Former Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks has lit a fire by calling for the abolition of service academies such as West Point and Annapolis. Ricks argues that training officers through college ROTC would be cheaper and produce more well-rounded officers. This has triggered a furious counterattack by those who see the academies as sacred institutions as well as superb incubators for professional officers.
Keeping West Point is more than a question of whether we want future officers to learn to eat their soup in cadence. It’s really about what kind of military we want, a vital question as a professional U.S. military becomes increasingly isolated from the values of the rest of the nation.
Historically, there have been several ways to train officers. The longest tradition has been to select men on the basis of noble birth (until the 1870s, British nobles could purchase command of a regiment). This often resulted in some idiot prince or count getting his army wiped out.
Another is the way the Israelis do it, which is make everyone serve in the ranks as a private for a year, and then select the best ones for officer training school. That gives the Israeli Defense Forces a chance to assess their potential as soldiers first, and also helps eliminate the gulf between officers and enlisted men. Yet it also means that 18-year-old privates are commanded by 20-year-old lieutenants who don’t have much in the way of education or life experience. Incidents of brutality among IDF units on occupation duty on the West Bank are partially rooted in young officers commanding young soldiers.
Then there’s the “officer and a gentleman” model of the U.S. Officers are directly commissioned out of college or the service academies. This creates officers who have education and are a little older than the soldiers they command. On the other hand, it also means that majoring in art history qualifies you to command an infantry platoon in Iraq. At Rutgers in the early 1980s, I can’t say the ROTC cadets I saw struck me as future Napoleons and Pattons.
Which approach is better? No one is calling for the return of buying your own regiment, though it’s one way to finance the bank bailout. As for the other approaches, they each have merits and drawbacks. Much depends on the nation. The Israeli approach works because they have universal conscription, so a lot bright guys (who wouldn’t think of joining the U.S. military) enter as privates and future officers.
It’s inconceivable that West Point and the other acadamies will be closed. There’s just too much history and tradition there. But do we want the backbone of the officer corps to be immersed in the military during their college years, or do want them exposed to civilian and academic values?