More Thoughts on America’s Military Academies


W.J. Astore

The passionate discussion generated by our last article, America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed, was heartening.  Our military academies will not be improved if we merely accept the status quo, with allowance for minor, mainly cosmetic, reforms.  But truly radical reforms are difficult to achieve since the academies are so deeply rooted in tradition.  A reluctance to change can be a good thing, especially when an institution is performing well.  Yet since the Korean Conflict, and certainly since the Vietnam War, America’s military performance has been mediocre.  Placing blame here is obviously contentious, with military professionals tending to point to poor decisions by civilian leaders, among other causes.

Rather than placing blame, let’s entertain some probing questions about the future structure and mission of military academies, with the intent of making them better schools for developing military leaders, as well as better institutions for defending America and advancing its values.

Here in no particular order are a few questions and proposals:

1.  Is America best served by military academies that emulate undergraduate colleges in providing a course of study lasting four years? Or should the academies recruit from students who have already finished most (or all) of an undergraduate degree?  The academies could then develop a concentrated course of study, specifically tailored to military studies, lasting roughly two years.  In effect, the academies would become graduate schools, with all cadets graduating with master’s degrees in military studies with varying concentrations (engineering, science, English, history, and so on).  Such a change would also eliminate the need to kowtow to undergraduate accreditation boards such as ABET.

2.  West Point and the AF Academy rely primarily on serving military officers as instructors, whereas Annapolis relies primarily on civilian instructors. Is this a distinction without difference?  Would West Point and the AF Academy profit from more civilian instructors, and Annapolis from more military ones?  Should all the service academies work harder to bring in top instructors from the Ivy League and similar universities as full-time visiting professors?

3.  How much of today’s experience at military academies is busy work? Or work driven mainly by tradition, i.e. “We do this because we’ve always done this.”  Do we still need lots of inspections, marching, parades, and the like?  Do freshman (call them plebes, doolies, smacks, what have you) truly profit from being sleep-deprived and harassed and otherwise forced into compliance as a rite of passage in their first year?  Does this truly develop character?  Or are cadet schedules so jam-packed that they have little time to think?

4.  Why do cadets continue to have limited exposure to the enlisted ranks? NCOs are the backbone of a professional military, a fact that is not stressed enough in officer training.  How do we increase opportunities for cadets to work with NCOs in the field?

5.  A strong emphasis on physical fitness and sports is smart. But is it necessary to place so much emphasis on big-time sports such as Division I-A football?  What is gained by focusing academy recruiting on acquiring athletes that will help to win football games?  What is gained by offering such athletes preferential treatment within the corps of cadets?  (Some will claim that athletes receive no preferential treatment; if you believe this, I suggest you listen very carefully to cadets who are outside of the charmed circle of celebrated athletes.)

6.  When I was a serving officer at the AF Academy, cadets used to ask me whether I believed they were “the best and the brightest.” Certain senior leaders had told them that, by virtue of being selected to attend a military academy, they were better than their civilian peers at universities such as Harvard or MIT.  Is it wise to sell cadets on the idea that they are America’s best and brightest?

How I answered the question: I told my cadets that comparing military academies to universities such as Harvard or MIT was an apples/oranges situation.  First and foremost, military academies were and are about developing military leaders of strong character.  If you compared cadets to their peers at Harvard or MIT, of course you’d find smarter students at these and similar top-flight universities.  But that wasn’t the point.  Military academies had a different intent, a different purpose, a different mission.  This answer seemed to satisfy my cadets; what I sensed was that they were tired of being told they were America’s best, when they could see for themselves that this often wasn’t true.

We do our cadets no service when we applaud them merely for showing up and working hard, just as our civilian leaders do the military no service when they applaud us as the best-led, best-equipped, best-trained, and so on, military force in all of human history.  Any student of military history should laugh at such hyperbolic praise.

7.  And now for a big question: Are the academies contributing to America’s current state of perpetual war? Have we abandoned Washington’s ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-soldier, the soldier who fights reluctantly and who seeks not military honors but only a return to normalcy and an end to war?

Some will argue that the world today demands perpetual vigilance and a willingness to use overwhelming “shock and awe” force to intimidate and defeat America’s enemies.  And that only a professional corps of devoted regulars can lead such a force.  Perhaps so.

But is it time to consider new paradigms?

What are the most serious threats that America faces today?  For example, American infrastructure is crumbling even as we spend hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan with indifferent results.  Should West Point return to its roots, unleashing its officer-engineers to lead a new Civilian Conservation Corps to rebuild America?  (Recall that George C. Marshall ran the CCC.)  Should America’s military be refocused not on winning the “global war on terror” (unwinnable by definition, for terror will always be with us), but on preserving the global environment?

As humans wage war against our planet and biosphere, should not a force dedicated to the defense of America focus on preserving our livelihood as represented by our planet’s resources?  With its global presence, the American military is uniquely situated to take the lead here.  Indeed, the U.S. Navy already advertises itself as “A global force for good.”  Can we make that a reality?

Too pie in the sky?  The U.S. military has enormous resources and a global role in leadership.  What would it mean to America if our military took the lead in preserving the earth while rebuilding the core strength of America?  Aren’t these “wars” (against global environmental degradation; for America’s internal infrastructure) worth fighting?  Are they not more winnable than a perpetual war on terror?

There you have it.  Let’s hear your ideas in the comments.  And thanks.

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets
The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war).  They are Archimedean.  They focus on engineering and the machinery of war.  But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.

There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations.  But they do not.  I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years.  My experience?  The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.  Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.

A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.  Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.  Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.

Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse.  U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables.  They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.

Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics.  Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized.  Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.

When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?”  They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders.  They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.

As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history.  (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects.  Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air.  Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.

Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity.  Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws.  A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.

Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them.  Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.

Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta.  Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens.  Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.

But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory.  Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.