Saturday, April 18, 2009

Close West Point?

The author of this piece says 'yes'. And close the Air Force and Naval academies, too.

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.


Ellen K said...

So we close the service academies, but there are many state and private schools that refuse access of ROTC programs to those campuses. Where then do we recruit and educate the elite military personnel needed to defend and protect our nation? Is this guy similarly concerned that the gross majority of NCAA athletes never progress to the professional ranks? And by that reasoning shouldn't we also stop funding athletic programs of all kinds?

allen (in Michigan) said...

Here's the guy's blog -

If it doesn't read quite like something off the keyboard of a hysteric, the writer does come across as having little regard for the military. Sort of a less mean-spirited version of John Kerry when he made his crack about going to Iraq.

He does however raise a worthwhile point in asking how to go about determining whether the service academies are as good as they ought to be.

Anonymous said...

You got it backwards. The more expensive option should justify why it is better, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Based on the author’s argument, we may as well just abolish the military. We really don’t go to war any more…we have “overseas contingencies.” Our police force is the best in the world there is no reason we can’t simply charge any offenders with crimes against humanity and bring them to trial. We can send our police force to arrest anyone that violates these vague laws (we are already charging a Somali teenage pirate in our court system…even though it was OK to shoot the other teens in the head without reading them their Miranda rights).

The author plays a typical statistical game when bringing up the Joint Chiefs position. First, who says that the most important position in the military is the Joint Chiefs? The leaders in the field are the Combatant Commanders, Fleet Commanders, Brigade Commanders, Wing Commanders, etc. (How many of our war heroes are academy grads?) Since 50% of the Joint Chiefs are Academy Grads, this tells me that 50% of all commissioned officers need to come from a service academy? Well, only about 6-10% of commissioned officers come for the academies…this tells me that we actually need to expand the academies and enroll more candidates if we want to at least maintain that percentage?

We have seen this argument from the left time and time again, and West Point had been around since 1802 (imagine the argument to shut down the academy after the civil war knowing that so many Southern Generals were West Point graduates?).

Carson said...

He had his facts wrong from the beginning anyway. It costs a bit over 100,000 dollars a year now to educate students at the academy. He's just blowing off steam by blasting the military. (a common practice among crazy liberals)

melissa said...

Ricks said that he thought that ROTC programs were better than the service academies "because they tend to be better educated...." HMMMM. In 2009, US News and World Report named the United States Military Academy at West Point the number one public liberal arts university in the United States. The Naval Academy was names number two.

Yesterday, Forbes named West Point the number one university in the United States.

Since Ricks was inaccurate with his education information, I have to question the rest of his "facts."