“Why We Should Get Rid of West Point” Tom Ricks

Ricks "After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I've concluded that graduates of the service academies don't stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. 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. "  Ricks


Wow!  Tom Ricks is about to find out that hell hath no fury like West Point alumni scorned.  His willingness to write this column is a measure of how secure he feels behind his wall of successful books.  Every once in a while someone decides to take up this idea.  It is usually an expensive idea for the proponent.

There is very little chance that the service academies;  West Point (USMA), Annapolis (USNA), the Air Force Academy (USAFA) are going to be done away with.  People generally like the idea of these undergraduate publicly funded university colleges.  These institutions find their students through a competitive process that is as close to fair as they have been able to make it.  Congressmen have the ability to NOMINATE candidates for these schools, but the service academies themselves decide who will be ADMITTED.  The screening process that lies between those two "gates" is a massive barrier to admittance of the unqualified.  That process produces a lot of available cadetships that congressmen do not fill.  Those available positions are filled with young people who are judged qualified by the academies and who were nominated by other congressmen or from the ranks by the services themselves.  Just to make sure that young people who show some potential as leaders are not disavantaged by poor prior educational opportunities, the Army actually runs a one year prep school for enlisted candidates before a decision is reached about them for admission to West Pont.  Students at the service academies are members of the armed forces.  They are paid a salary.  How good is the education?  Since I am a former faculty member at West Point I will leave that judgment to others.  Americans value such a "path" open to talent for those who find it.  There is no  real chance that these colleges will "go away."

Do the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force really need the service academies to produce commissioned officers?  No.  They do not.  Ricks' arguments about money, diversity of educational experience,  and careerism and cronyism are all rather valid and  the truth of Ricks' points are generally understood by the great majority of those most concerned, officers themselves.

Nevertheless, the country values these schools and they will endure.

Ricks' points about the war colleges is very interesting.  These mid-career schools were founded at the end of the Victorian age to provide advanced professional education for exceptionally promising officers.  They were created with European models in mind.  The "Ecole Superieur de Guerre," and the "Kriegsakademie" were the models,  Over the years these schools have declined and degenerated until they are now third rate graduate schools, paper mills that grind out certificates with which officers can satisfy the bureaucratic demands of their services with regard to advanced degrees and promotion.  These schools are also expensive to run and, as Ricks says, they allow officers who need exposure to diversity of opinion to "hide" in an isolation that weakens the intellect rather than strengthens it.  These schools are still very selective.  One does not apply for attendance.  One is selected by a service wide board.   Sending the selected to good civilian Graduate schools as a substitute opportunity is an appealing alternative and that is done with some of the best selectees.  A representative group of civilian employees of the government are allowed to attend the war colleges.  The method of their selection is quite different.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I was selected for and graduated from the resident course at the Army War College.  It was a delightful but not very challenging year except for the cance it gave me to learn from the great Israeli/American Clausewitz scholar, Michael Handel.  pl


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31 Responses to “Why We Should Get Rid of West Point” Tom Ricks

  1. My belief is that all the undergrad service academies should be abolished and retained as graduate military study universities. While the persons attending could be adjusted to the needs of the various services for various disciplines such as civil or electriacl engineering, history or science or whatever and pick outstanding grands that also which to serve a minimum of 6-10 years after graduation in the military. The Pick of the Pack so to speak would then go on to doctoral programs in civilian universities after a minimum of three years of active service. The reality is that COIN and military reform generally will not work as long as retention rates from the Adcamies is so low and so dependent on outside economic opportunties. I of course after being essentially drafter, voluntered as a college-op for OCS which I completed in 1968 at Ft.Sill, Oklahoma! When I was lucky enough to enter FRG after further schooling I was told I was the first unassigned Artillery butter-bar LT to have arrived in the last six months. Most of course were going to RVN or FRG only after lengthy schooling. I was lucky and tried to learn and help all I could while in FRG. Served largely in support of FRG units. My OCS commander was a WEST POINTER as was the XO of my battalion when I arrived in FRG. Fine men and officers but strangely neither had good ARMY careers. Perhaps it was officer ops that determined the fates of even the WEST POINTERs. It was then at Ft. Monroe VA and always wondered about that puzzle palace.

  2. steve says:

    I know nothing about the quality of education at the service academies. I can assume the good points: esprit de corps, intensive submersion in military life and culture, and so on. I can also assume the counter-argument posed by Ricks: lack of interaction with future civilians.
    I can appreciate someone with more knowledge on the subject educating me.

