November 18, 2019

JOHNS | Cornell on Veterans Day

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In the rotunda of Anabel Taylor Hall, in solemn light, stands Cornell University’s most famous war memorial. It honors over 500 Cornellians who died in World War II and scores more who died in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and other conflicts — “so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom,” as its gilded Abraham Lincoln quote reads. Two names were added to the memorial recently: Maj. Richard Gannon ’95 and Capt. George Wood ’93, who died in the war in Iraq.

What do we owe these Cornellians, who have seen the battlefields of the past and present?

We can begin by taking a cue from provost Michael Kotlikoff, who rightly wrote this April that Cornell University and its peer institutions have a responsibility to “value service” in both Cornell’s admissions and its culture, and integrate veteran students more fully into the student body. Dr. Kotlikoff presciently noted that this can be a method of pushing back on the emerging thesis that college campuses are purely “elitist bastions of ‘group think’.”

I have previously noted the importance of putting Cornell’s values into practice to dispel this specific criticism. Dr. Kotlikoff is right on this count: A university that does not value service falls woefully short of its real purpose. We have a responsibility to ensure that those who served this country are given a welcoming reception when they do arrive in Ithaca.

It is a more pressing concern than many Ivy League students understand. During Yale’s Veterans Day ceremony on Nov. 11, red paint was smeared on a public American flag display — clearly a blaring and irresponsible declaration, as one Yale Daily News guest columnist wrote, “that veterans have blood on their hands.” While an isolated incident, the prejudicial attitudes that motivated it remain on campus, and contribute substantially to the cultural alienation that both Dr. Kotlikoff and this Yale Daily News guest columnist heard from veterans entering our institutions of higher learning. It remains a serious and worthy concern.

We also owe these men and women an honest and substantial on-campus discourse on the meaning and value of service to this country. Although campus radicals like those this week at Yale continue to indefensibly portray these men and women as forces of evil, responsible for every action of the U.S. military with which they disagree, the reality is the exact opposite: We owe them all a debt of gratitude for our continued safety and prosperity. Cornell once led the charge among its peer institutions in teaching about the value and greatness of national service — if nothing else, we can and should continue to honor that history.

In the hustle-bustle of Ithaca, separated from the outside world and submerged in its own politics, we often fail to stop and appreciate that our way of life, and the very conditions of our learning, are made possible by these men and women, some older and some younger, some black and some white — but all braver — who have chosen to commit some part of their lives to an immense charge so that ours might remain peacefully the same.

We are fortunate to be surrounded by reminders of the University’s historical dedication to serving this country. It is a core part of this institution’s history: during last year’s World War I centennial celebration, multiple faculty and student speakers recalled the over 9,000 Cornellians who fought in that war, including the 4,598 commissioned officers this University sent into the fight — more than any other nonmilitary institution in the United States. We have a long history of believing in military service. Even the mandatory Cornell swim test was originally created because “a soldier who cannot swim is so much dead timber in the command.” Cornell was committed to preparing its students to serve, if ever necessary. That legacy continues today, as Cornell University remains the only Ivy League institution offering ROTC programs for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.

The Anabel Taylor Hall war memorial is beautiful, and Cornellians should visit this week to pay their respects to the newly honored alumni on its walls. They should also take note of the too-often-overlooked memorial sites all across campus, including the World War I memorial connecting Lyon and McFaddin Halls on West Campus (those buildings having been “originally dedicated to the Army and Navy”), the Remembrance Garden next to Barton Hall, the Sage Chapel stained-glass windows honoring Cornellian WWII casualties and a dozen other plaques and memorials scattered throughout campus.

So costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Let us never forget that price, nor the veterans who paid it for us.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mjohns@cornellsun.com. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.