• October 30, 2014

The Military Academies Strike Back

In "The Few, the Proud, the Infantilized" (The Chronicle Review, October 12), Bruce Fleming argues that military academies are neither the most effective nor the most affordable way to educate military-bound college students. "It's clear that we don't need the academies in their current form—versions of a kind of military Disneyland," he writes.

Some readers objected to Fleming's characterization of military academies, arguing that he trivializes the historic role they've played and neglects their importance as timeless testaments to shared sacrifice and military excellence.

To the Editor:

I applaud Fleming's loyalty to his beloved Naval Academy in his recent article. And while many Academy grads may see his piece as a betrayal, I see moral courage and candor. I have no doubt that Fleming calls 'em like he sees 'em. However, I respectfully submit that the good Professor ought to have his eye prescription checked.

As president of my West Point class, I am especially unsettled by Fleming's assertions on minority cadets and leadership training. He writes, "The academies should stop recruiting below-par students who use academy prep schools as back doorways into their freshman years ... many slots are filled with poor-performing students with weak commitment to the military." I am unsettled because my younger brother and I both attended West Point Prep, were both elected as class officers, and both led soldiers in combat upon graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. No officer who serves in combat deserves to have his or her commitment to the military questioned.

Fleming's claims about teaching leadership miss the mark as well. Leadership training at the service academies is not just about coursework. It's about immersion in a moral-ethical environment where leadership in theory meets leadership in practice, and senior officers mentor their future lieutenants and ensigns. The service academies, like all institutions, have their shortcomings. But closing them isn't the answer.

Brandon J. Archuleta
Captain, United States Army
President, West Point Class of 2006

***

As a Naval Academy graduate, I can tell you that Fleming is spot on with his facts regarding the perception of midshipmen. He has the pulse of the Brigade of Midshipmen but lacks adequate context. He has extraordinary insight into the inner workings of the U.S. Naval Academy's academic machine. However, the downside of his overexposure to the Brigade is that Fleming has become a perpetual midshipman.

Fleming needs to take a holistic view of the service academies and their function within the military. I greatly disliked the Naval Academy when I attended it, but you would be hard-pressed to find a graduate who, after completing their military obligation, still maintained the same view of the service academy that they held when they attended it. Fleming sees only the academic portion of the pipeline without participating in the full experience that extends past graduation. I cannot convey strongly enough the importance of what I learned at Annapolis that was never explicitly taught. Rather, it has to be experienced—and not in a classroom.

For example, Fleming comments on sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation taught me my capabilities and limitations of what I can and cannot accomplish when physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. In a civilian school, I would have simply slept in and skipped class. Midshipmen who skip class are punished for being AWOL. Most civilian school graduates who did not experience what I did in this area had to learn their reactions later in their careers, perhaps when they were in an operational environment. It is much better to learn it in a safe academic setting, where the repercussion of failure is minimal.

Is a service-academy graduate better than a graduate of Officer Candidate School or the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps? No, but the individual service-academy graduate is, without a doubt, a better officer for having attended a service academy.

Joseph L. Moreno
Trustee of the USNA Alumni Association
President of the USNA Class of 1993
The opinions expressed in this response are solely my own and may not necessarily represent either the USNA Alumni Association or the Class of 1993.

***

We acknowledge that some of what Fleming says has merit, if one reads past the hyperbole. Our response addresses matters that pertain to not just the U.S. Naval Academy, but all service academies, based on our experiences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

We will attempt to provide answers to these three questions. (1) Should the service academies exist? (2) Can we afford the academies in an age of fiscal austerity? (3) Assuming the academies continue to operate, what can they do better to accomplish their missions?

The best way to assess the service academies is by examining outcomes. For example, as of October 21, 2012, seven out of the 11 (64 percent) serving four-star generals in the Army were West Point graduates. Similarly, of the 10 active-duty division commanders (two-star generals), seven graduated from West Point. At the time when these officers were commissioned, USMA produced only about 10 percent of all officers commissioned, revealing the overrepresentation of graduates among the Army's senior leaders.

In our experiences at West Point, we have not come across the same culture or quality issues Fleming encountered. While we wish that our students could be more focused and engaged in their academics, they are by any measure dedicated, hardworking, talented, eager, able, and motivated cadets, preparing to serve their nation and lead their soldiers. The midshipmen we have personally observed are mature young men and women who are exceedingly polite, highly intelligent, and simply enjoyable to interact with.

What Fleming characterizes as "infantilization" is largely a collection of measures that the military uses to impose a degree of uniformity. Lance Betros, in his recently published book Carved From Granite: West Point Since 1902, uses the term "paternalism" to describe the phenomenon.

We all agree on the benefits of treating our future officers more like adults than children, and we need to hold them accountable for their actions. In our service academies, young men and women are trained to lead others, in combat if necessary, for the defense of our nation. This solemn responsibility cannot be abrogated. With regard to the selection of cadets and midshipmen, the "quality in, quality out" rule holds. Well-qualified 18-year-old cadets develop into well-qualified lieutenants four years later.

As currently constituted, the academies are effective tools for civil-military relations. The public respects them precisely because they are monastic and rigorous—and because they are not like civilian society. We have no issues with the academies undertaking adjustments to the academic, military, and physical programs they deem necessary to produce more adaptable leaders. But tamper with the basic structure and you will alienate millions of Americans. The academies are part of the American political fabric because the majority of openings are filled by Congressional appointments.

