Infants at the Naval Academy?

This post is off-topic, but I’ve been asked by some friends to comment on an article about the U.S. service academies (I am 1990 graduate of USAFA), so will do that here. Actually, there is a sense in which the military is very much ON topic. I’ve been struck how many Great Powers became imbalanced because of rent-seeking by their own armies. The Janissaries in Turkey. The Praetorians in third century Rome. It would be hubris to think that a potentially rent-seeking military is not a threat simply because it is not presently manifest. America is very fortunate to have the service-oriented culture in the U.S. military, and should be vigilant to continue nurturing that culture.

With that, I take exception to the incessant voices seeking to disband the U.S. service academies. They are incredibly short-sighted, usually ignorant (though not always, Tom Ricks), and rarely penned by veterans.  To wit: Bruce Fleming has been teaching English at the Naval Academy for 25 years and yesterday published a disturbing essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

So the service academies are no longer indispensable for producing officers. Their graduates now make up only about 20 percent of the officer corps in any given year.  It’s clear that we don’t need the academies in their current form—versions of a kind of military Disneyland. These institutions do produce some fine officers, even some leaders. But the students I respect the most tell me that those who succeed do so despite the institutions, not because of them.

… The best midshipmen—and, as I know through conversations and written correspondence, the best students at the other service academies—are deeply angry, disillusioned, and frustrated. They thought the academies would be a combination of an Ivy League university and a commando school. They typically find that they are neither.

… Is there anything good about the academies? Absolutely: the students, by and large. You won’t find a more focused, eager-for-a-challenge, desperate-to-make-a-difference group of young adults (whom we proceed to infantilize) anywhere.

My thoughts:

1. Fleming has plenty of insights. However, as a graduate of USAFA, my sense is that he was never a plebe. This reads like a caricature of a civilian professor in Jim Webb’s novel, A SENSE OF HONOR. Some of his policy recommendations are naive, some destructive to why the academies are great, and some are worthwhile.  To be clear, I would classify Fleming’s seven recommendations in these categories (naive: 6), (destructive: 1, 2*, 5), and (worthwhile: 2*, 3, 4, 7).

2. Fleming writes with flourish, but the essay is full of unsubstantiated assertions. Enlistees resent ring-knockers? Really? I am a grad, my dad was an enlistee. Come again? If a scholar is going to drop bombs like this, it is fair to expect some evidence to back them up, otherwise the entire piece and its conclusions are questionable.

3. He says the average midshipman is disillusioned and cynical. Paragraphs later he says the students are what make USNA great because they are such hard-charging idealists. He bashes the prep schools as back doors for underachievers, but then complains the institutions are elitist. Fleming is trying to have it both ways, but this is fundamentally incoherent.

I hope I don’t need to establish my bona fides as an outside-the-box critic of military orthodoxy (see my forthcoming book, Bleeding Talent, which relentlessly hammers the military personnel system), and I absolutely think the academies could add more value to their services by being less insular. But I fundamentally think the academies are vital institutions for the United States. The 4-year experience, particularly the freshman “plebe” year is one of the great American traditions that I think does indeed transform young Americans, and the nation is richer for it. I also think it is a huge error to ignore the meritocracy of the academies — many of my brightest classmates might not have attended any college, but thanks to the full ride scholarship were able to get a world class education. Many of my classmates who started at the prep school were the best of the best, and many would never have gone to college without this opportunity. That is the OPPOSITE of elitist, and instead fulfills the promise of America as land of opportunity, especially for those willing to commit to military service.

Fleming is inconsistent when he says that giving real authority to senior students is irresponsible while separately claiming the academies infantilize students by not giving them more authority. Which is it? Fleming is right that the “leadership laboratory” means that a lot of upperclassmen fail when first given command with real power over younger mids and cadets. But they learn. Underclassmen learn from the negative and positive role models as well. That is a feature, not a bug.

