Fallen from the Front Lines: The Military at Yale

by Emily Foxhall:

In Woolsey Hall around noon on any weekday, lunch-goers bound for Commons Dining Hall are bombarded by representatives of various student groups. Stationed at cardboard tables and armed with sign-up sheets, they advocate for their group’s causes: Complete a survey and contribute to the university’s understanding of psychology, buy a piece of artwork and help the economy of a third world country, or pin on a purple ribbon and spread awareness about sexual violence.

At the backdrop of this scene, largely unnoticed, stands a war memorial.

Dedicated on November 21, 1920, the first eight marble tablets on the wall included the names of 225 Yale men who died in World War I. During the dedication ceremony, former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, a member of the Yale Class of 1888, justified these deaths with his commentary: “So long as it is the function of a university to produce leaders for service in the Commonwealth … will men look to the test of war—the test of willingness to die for a cause.”

Every year Yale holds a ceremony in front of the Beinecke Memorial in observance of Veterans Day. (Kaiser/TYG)

Roughly 40 years later, many Yale men looked away when this war became Vietnam. The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) left campus; consequently, recruiters for military service are no longer allotted a space at career fairs. More broadly, Yale students’ conception of how to use their education in service to America has expanded to include careers in politics, journalism, and even art. But the military remains the goal of a determined few.


The Army ROTC program was founded at Yale in 1917, but the initial enthusiasm did not last. “[The cultural change] started with the Vietnam War, but it was larger than that,” said Charles Hill, professor of International Studies and Yale’s diplomat-in-residence, referring to the other social revolutions characteristic of the ’60s: women’s rights, civil rights, the arrival of the New Left. “Underneath it all was a sense that America was bad and the American military and intelligence services were bad and moral people should have nothing to do with them.”

What had once been Yale’s indisputable duty and commitment became a stigma, as demonstrated by students who established a chapter of a group called Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. In 1967, they staged their first anti-ROTC protest, appropriately held in Woolsey Hall. Though small in numbers, the members of SDS vocalized an opinion that was becoming more and more common among Yalies.

History professor Donald Kagan theorized that, because Yale students felt guilty with regard to their ability to avoid the draft, they found solace by convincing themselves and declaring to the public that the war was evil. “Otherwise they would simply be cowards and shirkers and not patriotic,” he said. For them, fighting in wars became something for other, less moralistic people to do. Accordingly, over subsequent years, ROTC courses shifted from academic to extracurricular status. By 1971, the organization had left campus altogether.


Still, despite the stigma brought on by the Vietnam War, not all Yalies abandoned the idea of joining the military. Since September 11th in particular, many have noted that the Yale community’s attitude has become noticeably more supportive than during the Vietnam days—or, at least, more open.

Megan Leitch ’02, who did ROTC and now flies with the Air Force, said that the main issue among Yale students was ignorance as to how entering the U.S. military works. “I can’t count the number of times I had to explain there are four military branches and the difference between an officer and enlisted person,” she wrote in an e-mail. Many Yalies are unable to distinguish the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, each of which has its own duties and standards of selection. Furthermore, while any citizen can enlist, becoming an officer requires training and demonstration of intelligence and leadership.

For many students, the decision to pursue a military career is rooted in family values and pre-existing military ties. Both Matthew Hammerle ’06, who enrolled in ROTC and now flies for the Air Force, and Leitch had families associated with the military. Benjamin Klay ’03 grew up wanting to be a diplomat as his grandfather had been but felt he would be better qualified having served in the military first. Kagan, too, noted this trend and said of a past student who chose to join the Marines: “His family had brought him up to have certain values, certain ideas of what is good and what is right. They had stuck with him. I suspect that’s what allowed him to continue to be what he was before he came.”

Despite it being a path from which it might be easier to stray, these students still chose Yale over a military academy as their stepping stone toward serving in the armed forces. Hammerle said he chose Yale simply because he wanted to have the college experience away from the strict rules associated with the military. He also noted that, as advertised by the Yale admissions office, the university is a place where people of a wide range of backgrounds and values are able to interact. While Hammerle was one of the few to notice the memorial when walking through Woolsey to lunch—he said the shrinking list of names made him feel sad because it reflected a lack of commitment to the military—to him the diversity of opinion was worth the added battle of defending the military.

While students today are by no means openly encouraged to join the military, they do have options for pursuing a military career. Depending on the military branch they wish to pursue, students can enroll in the ROTC course at the University of Connecticut or University of New Haven, which requires weekly classes, drills and leadership training, or, alternatively, apply for the Officer Candidate School (OCS), which usually requires time spent over the summer followed by training upon graduation. Still, they are a far cry from serving as an average enlisted member; both mean entry with an officer’s commission.

