The Astartes Will Not Come

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This piece was originally part of a Harvard Independent themed series responding to, “How do you believe that the spirit and integrity of a Harvard College education can be best preserved in the upcoming fall semester?” Responses were collected prior to the July 6 announcement that the college would be adopting a virtual education model.

When I was younger, my mother found me staring at the top of a doorframe.  She never asked me to explain why.  It wouldn’t have been easy to explain.  I’d been trying to imagine what it would be like to look an Astartes in the eyes.

In the Warhammer 40,000 universe, a piece of science-fiction intellectual property that centers around a tabletop miniatures wargame and has spread through books, video games, and pen-and-paper TTRPGs, the Adeptus Astartes are humanity’s strongest warriors.  In their power armor, they stand between seven and eight feet tall, hence the doorframe.  They can, and regularly do, punch through tanks.  They are one-man armies, cool in the most middle-school way imaginable, and part of me has always wished that they were real and I could meet one.

During the early student move-out, I recognized this feeling in many of my friends.  We weren’t sure what would happen, or how long this would last, or what “this” even was.  We passed rumors back and forth at a fever pitch in group chats.  The College couldn’t provide clear leadership, but its failure only emphasizes that the task was impossible for anyone.  What we really wanted was someone to give us a concrete plan of action, with all eventualities factored in, and tell us, in detail, what we would have to do to get through COVID and how much it would hurt.  We wanted a commander we could fall in behind.  We wanted an Astartes.  None came.

Now, as we reach midsummer and start thinking about the fall, it is clear that we will not get an Astartes here either.  Harvard claimed to be on track to make a decision by July 1; now, apparently, we will get an update by July 6.  The eventual decisions will not necessarily be in our best interests as students at the College.  They will be in the best interests of Harvard, which is a sprawling organization of which we are just a small part with commensurately small needs.  The College has no uncompromising champion.  Nobody will welcome us at the Johnston Gate and tell us that he will sacrifice everything for us.  Whether or not the Harvard administration, or the government, or anyone else cares is a moot point: they have so much to balance that someone is bound to lose out either way.

On the face of it, that doesn’t leave much.  I would argue, however, that what it does leave is more than sufficient.  I may not have my Astartes, but I have six thousand Harvard College students, and together we can prove, to each other, ourselves, and the world, that we needed no Astartes in the first place.  We can, and we must, put in the effort to make  our memories of this coming year not ones of defeat but ones of glory.  We must also recognize the opportunity that this provides to build something new, different, and entirely our own to an extent impossible for those following orders from outside.  Our Astartes may be only doorframes, in the end, but that just means we can decorate the door any way we please.

To this end, I have two requests.  First, have ideas.  Many things will be canceled.  There is no Astartes to rebuild our social calendars for us.  Do it yourself.  Dream up the wildest socially-distant events and projects you can.  Second, even more importantly, support your friends’ ideas.  If someone starts something, make the effort to join in.  Watch your friend of a friend’s bad Zoom improv comedy.  Support each other, even if it is inconvenient.  Don’t make excuses.  There are no Astartes to externally validate our efforts and give us the encouragement to keep going, so the responsibility falls on you.

Twenty years down the line, we will look back on this semester one of two ways.  Either we will bewail Harvard’s failure to provide an Astartes when we needed one most, or we will take strength from the proof that we never needed one in the first place.  And if the only thing we can do when our resolve is tested is to run and hide behind the Space Wolves or the Soul Drinkers – Astartes legions all have middle-school cool names – or the Ultramarines, then Harvard is not one tenth the school I think it is.

Michael Kielstra ’22 (pmkielstra@college.harvard.edu) is pretty tall, but not that tall.

Photo: Marissa Garcia ’21.