  3. HJFJR says:

    COL I posted the same article over at OP-For.com, you ought to look at the comments I have thus far received. Part of the problem is I am not sure that anyone is reading the whole article. The proposition I found most interesting was his idea of getting rid of the War College. From what I have seen (BTW not a War College Graduate) it is neither rigorous or populated by faculty who are truly “Strategic Thinker.”

  4. Fred says:

    “.. services’ war colleges,…These institutions strike me as second-rate.”
    Yes indeed, outsourcing was one of Cheney’s great ideas, why not outsource teaching how to think. Ricks provides little to back up his suggestion of utilizing civilian schools to train our officer corps. Ricks should be reminded that the ‘best’ corporations in America hire from those same schools. Obviously GM, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs not to mention what was once one of the top 10 companies in America, Enron, all hired from these schools.
    Shifting the service academies from training junior officers to a graduate program focused on development of mid grade field officers strikes me as a far better use of resources, not just of money and staff., but of time as well. The idea should be pursued, but not in a knee jerk fashion.

  5. DeLudendwarf says:

    Please stop with the acronyms.
    What Is FRG, WRC?
    I am too damned old for acronyms and puzzles.

  6. Matt says:

    Forbes’ article on America’s top colleges says it all:
    Especially notice how West Point ranked #6 overall, ahead of several Ivys.

  7. John Kirkman says:

    Keep the Academies.
    Ricks is familiar with price but not value.
    I learned things as a military cadet (not one of the academies) that were never mentioned at my Big Ten school.
    Honor at civilian institutions refers to grade point, not character trait.

  8. curious says:

    I don’t understand his cost argument. West point student body is only medium size university (about 4K), using his number it’s ~$800m/yr. Big deal.
    I’d say, build another academy and let West Point competes for the ‘best of’ crown. Nothing produces better result than making the best compete harder against more diverse idea and people. Give them more resource.
    The cost of that useless airborne laser ($2.5B) plus that botched surveillance satellite (~$6-10B) should cover the cost for decades to come.

  9. Fred says:

    You should check Forbe’s methodology. 25% weight to student rankings on ‘rankmyproffessor.com’ and 25% by a weighted listing in “who’s who in America”? I know my alma mater complains about these ranking systems, this is one of the reasons why.

  10. Tim says:

    During my time as a Marine Corps officer (57-66) I served with officers commissioned via Naval Academy, NROTC, Platoon Leaders Course, VMI, Citadel, Naval Aviation Cadet, and one Air Force Academy graduate. Most of these officers had one thing in common, they were graduates of The Basic School. The 6-9 month course that teaches new officers how to be basic Marine infantry commanders. With this experience in common the diversity of background and education becomes a good thing. The service academies provide a small, but very important, percentage of the officer corps and should continue to do so, but I really question the apparent requirement that all officers have a MS or PHD to be considered for promotion to O5 or above.

  11. McGee says:

    Hi Colonel Lang,
    Andrew Bacevich made the same suggestion a few years ago in his book “The New American Militarism”. Bacevich, a West Point graduate and retired US Army colonel, argues that the service academies create an officer culture separate from that of civilian America, with a sometimes dangerously elitist mindset. Bacevich writes that the services themselves would be better led with an officer corps trained at civilian universities, and thus educated with real-life experience in the culture of the country they were to serve. He thinks that only the military graduate schools should be retained. He also argues for the reinstatement of the draft, because citizenship should require service of some kind to the country, although he doubts that this is politically feasible today. I tend to agree with him on both topics. I think one of the unintended consequences of ending the draft was the creation of an elected elite with no military experience, which one could argue should be essential to political leadership. Would love to hear your thoughts on both topics.

  12. tmex12 says:

    Completely anecdotal.
    I have a good friend (I am closed to somebody who knows) ….Naval Academy graduate/Tank Commander (using authority to reinforce unfounded claim)……..diversity cause of low entrance requirements……
    stopped reading when I read a dre

  13. I don’t have a dog in this fight. One thing that stuck out to me, though, was Rick’s reference to a Community College education. My experience is that many community college courses were better than their counterparts at large, state run universities – smaller class sizes and faculty who are working in the “real world” rather than climbing the ladder in academia are points in their favor, for much less cash to boot.
    This topic segues into a posting I’ve been wanting to do here but haven’t had the time. Do we really need a separate Air Force any more, or should it be absorbed back into the Army?