On campus today, there are signs of support and discussion of these students. A Navy SEALs flag now hangs above the porch of the home belonging to the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, headlines in the Yale Daily News feature the ongoing ROTC debate, and even General Stanley McChrystal can be spotted walking up Prospect Street as he heads to teach his class. The Yale College Council recently sent a poll “measuring student opinion and interest with regard to ROTC and military service at Yale.”

Hill said he believes comments that may have passed without criticism during the ’60s and ’70s are considered much less appropriate in today’s social environment. Leitch described all of her Yale peers as “respectful” of her decision to join the military. Tom Stipanov, a Yale senior who plans to enter the Marine Corps upon graduation, could name no instance of negative reaction from peers. Hammerle cited just one. When he set up a table to talk about ROTC at the Bulldog Days club air, the LGBTQ group placed its tri-fold board right next to his in order to dissuade students from joining.


Public sentiment aside, there is an underlying demand for a justification of the decision to join the military. Klay wrote his senior essay on the subject, giving it the title “The End of ROTC at Yale.” In the introduction of his essay, Klay said his friends often joked about how crazy he was for wanting to join the Marines. Many asked why he would waste his education on the military.

Kagan finds that a pointless question: “I think the number of things that your education very specifically prepared you for as opposed to anything else are damn few,” he said. This is especially true in a liberal arts setting.

Yet one attribute remains constant among Yale students: talent. Both Hill and Kagan noted that, especially now, the military needs intelligent people. “In the military you’ve got to think about everything and you have to see how things are interrelated to each other,” Hill said. “And often what you’re doing is something that affects the lives of a lot of people … A Yale education prepares you to have [this] wide range of reference across many categories of activity.”

But not everyone buys into the universal application of the Yale education. Last year, in a speech to students at West Point, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz challenged the idea that all Yalies are taught to be leaders.

“What I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve,” he said. “That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders … People who make it to the top.”

To Hammerle, the Yale mentality of needing to prove oneself as the best conflicts with the concept of working as a team so instrumental to military culture. Yalies don’t want to be one of many, he said, they want to be special immediately after graduating. Although his ROTC schedule restricted him from taking any classes that met on Thursdays, he felt the reasons Yalies hesitate to join the military went far beyond issues of scheduling: “I don’t think the military has got the glam.” But Stipanov felt differently. “I’m not sure what the mission of Yale is,” he said, adding that he didn’t think it was to train you for your immediate post-college experience. “I don’t think any civilian job right out of college gives you the level of leadership experience that you get as an officer.”

Stipanov spent the summer after his sophomore year completing the first stage of the Marine Corps OCS program. Often working on four hours of sleep, he said he found the military a greater challenge than Yale. “I’ve found the military very, very intellectually engaging,” he said. “At least from my experience, there are a lot of similarities between Yalies and Marines. Both organizations tend to attract ‘Type A’ personalities. Both tend to attract hardworking people with a mind for the service of others.”

Even upon entering the military world, Yale students are often put on the defensive. Klay recalled others in the Marines OCS program questioning why, as a Yale student, he was there. He said he was trying to figure that out himself. Grappling with questions such as “what am I studyng for?” and “what is Yale all about?” Klay nonetheless ultimately found in OCS the sense of fulfillment he had desired. Or, as he described, “that feeling you get before you fall asleep at night where you feel like you did something good.”


Upon graduation, five Yalies have gone on to serve as President. More played roles as Supreme Court justices, Foreign Service officers, Secretaries of State. Maya Lin ’81 designed the Vietnam War Memorial. James Dao ’79 covers military affairs for The New York Times. Political Science professor Susan Hyde helped monitor elections in Afghanistan.

So what happened to all of Yale’s military men?

Many students have navy blue banners in their rooms displaying the phrase “For God, For Country, And For Yale,” but the patriotism associated with the middle two words no longer connotes a devotion to the military, let alone a military job. When most Yalies today think of careers “for country,” they first think non-profit or politic.

To Hammerle, the answer to the question of which people are giving back to their country lies not in the question of who is in the military but why people have chosen the careers they have. “I do think it’s important for everyone to give back to this country. I think our country is amazing in all the opportunities it provides,” he said. “It’s not necessarily what you’re doing, but that you’re doing it for the right reason, and that’s that you’re making this country better.” Still, he concluded that there will always be a need for the military.

At the 1920 Woolsey Hall dedication, Stimson left a small wish for Yale students today. The names on the wall were engraved so “that future generations of Yale may be aroused to an emulation of their spirit and their endeavor,” he said. “Keep ye the faith with them: faith in our country; faith in our country’s men; faith in the mission of America to a shattered world.” How that faith manifests itself into a career has proved open to interpretation.

Emily Foxhall ’13 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact her at emily.foxhall@yale.edu.