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.

Ed Ruggero, a USMA grad who has written a book about West Point, seconds my point about multiple sources:

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Pete Burgess says:

    I say we take a closer look at the harmful anti capitalist bias interjected into many of our college and university classrooms by professors and teaching assistants. This bias will cost us significantly more over time as the new adherents to such thinking will be inclined to support bigger government at the expense of the free market.

  2. Bithead says:

    Well, I thikn it fairly safe to wonder if Ricks isn’t harboring some sort of anti-military bias, given his body of work.

    He got the Surge so staggeringly wrong, for example, one wonders how anyone would give him credit on getting so radical a change as eliminating West Point, right. The Gamble is the most recent book of his I’ve bothered with. You pretty much knew what you were dealing with when he opened, approvingly with the Jack Murtha narrative of Hadditha.

    I’m forced, with that and several other brushes I’ve had with the man’s work, to conclude that what we’re dealing with here is leftist with all of the attendant political baggage… to the point where anything he says about the military is to be taken with a half shaker of salt.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    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.

    That’s a reasonable point. Workplaces often benefit from having workers with a range of backgrounds similar to what you suggest here. My concern would be making sure it doesn’t develop into some kind of bifurcated system where only those who went to military academies can rise to general/admiral levels while ROTC guys are relegated to lower level officers.

  4. anjin-san says:

    He got the Surge so staggeringly wrong, for example

    Interesting. I did not know that you placed any importance on “getting it right”.

    For example, you predictions about the 2008 election were wildly wrong, over and over. Should we stop listening to your opinions on electoral politics, or should you stop voicing them? (well, probably yes). On the other hand, my predictions about the election were pretty accurate. Are you ready to concede that my forecasting is much better than yours? Of course not.

    Or does being wrong only count when someone you disagree with is doing it?

  5. Bithead says:

    Interesting. I did not know that you placed any importance on “getting it right”.

    Of course, I do. Why, after all, should I oppose you, otherwise/

    For example, you predictions about the 2008 election were wildly wrong, over and over.

    Let’s see if you can find a point where I say “I predict’….

  6. DavidL says:

    The military tends to be conservative because the price of failure is not paid in reduced corporate earning but rather in the blood of soldiers. I for one and not willing to entrust the lives of soldiers to Rick’s theory.

    Given the time is takes reach say division level command, any effects of Rick’s proposed change would take decades to produce change and even more decades to remedy.

    Our current system works. When given a reasonable objective, and sufficient operation freedom, the American fighting men produces results. A free Iraq is just one example.

    I will not that the only war we lost was lead by a corporate executive, McNamara, who knew more about graphs and metrics than about military leadership. I’ll take Storming Norman any day.

  7. anjin-san says:

    Let’s see if you can find a point where I say “I predict’….

    How about “looks like I called it”? Squirm all you want, but you were utterly clueless about what was really going on in the last election.

    You know it, I know it, and everyone that reads OTB knows it. Let’s see, you said there would be a Democratic civil war in Denver, McCain was headed for a landslide, Obama could never win a general…

  8. I recall talking with a couple of AFA grads, and discussing academics. No, they admitted, the academics weren’t world-class. Their argument was that the school experience (academics, fitness, leadership & management) breeded exactly what the AF wanted, an in that way the school was perfect. The AF needs rocket scientists, but not a rocket scientist who can’t run a mile-and-a-half (no jokes about AF fitnes, please). On the other hand, the AF doesn’t need a jock who can’t motivate his/her troops. And, the AF doesn’t need a world-class public speaker who has an IQ of 30.

    I think one would be hard-pressed to find institutions (you can certainly throw in the Coast Guard Academy and the legdendarily-tough Merchant Marine Academy) that are so good at turning out a high percentage of graduates who are smart, fit and show potential for leadership and management — at the ripe age of 22 or 23.

    ROTC? It’s perfectly fine, as are the service OTS/OCSs for enlisted personnel. ROTC’s advantage is the “out:” undergrads interested in a military career can try it out for awhile, with no commitment. Good thing, for kids who haven’t made up their mind what they want to do.

    Me, I went a different route: direct appointment. Lord knows what Ricks would think of that, if he’s even heard of it.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Anjin, you you are an empty brained a**hole. Why don’t you move to the socialist nation of your choice. I suggest Cuba, where your well developed skill of cutting cane would come in handy. Sorry if I have offended anyone other than the sorry subject of this rant however his BS has infested this site for years. Angin you argue like a child.

  10. Bithead says:

    How about “looks like I called it”? Squirm all you want, but you were utterly clueless about what was really going on in the last election.

    So, You can’t find it. Yet, never one to allow mere fact to intrude, you stick to your claim.

    All that is noted.

    Anyway, back to the issue:

    Our current system works.

    Exactly why ‘change’ is being proposed, in the end.

  11. anjin-san says:

    So, You can’t find it. Yet, never one to allow mere fact to intrude, you stick to your claim.

    Its cool bisty. We know you hear, and everyone knows you lack the ‘nads just to admit you blew every call on the election, no matter how painfully obvious it is 🙂

    You are something of a textbook case… egomaniac with low self-esteem.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Why don’t you move to the socialist nation of your choice

    Because I am busy being a moderately successful capitalist, a claim I doubt you will ever be able to make…

  13. Grewgills says:

    Sorry if I have offended anyone other than the sorry subject of this rant however his BS has infested this site for years. Angin you argue like a child.

    Awesome. I almost fell out of my chair.

  14. Reading Mr. Ricks thoughts made me look back upon my family’s recent experience with one of the Service academies. Upon reviewing my thoughts, I truly wondered if honor and integrity has a meaning for the institutions in question or is it lip service.

    Thankfully I had a simple way to test this question out of our own experiences. The question I asked was: Do the Service academies follow federal law? Well I really can’t answer the question without having some specific data and facts. But it doesn’t look real good when you compare the federal Law as written in the federal code and then you read their regulations in the CFR.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    re: Zelsdorf Ragshaft III | April 19, 2009 | 07:51 pm

    Wow…the next thing we’ll see is Rush Limbaugh accusing someone else of being fat…