  14. p
    Pat Lang,
    We’re discussing lots of intersting subjects. I’m having trouble keeping up.
    I agree that this idea won’t fly and, at any rate its not a good one. As a purely subjective generalization, the USMA fellows I’ve met, worked with, and been commanded by have been good officers and technically and tactically proficient. I’m more interested in the War College criticisms. The educational focus at the academies is, I think deliberately, designed to produce officers able to identify problems and select solutions in an efficient manner. The War Colleges are supposed to be where deeper and more creative thinking is taught. If they’re not being effective, what’s the problem? Perhaps a look at the Bundeswehr archives in order to see how the Kriegsakadamie structured its senior officer curricula might be helpful.

  15. Patrick Lang says:

    You all generally reflect my belief that the public loves the romance of the service academies without regard to whether or not service academy graduates make better officers. Most of the service academy graduates think they do of course. The notion of young Abe Lincoln in a grey coat rising up from nowehere “like a cinderella boy” as the groundsman says in “Caddy Shack” is just too much for most people to think clearly past. Yup, every shirt tail boy from nowhere has a field marshal’s baton in his knapsack, just like Petraeus. In his case “nowhere” was Cornwall on Hudson. I don’t know what the retention statistics are like these days, but you folks are paying a high price for these schools. pl

  16. Nightsticker says:

    Colonel Lang,
    The Regular NROTC Program has provided the largest source of regular Naval officers for over 50 years.Its graduates are superior to or equal with in quality to the USNA graduates by most anecdotal accounts.[The last official study at the USMC Basic School showed them on average to be slightly better prepared at the beginning of the course.] The cost of educating and training an NROTC Midshipman is usually calculated as about 1/2 the cost of educating and training a USNA Midshipman.
    The NROTC’s preparation of its graduates for the mental and physical trials of war is well known. Perhaps less mentioned is its emphasis on the moral aspects. “An NROTC Midshipman does not lie cheat or steal.” [Incidents of cheating,rape,murder, theft, are unheard of in the NROTC]. All things considered, I think Tom Ricks may be on to something.
    NROTC 61-65
    USMC 65-72
    FBI 72-96

  17. p
    Pat Lang,
    Douglas Southall Freeman, truly a wonderful historian, analyzed the problem of command in the Army of northern Virginia in “Lee’s Lieutenants” and concluded that the best predictor of success in combat among the officers of that Army was a military education. He was referring to graduates of West Point and the V.M.I as well as those who had served as commissioned officers in the “old army” without having attended those schools.
    You’ll probably say that that would be comparing apples and oranges, since there was no such thing as R.O.T.C. in those days. I think Freeman’s conclusion was correct inasmuch as it applied to “Lee’s Miserables”. However, that was then and now I think that West Point functions as a kind of institutional back bone for the army. As well as producing an annual crop of lieutenants, of course. The academies probably aren’t indispenable but I’d say they’re of value in the system of military (and naval) education.
    The comment about the Marine basic officer course being 6 to 9 months long struck me. I think the army would do well to double the length of the branch basic courses to 6 months.

  18. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang:
    You wrote: ” I don’t know what the retention statistics are like these days, but you folks are paying a high price for these schools.”
    But what are the rentention statistics in any of the liberal arts fields: physics, music, classics, etc.?
    And yet people are enamoured of the idea of liberal arts education – failing to accept that only 5% of the student-body can benefit from a liberal arts education let alone make its living in those fields.
    If the retention rate is low perhaps the service academies are accepting too many students and of the wrong disposition.

  19. For Delundenwarf! FRG equals Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR equals the German Democratic Republic. West and East Germanies before the wall fell.

  20. fnord says:

    Sir. There is a pretty sane discussion over at Abu Muqawama on the issue, with several students weighing in. http://abumuqawama.blogspot.com/2009/04/close-war-colleges.html

  21. Watcher says:

    I think Annapolis’ losing record of 5 and 22 in the annual croquet match with St John’s is one the more reason to shut down the academies. If we can’t win in croquet…

  22. Patrick Lang says:

    It has been my misfortune to have had to deal with too many engineers who had not absorbed the lessons of the core curriculum in the humanities.
    I have seen your students and am filled with admiration for what you and they are doing. pat

