After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I've concluded that graduates of the service academies don't stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.
This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school? Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers -- three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way -- they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects.
We should also consider closing the services' war colleges, where colonels supposedly learn strategic thinking. These institutions strike me as second-rate. If we want to open the minds of rising officers and prepare them for top command, we should send them to civilian schools where their assumptions will be challenged, and where they will interact with diplomats and executives, not to a service institution where they can reinforce their biases while getting in afternoon golf games. Just ask David Petraeus, a Princeton PhD.
He may very well be right (although I disagree with him), but he's offered no evidence at all that his assertions are correct. By what metrics can he claim that academy graduates are no better officers than ROTC graduates?
And "community-college educations"? Given its small size, West Point has a disproportionate number of Rhodes Scholars, and has for decades. The academic awards from our service academy cadets and midshipmen stand on their own (Rhodes, Hertz, Marshall) and give lie to Ricks' statements.
He then leaves the academies, which produce lieutenants, and cuts to the War Colleges and the Joint Chiefs, colonels and generals. Entire careers take place between those ranks, and his Grand Canyon-like jump between them indicates to me at least that he ran out of reasons to shut the academies. Clearly his argument isn't strong.
Lastly, his statement that three of the last six Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs were ROTC graduates. How did the other three get their commissions? ROTC graduates well over half of our officer corps, followed by the academies, followed by Officer Candidate/Training Schools, so one might suggest that they should produce well over half of the Chairmen. But this line of argument is fallacious. The academies produce lieutenants, not generals. To even suggest that commissioning source should have a strong influence in whether someone reaches flag rank or not is silly, it's a red herring argument.
In short, there may be legitimate reasons for closing down the academies, but Ricks doesn't provide any.