present when Major Cy McCurdy, a member of the Air Force ROTC staff, recovered the charred remains of his personal and professional library. I imagine that young girl, who was so quick to judge, would have been just a bit surprised to discover McCurdy going through the ashes not of military tomes, but volumes by Herodotus, Thucydides, Gibbon and everyone else who has been anybody in the field of history. He lost hundreds of books.
It was then that the irony and the pity of our situation hit me. We have suffered an old-fashioned book burning--here at Berkeley of all places.
During the '60s I had heard of several ROTC buildings being vandalized and even burned. But the full impact of such acts didn't come home to me until I was confronted by those burned books.
As anyone in the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at Berkeley will tell you, the war process depends on turning others into mere symbols and even actors within our personal psychic melodramas. Therein lies the essential absurdity and tragedy of what seems to have happened on our campus.
That young lady should be ashamed of herself.