  23. Alexander says:

    The dissolution of service academies is a completely ridiculous notion. Though the popular media tends to focus on the failures of the academies, and, admittedly, not all officers who receive a degree/commission are “great” officers, the service academies offer unparalleled education, training, and opportunity (not ordinarily available to participants in other commissioning programs). Based on personal experience, I will focus on the United States Naval Academy, and, for comparison, I will contrast my experiences with that of a typical NROTC midshipman. Though Academy midshipmen may appear cynical (you try attending a regimented, disciplined, bureaucratic institution for four years, with minimal freedom, while your contemporaries drive around in their new cars, wear civilian clothes, drink excessively, and compete for comparable officer billets), the vast majority of midshipmen are dedicated to their subordinates, the service, and the nation. The pressures placed on the young men and women attending the Naval Academy are, at times, insurmountable to the NROTC midshipman. Therein resides one of the primary advantages of the service academies: combat is chaotic, disorganized, and stressful; Academy life, intentionally, is also chaotic and stressful. As an Academy midshipman, you cannot just give up for the day, you cannot just “kick back” and enjoy a few beers; as an Academy midshipman, you are constantly inundated in a military environment for four years, save for those precious few hours of liberty on the weekends. Though the faculty may “lack doctorates,” this fact must be taken with a military-specific perspective: though the service academies intend to provide graduates with a degree, the primary purpose of these institutions is to graduate commissionable officers. At the Naval Academy, those faculty members without doctoral degrees are typically the returning officers who devote their time away from the Fleet or Marine Corps to teach midshipmen; these men and women may not have the “desired” degrees, but their perspectives on combat, leadership, and military ethics are unparalleled. Though I am more than willing to provide additional detail, I would like to avoid being exceedingly verbose. In summation, the service academies graduates with constant military training, exposure to experienced military professionals (not only professors, but prior-enlisted classmates), a tremendous professional/social network, and a unique classroom environment. Ultimately, the curriculum is diverse, the prospective officer corps (in training) is dedicated, and the result is exceptional.

  24. Patrick Lang says:

    Alexander, Nightsticker
    Have at it! as I saId, hell hath no fury like a service academy grad scorned.
    “The pressures placed on the young men and women attending the Naval Academy are, at times, insurmountable to the NROTC midshipman.” Wow!
    Are you going to stand for that, Nightstalker? pl

  25. stanleyhenning@mac.com says:

    I’m not so opposed to having service academies, but I am concerned with other, what I see as attitudinal, problems in our military establishment regardless of the sources for obtaining officers, and I think some of the attitudinal issues may vary somewhat by service. For instance, I saw the Army “private club” mentality reflected
    most clearly in the War College program. If you were not selected for either physical attendance or the correspondence course, then you were not able to even volunteer to take the course even if you remained in active service to the maximum time in grade (LTC for me). This was clearly less enlightened than the Air Force program, which encouraged all officers to seek the highest degree of professionalism possible while still serving. I actually had the temerity to submit a paper on this subject to my commander (3-star), requesting him to pass it up the chain for consideration, but was turned down. We really should encourage all officers to seek maximum professionalism regardless of whether or not they make the “in group” of Colonel and above. I believe this should not be so difficult to do, but there is another area that is probably less easy to manage and that is related to individual “leadership style”, which is a potential problem in the entire civil-military establishment (yes: President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and subordinates, Secretary of State, CIA chief, etc., all the way down – true leadership that avoids arrogance, and encourages and seriously considers dissenting views. I used to recommend Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence to officers under me, realizing however that incompetence is not limited to the military, and by now this should have become clear to all of us.

