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.