April 19, 2009

Close the War Colleges? (Updated)

Boy, Tom sure isn't afraid to make people angry:

Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships. ...

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.

Tom seems to be suggesting we follow the British model of officer training. (As I understand it, the way we have trained our officers is more rooted in the French system than the British or German ones. Someone more knowledgeable about this should correct me.)

Personally, I am more intrigued by Tom's second idea -- that we close the war colleges. Without a doubt, at that stage in their careers I think military officers would benefit more from spending a year or two in a civilian institution learning alongside the men and women who comprise the society they are sworn to protect. The more we can bring the military into society -- and visa versa -- the stronger a compact we will have between the military and the population. This is more important now that American men have -- for two generations -- not had a shared experience of mandatory military education. (American women, of course, never had such an experience, but now that they are pretty much running things as far as our foreign and defense policies, they have as much a requirement as any dude to understand the military as well.)

I have one worry, though, which is that the American academy does not reward those who do strategic studies and military history. Very few history and political science departments have much room for military historians and security studies geeks like me. As Richard Betts and others have lamented, there are no "war studies" departments in the United States. So the government might need to step in to make sure first-rate scholars like the Cronins (Patrick and Audrey), the Biddles (Steve and Tami Davis), Steve Metz, etc. have homes to continue their work. If that means setting up more academic research centers where the war colleges once were, great.

But yeah, overall, I am a big fan of forcing military officers -- future and current -- and civilians to have to interact with one another in the classroom as much as is possible.

Oh, and there is one more potential blindspot in Tom's argument. Tom went to Yale. (The man wears clothes from J. Press!) He also works with two young veterans who went to Dartmouth and Penn. And sure, the Ivy League is probably a more "rigorous" academic environment than the service academies. But not all of those young officers who would have gone to West Point will end up at Duke or Stanford or Amherst. Some will go to good public schools like Georgia or Penn State or Ole Miss. And you can get a fantastic education at any of these institutions. But if we're being honest, the academic experiences at these schools are uneven. You can work your butt off in the honors program at Georgia, for example, and get an education on par with any other. But you can also skate by in a less demanding program. At USMA and USNA, by contrast, you can guarantee your future officers will receive a rigorous education. I'm not sure if this negates any of Tom's argument. But it's important to note that not all of these kids who would have gone to West Point will go to Williams or Princeton instead.

UPDATE: It seemed only natural to solicit the opinion of a former U.S. Army officer Tom greatly admires. Friend of the blog Craig Mullaney is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Oxford University. He then taught for three years in the history department at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He responded to what Tom wrote at my request:

Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as the man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. In Tom Ricks’ article, he rightly points out that among the multiple commissioning routes — service academies, ROTC, and Officer Candidate School — the service academies are the most expensive.

As a West Point ’00 graduate, I had the fortune of being an exchange student at the Air Force Academy, a graduate student at Oxford University, and finally a history instructor at the Naval Academy for three long winless years (combined football score: 106-40). I served in combat in Afghanistan with fantastic officers from every commissioning source.

The taxpayer should rightly ask not just the cost of the service academies, but also the value. What does America get for the $202,000 it pays to produce each academy graduate?

  • A first-rate undergraduate education that emphasizes instruction rather than research. The academies afford students a broad curriculum in science and engineering, humanities, and the social sciences. West Point is routinely ranked among the top 10 universities in the country for no accident — the instructors have a level of professional commitment to their charges that few civilian institutions can replicate. The number of Ph.D.s in the faculty is no proxy for the quality of their instruction. The average instructor at West Point taught me more than the best Oxford dons.
  • A four-year leadership laboratory. Leaders are trained, not born. Every semester and every summer cadets are put in positions of leadership of their peers or subordinates. You cannot cram for the leadership “exam” you get the first time you step in front of a platoon. Surrounded by hand-picked role models who’ve succeeded in the Army, cadets learn from their example and have the opportunity to practice before it counts.

I'd argue that what's unique, and what's worth preserving, is the combination of intellectual preparation, character development, and leadership training that the service academies provide.

Sure, but the key question is whether or not Craig was better prepared to take over an infantry platoon than I was after graduating from my godless, pinko-communist Ivy League alma mater. And I honestly do not know the answer to that question.