Those seeking to cut costs have argued that the high attrition rates make rigorous schools unjustifiable. For the academies, it is not just about the degree or the national ranking, but rather the acculturation to the profession of arms and the development of confident, competent leaders and problem solvers. We know it works at West Point.

Betros's main thesis throughout Carved From Granite is that the focus needs to be on character and intellect. Fleming's comments about the danger of admitting academically and sometimes morally unqualified athletes have merit.

Another reason the academies are vital to the nation is because they are enduring and based in statute. ROTC is not a permanent institution, but a policy decision whose organizational health is determined by yearly budgets. Officer Candidate School is even more flexible. The academies might be buffeted by political whims, but they survive, and thus are the repository of our military ethos that cannot be easily destroyed. As Colin Powell so eloquently stated in his Thayer Award speech to West Point cadets in 1998, West Point is "the wellspring of [our] chosen profession."

Periodically, there are assaults on the academies: They cost too much; OCS and ROTC do the job just as well; too many graduates leave the service too soon. We expect these assaults on bits of Sparta in the midst of academic Babylon to continue.

If history is any example, the academies will survive, but should they? Yes. But this case must be made over and over, to our citizenry and Congress.

In an age of fiscal austerity, where we must make hard choices among competing priorities, can we afford the academies? Yes. However, as in all military and government affairs, the services must make the academies more efficient.

What can the academies do better to accomplish their missions? There remains plenty of room for improvement; the "priorities of work" are never complete. Credit should also be given where it is due—today's academies are much better than they were in the past. Education is better, training is better, students are better. That trend must continue.

To paraphrase Carved From Granite, while there may be cracks in the exterior of the granite facade, the foundation beneath remains solid. We believe the service-academy system is a central element that contributes significantly to the strength of America and its military.

Robert Scales, Chris Arney, Scott Nestler, Zygmunt Dembek, Tracey Pérez Koehlmoos, and Robert Rush
All authors are either currently serving, former, or retired Army professionals, and all have earned a doctorate from a civilian university. Their views do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

***

The author responds:

The most appealing aspect of the service academies is their ideals of duty, honor, country, service and sacrifice. These ideals continue to draw prospective cadets and midshipmen. However, they are also the source of the great bitterness that most (not all) students feel when they realize that the reality has nothing to do with the rhetoric. We need to be asking if the hyperbole is justified, rather than merely repeating it.

Captain Archuleta's inspiring vision of leadership being taught through example and mentoring is beautiful. The only problem is that there is no proof that the academies inculcate or even encourage leadership better than just spending four years going to college with ROTC, doing a summer of OCS, or coming up through the ranks—as even Mr. Moreno, a trustee of the USNA alumni association, acknowledges. Most people find their leadership models elsewhere, or figure things out themselves. Many students tell me the academy "shows them what not to do" as leaders.

Of course I agree with Mr. Moreno that we should be asking the Navy and the Army what they think of service-academy officers versus those who emerge from other officer-production pipelines. (We citizens had better hope service-academy officers are not better, as they are such a small minority.) There are few studies, and those that exist show no real difference between groups. We need more evidence.

Mr. Moreno seems to be asserting that academy officers deal better with sleep deprivation than those coming from OCS and ROTC. Evidence? Is there any proof that coping with sleep deprivation can be taught? We need more than a handful of proud graduates telling us how good they are to justify institutions that cost so much , and most troublingly, inculcate their graduates with such an unjustified sense of superiority. If the taxpayers knew what these kids are being told about how much better they are than the people paying for their education, they'd demand the places be closed overnight.

A small number of successes from the prep schools, such as Captain Archuleta suggests he is, do not change the fact that the students they admit were deemed not qualified by the academies' own standards. They graduate from the academies at a lower percentage than the rest of the class and are largely (repeat: largely) clustered at the bottom of the class. The benefit is that we get Division I athletics and a slightly higher percentage of nonwhite academy-graduate officers. But in order to get these, we turn away better qualified white applicants whom the board believed to have greater officer potential, and alienate many students disgusted by special treatment of athletes and racial minorities. We need an open discussion of the cost/benefit analysis, not merely the testimonials of individuals who benefited from taxpayer-financed largess or yet another dose of hype.

Thus I am in total agreement with the West Point graduates who wrote that the service academies must continually make their case to the taxpayers and citizens they are meant to defend. This is precisely what the academies fail to do; instead they seem insulted that our vast cash flows even need to be justified. This sense of lèse-majesté comes out quite clearly in this group of academy graduates—all of whom went to school on the taxpayer's dime and were guaranteed employment for at least five years—who characterize my demand that the academies live up to their goals as an attack. But let's say the academies and some of their products lose the disdain they currently show toward questioners and engage in real debate. The results are not a slam-dunk for the academies.

In the old days, it was certainly true that academy graduates predominated at higher ranks. But was that due to merit or to the insider culture of hooking up your buddies, which continues to bedevil the academies? As a report from the Navy's Tench Francis School of Business notes, "it is not clear whether this [advantage] is due to the quality of the service academy programs or other factors that have tended to favor academy graduates." Either way, this is now a dissipated advantage, as the few reports available show.

If we want a military that serves its civilian masters rather than the reverse, it's at least arguable that our officers should be educated in civilian schools and then trained for a time at the academies. Otherwise we will only widen the civilian-military divide that now threatens to cause serious problems in our society, with an increasingly defensive military demanding deference, as these writers do, from the people it serves.

Bruce Fleming

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.