Most importantly, it is my belief that the academies have been a critical institution for not only the defense of American democracy, but for establishing a reliable service-above-self culture that keeps the republic itself balanced internally. I have little doubt that the vast majority of academy students would (1) want to reform their schools and also (2) disagree strongly with Fleming’s recommendations on how to do so.

Then again, I could be wrong about Annapolis. From what I hear, the drooling infants at Navy will never measure up to the demigods at Air Force. But hey, they are almost on par with the hyperactive toddlers of West Point!

5 responses to “Infants at the Naval Academy?

  1. After reading Fleming’s article, your comments and the Facebook comments of a friend whose father, brother and fiance attended the Naval Academy, I still come back to Mitt Romney’s question. Do the service academies provide value to the nation which is sufficient to justify borrowing money from China to continue funding them? As stand alone entities they are certainly valuable, provide a link to traditions which we rightfully cherish and graduate fine young officers who are a credit to thier country, thier service and their alma mater. But so do many other academic instituitions which are not funded with money borrowed from China.

    As intregal parts of the military education system, they may provide even greater value but I have not seen a discussion of that role. Each of the academies serves as a repository of military intelectualism which is annually challanged by the need to explain it to undergrads learning these lessons for the first time. They tend to have a broader and deeper level of historical, strategic and tactical thought then what might be found in the average ROTC military science faculty. They provide greated opportunities for research on these topics. The undergrads learning, and more importantly questioning, the recieved wisdom of previous military scholars have more time to reflect on it as well as a more well informed peer group with which to discuss and challange what they are learning. All of this could, and hopefully does, flow outward to enhance the rest of the military education system. If (big if) the academies are functioning as they should, they provide more tna an education for new officers. They provide the intelectual foundation for our entire military. This would indeed be worth borrowing money from China to continue funding. You would know better than I would if it is a description of what is actually happening or wishful thinking.

    • Good point, Peter, but let’s step back and appreciate the fact that West Point was established over two centuries ago, a century before the federal income tax even existed. If there is one single thing that our federal government should do even if every other department was shuttered, it is to provide for national defense. And HOW that defense is organized is important. There is a very strong presumption that the academies have served as cultural foundations for the American way of war, which by the way is one of the most deferential to civilian authority in history. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As for expense? Sure, the budget for academies could be slashed along with everything if it were to come to that. There is a very big difference between down-sizing the ambitions and bureaucracy of a place and eliminating it.

  2. Tim — I think we are in basic agreement. I would indeed borrow money from China to continue funding the intellectual foundation for our entire military or, as you put it, maintain the cultural foundation of the American way of war. In many ways, I believe this is what Washington had in mind when he insited on establishing West Point. Where we might differ is that rather than downsizing the ambitions and bureaucracy of the acadamies, maybe we should be expanding those ambitions and refocusing the bureacracy on their foundational role by integrating the academies more closely with the graduate level education programs within DoD as well as bringing ROTC under the guidance of the academies and offering acadamy instruction throughout the entire military with MOOCs. The initial marginal investment above their current costs would be minimal and the ROI could be enough to repay the Chinese. Or sink their Navy when we decide to default on the loan.

  3. “Their graduates now make up only about 20 percent of the officer corps in any given year.”

    And how much do those 20%-ers contribute? How many are career oriented officers versus ROTC scholars? Medical Corp aspirations usually don’t start at a service academy. When we draw down our military will that percentage rise. What short sighted dribble.

  4. Bernard Robertson

    As a former Royal Naval Officer, (who once spent all of one day at Annapolis) may I make an outsider’s comment?

    The huge difference between the RN and the USN officer corps (and the other services) seems to me to be lack of commonality of experience and accompanying espirt de corps etc. In the RN all officers train at Dartmouth before or after attending normal universities. Given now that all officers in the US services are at least college graduates, is there room for the service academies to become the postgraduate finishing school for all officers perhaps with a shorter course for those who have graduated from NROTC?

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