  26. Nightsticker says:

    Colonel Lang,
    Tha Analects, Book 13, Verse 3 – The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.”
    Alexander does appear to know something about life as a USNA Midshipman [actually he sounds a bit scarred by the experience]. It is not so clear that he knows much about life as an NROTC Midshipman.
    I am going to ignore the curious semantic and syntactic aspects of the sentence you highlighted and deal with its obviously intended meaning.
    Let me start by swapping a few words and then giving a specific example of the new meaning.
    “The pressures placed on the NROTC midshipman are, at times, insurmountable to the young men and women attending the Naval Academy “.
    Part of the training of NROTC Midshipmen is a mandated 1st Class Summer cruise at Quantico, VA experiencing “Bulldog”. This is 6 weeks of the USMC taking a close look at Marine option Midshipmen. It is a deliberately unpleasant and demanding sorting out experience. The only comparable experience for NROTC/USNA Midshipmen is the Mini-BUDS cruise for SEAL aspirants.When Jim Webb was Secretary of the Navy he decided that USNA Midshipman candidates for the USMC should have the benefit of Bulldog also. The experiment lasted 4 years. It was a fiasco from the beginning as seriously under prepared and under motivated USNA Midshipman failed and quit in record numbers. Over the 4 year mandated Bulldog period candidates at the USNA for the USMC went from 16% to 12% to 8% to 6% before the towel got thrown in.The experiment ended when Webb left office because of the pleading of the USNA.[I have been told that the single most galling issue was that they were left in the position commissioning more and more USMC rejects each year]. Nowadays I understand the USNA Midshipmen candidates for the USMC do a non selective “young gentlemen” type cruise – not at all connected to Bulldog.[Even today discussion of this situation surfaces in USMC professional journals]. The military training of NROTC Midshipmen at their Battalions is sufficient for very successful performance at Bulldog and The Basic School.
    OK. All of the above was [sort of] in fun. Now my central premise. The primary duty of a Midshipman is to obtain an undergraduate degree. It is the sine non qua of the process. The focus of the academic year should be academics. It is demonstrably possible to also provide more than enough instruction/example/ experience in military history/ethics/leadership/ etc during the academic year on a non interference basis with the primary purpose.The same devoted officers who return to the USNA to teach also return to the NROTC to teach.The same “Fleet candidates” that enrich the USNA with their enlisted experience enrich the NROTC.Very focused and well thought out training during Summer cruise can make up any additional military type training. If we think of the NROTC and the USNA as competing systems it is fair to evaluate them in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. What’s not to like about a system that gives a superior or equivalent product at 1/2 the price?
    NROTC 61-65
    USMC 65-72
    FBI 72-96

  27. You forgot to mention the United States Merchant Marine Academy (there are five federal service academies). In 1992 and 1993, Al Gore attempted to shut down the Academy to save money. When that didn’t work, he tried to get the students to pay their tuition (the same request was not made on the other four academies). That too was shut down. What Gore didn’t realize is that USMMA’s cost-per-student is half of that of the other four schools, costing approximately $180K (2003 figures). Unlike the other Academies (unless this has changed recently), graduates from USMMA can enter into any branch of the military as well as enter the federal workforce for the department of transportation. I wonder if Ricks knew about that when writing his article.
    Great article, and thanks for bringing this to my attention. I might write about this as well. Have a great weekend.

  28. jarheadsgirl says:

    I, for one, would like to hear Alexander expound on his example with additional detail. I tend to agree but always like to hear the whole story, or as much thereof as allowed.

  29. J. A. Connor says:

    Coming from an ROTC background and having served on the West Point faculty for a period of three years, I find myself arriving at a middle ground on this issue. I believe that West Point cadets receive a more than respectable undergraduate education in terms of learning “facts”. Yet Ricks has an important point about exposure to the broader range of people and viewpoints found at a civilian institution. I further believe that those academy graduates that have continued their education only via the “military graduate schools” (e.g., the Naval Post Graduate School or the MA programs offered at the various staff colleges) have missed an intangible part of higher education.
    On the other hand, as a “non-graduate” of the academy I was extremely impressed by the almost “spiritual” nature of a West Point education. The profession of arms is unlike any other career and the US Military Academy (I can’t comment on the other service academies) does impress on these young men and women the importance of the higher standard of service and integrity that is expected of a military officer. My middle ground would be a “Sandhurst” model where university graduates are sent to the academy for their post-graduate / professional military training and education, perhaps for a period of a year, and thereby broaden the Academy’s influence on the character of officer corps.
    But, it will never happen.

  30. Thomas Jackson says:

    Why who would advocate professional military academies when we can rely on Havard, Yale, Brown and Princeton? And aren’t the instructors at ROTC just as professional and qaulified as at USMA or the USNA?
    Personally why rely on ROTC when we can rely on the sterling qualities of the American to assert themselves on the battlefield and demonstrate their qualifications for promotion!
    This is the stuff I expect from an armchair warrior who has devoted years of study to the art of basket weaving.

  31. EAC0861 says:

    Let’s face it, the USMC provides Marines with all the basic skills necessary to succeed in civilian life: leadership, character, perspective, teamwork, the list could go on and on. Why these skills aren’t formally recognized as “education” is beyond me. A 4 year stint in the Marine Corps should be recognized as some sort of degree (at least the equivalent to an Associates Degree). Does anyone disagree?

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