Ricks: Close Service Academies, War Colleges
Thomas Ricks believes that we should shutter West Point and the other service academies because they’re expensive and, as far as he can tell, they produce no better officers than ROTC. Plus, their instructors don’t have PhDs, making them essentially junior colleges.
The first of these assertions is thinly sourced but worth exploring. The second, though, is rather silly. About a third of the academy professors are civilian PhDs and some percentage of the military faculties are PhDs, too. Yes, most of them are still mid-career officers fresh out of a good master’s program. But I’m not sure what evidence exists that the PhD — essentially a certification of proficiency in independent research — necessarily makes its bearer a more rigorous teacher of undergraduates.
Additionally, as his CNAS colleage Andrew Exum notes, Ricks seems to be under the illusion that closing West Point would mean more officers from Yale. That ain’t necessarily so. Indeed, as Jules Crittenden reminds us, many of the elite schools long ago shuttered their ROTC programs.
Ricks also suggests closing the war colleges while we’re at it, arguing that, “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.”
Indeed, the Services themselves now send a substantial number of their officers to civilian graduate programs and fellowships in lieu of the senior service colleges. We get star field grade officers from each of the Services at the Atlantic Council for one-year stints and believe the exchange is mutually beneficial.
Then again, the typical graduate student at Harvard isn’t a thirty-something peer to a battalion commander honing his skills in anticipation of brigade command but a twenty-something brainiac right out of undergrad. And the faculty at the war colleges are generally PhDs, including a healthy number of civilians, if perhaps too many retired colonels that have been recycled as “civilian” faculty.
Further, as Robert Farley adds, “the curriculum is much different than what you find in civilian graduate programs, and the faculty is allowed to work on policy-oriented topics that aren’t well supported in the rest of academia.” Exum agrees, explaining, “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.”
Beyond all that, it strikes me that some diversity is in order. While it makes sense for most officers to continue to come from ROTC, it may well be worth the investment to cultivate those who want the immersion of a military academy and find the part-time exposure of ROTC insufficiently challenging. Similarly, while it makes sense to send a goodly number of future flag officers to the Ivies and think tanks there’s something to be said for specialized training as well. Having everyone follow exactly the same path may simply not produce the range of viewpoints and experiences we need.
UPDATE: Pat Lang says the academies are here to stay but agrees the war colleges have outlived their usefulness.
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 chance it gave me to learn from the great Israeli/American Clausewitz scholar, Michael Handel.
But if diversity is an important goal (and I agree that it is), closing the federal service academies would be counter-productive. Some segment of the population with an interest in the armed forces as a career wants the academy experience–call it culture, bragging rights, challenge–and might not be willing to serve otherwise. If you lose this segment, diversity suffers.”
Retired Army LTG Walter Ulmer thinks the academies are a bargain:
West Point is the only institution of higher education devoted exclusively to creating leaders of character for our Army and the nation. Its graduates still lead from the front and are paying a high price in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tom Ricks continues to do good work. But his gears seem to be meshed regarding the academies. As an academic institution, West Point has produced more Rhodes Scholars than any university except Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; more Hertz Fellowships (“for rare young scientists and engineers,”) than any but MIT, Stanford, and Princeton; and even gained a high spot in the 2009 US News & World Report ratings of liberal arts colleges. Opportunities for leader development abound at West Point: a unique leadership laboratory and reservoir of standards for military professionalism. A true national treasure, given the price of things these days it may be the best return on the money that taxpayers can get!
But retired Navy captain Bob Schoultz, who has taught at both USNA and the Naval War College, thinks Ricks is on to something.
I continue to believe that the service academies and war colleges CAN offer the nation a uniquely positive service, and that questions such as Tom’s must regularly be asked to hold the institutions accountable to the society they serve, rather than the service cultures they often see themselves ordained to protect. Even the best institutions must regularly be jolted out of the self-congratulatory complacency that can take hold when excellent organizations come to believe their own propaganda and mythology.