Should Military Academies be Abolished?

West Point color guard

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?

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6 Responses to Should Military Academies be Abolished?

  1. Brian In NYC says:

    I’m not exactly a great fan of the military, but acknowledge the necessity of having a well trained profession military. I think there are a lot of compelling reasons for maintaining our military academies.

    First of, they are providing a level of education that many people could not afford to get otherwise. In a world where our military relies so heavily on technology it makes sense to have academies that can turn enough bodies to meet those needs. And lastly, we all know what a hot button topic on some campuses ROTC is, I wouldn’t want it to be our sole source of people trained for the military.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Some critics say that after a few months on active duty, you can’t tell the difference between the ROTC graduates and those who came through West Point. Others say that four years of focused leadership development at the military academies makes all the difference.

      You make a good point about the opposition to ROTC at some colleges. We’re better off for having an all-volunteer military, but we need to recognize that national defense is a communal obligation, which means we should enable college students to prep for the military if they so desire.

  2. jamesohearn says:

    There are pros and cons to both sides.

    Forcing every potential officer to serve in the ranks first will teach them soldiering, but it also risks creating problematic cross rank relationships and and connections. If the guy I served beside saved my life, then I’m later a Colonel having to put him in the line of fire, or discipline him, there is a definite conflict at play.

    The Israeli military also requires officers who come pre-hardened for combat, who already have in the field shooting experience, since the relatively small size of Israel means that officers and soldiers are always, effectively, within a war zone and have to be ready to react with that in mind.

    The United States is not in that position, and it would perhaps become a liability of officers were to operate with that same mindset all the time.

    Then there is the issue of

    • Michael Peck says:

      Great points, Jim. Even if we brought back the draft, the Israeli system wouldn’t work for us. The Israeli army is like the Russian army in not having a professional NCO corps with veteran sergeants overseeing the troops. Israeli officers do what sergeants have to do in the U.S. military. More of a “people’s army” tradition. Very different than the U.S.

  3. joelisi says:

    In my opinion Mr.Peck’s assertion that military personnel are …”increasinly isolated from the values of the rest of the nation” betrays a lack of knowledge of and exposure to military personnel and family members. Believe it or not, the military, like the police are just a microcosm of the American society. There are liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Putting on a uniform doesn’t mean you turn of your thinking cap. Even though we have professional, all volunteer armed forces, the majority of militray personnel do not spend 20 years in service. They leave after their first contract and return to the community to become productive members of the American Society. Close the Service Academies, no. Bring back the draft, Yes. We as a people would be better off if our young adults were encouraged or even mandated to do something for the greater good of thier fellow countrymen. At the very least they would learn to stand on their own two feet and accept responsibility for their actions. A lesson badly needed today.

    • Michael Peck says:

      The fact that a public institution like the U.S.military will boot out American citizens on the basis of sexual orientation tells us that, yes, the military as an institution is out of step with society. But you’re right that we shouldn’t assume that every soldier shares the same values.

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