Eliot and Rafi Cohen - Family Tradition in Harvard ROTC

5 March 2003

Prof. Eliot Cohen '77 PhD '82, Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins

I came to Harvard in 1973, just as Vietnam was ending. My draft number (we still had those back then) was 8, but there were no calls, so the issue of military service seemed moot. While working with Professor Sam Huntington (who is, I am delighted to say, still going strong) on a senior honors thesis about elite military units I decided conclusively to pursue an academic career, and continued on in graduate school at Harvard. I found myself growing ever more uncomfortable about the prospect of spending a life studying the military without somehow being part of it, and so enrolled in Army ROTC at MIT. Two years (they cut some corners), advanced camp, a scratched cornea and a dislocated shoulder later, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in military intelligence a couple of days before getting my Ph.D. in 1982. It was a short and inglorious military career - officer's basic at Fort Huachuca (where I was one of a few old men amongst the recent graduates), a reserve assignment with the 364th MI company and later an individual mobilization augmentee slot in the Pentagon, but I treasure the experience. There is nothing quite as helpful for a military historian in training as the experience of getting lost in the woods, being cold, wet, and miserable, and doing well as squad leader for a bunch of skeptical cadets. I still am in touch with Army friends, some of whom are doing quite well in the service: more importantly, the lessons in leadership and some ground truths about military service stick with me to the present day.

An increasingly busy academic career - and a growing family - made a serious reserve commitment too tough to handle, and so, reluctantly, I retired as a captain, USAR. In the civilian world I taught first at Harvard, then the Naval War College, and now at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. In between I have dabbled in government service, to include running the Air Force's study of the Gulf War, and participating in a variety of governmental advisory groups. My students are now scattered abroad as well as in this country, to include the Pentagon and intelligence community; meanwhile, I write and contribute from the outside as best I can. My most recent book, "Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime" came out this summer: it deals with generals and presidents (prime ministers too), but having been a second lieutenant helped shape it.

Rafi, '04, is a better soldier than I ever was, in many ways, but I will not embarrass him by saying how. The program too, has changed: it was rather carefree in the 1970's, when just hanging on at our elite campuses was a struggle for the military. But the sense of continuity is profoundly important and gratifying to me. My father (Felix Cohen '40) went into the Army during World War II after finishing at Harvard; now my son is headed for military service as well. My grandparents came to this country fleeing intolerance and persecution; it gave their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren privileges and opportunities beyond all imagining, three generations of a Harvard education not least among them. Military service to this country is one way of honoring that debt, and it is a deep source of pride that that tradition continues in our family.

Cadet Rafi Cohen '04

In comparison to Dad, my story is considerably less interesting. I came to Harvard back in 2000 and assuming all goes well, I will leave here as the class of '04, with a degree in Government and a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. I guess I always assumed that I would do ROTC in college and serve in the military in some capacity or another, but when I joined the program at the beginning of my freshman year, I did not know I was going to do an active duty stint. As it turned out, I liked the program and the people, so when I was offered a scholarship, I decided to accept it and sign my life to the Army for a few years.

So far, it has been a great couple of years. I have been on the battalion's Ranger Challenge team (a competition held yearly between the various ROTC battalions in the region, based vaguely on the Army's Best Ranger competition, though considerably more tame) and an active member of Pershing Rifles (the tri-service military honor society). Probably the highlight of my ROTC career thus far, however, has been a trip to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii for Air Assault School, where I learned how to rappel out helicopters, among other skills.

As for what the future holds, I can't quite say for sure now, but what I do know is that Harvard and ROTC has prepared me for whatever lies ahead. Like Dad, I am deeply appreciative for all that Harvard and the Army has given me. And like Dad, I am proud to continue our tradition of service to our country.

If you have more Harvard family stories please contact Advocates for ROTC.

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