West Point Why We’re Losing Wars Says West Point Prof

A book out today makes an odd case.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor of The American Conservative, has a bizarre book review titled “West Point Prof Pens Blistering Takedown Of U.S. Military Academies.” I haven’t read the volume in question, so have only her take to go one.

Tim Bakken’s The Cost of Loyalty: Dishonesty, Hubris and Failure in the U.S. Military is set for release tomorrow, and it should land like a grenade. Unlike the myriad critiques of the military that wash over the institution from outside the Blob, this one is written by a professor with 20 years on the inside. He knows the instructors, the culture, the admissions process, the scandals, the cover-ups, and how its legendary “warrior-scholars” have performed after graduation and on the battlefield.

One would think that, if one had access to information so powerful and important to the national interest, one might have waited less than 20 years to share it. But okay.

Bakken’s prognosis: the military as an institution has become so separate, so insulated, so authoritarian, that it can no longer perform effectively. In fact, it’s worse: the very nature of this beast is that it has been able to grow exponentially in size and mission so that it now conducts destructive expeditionary wars overseas with little or no real cohesive strategy or oversight. Its huge budgets are a source of corporate grift, self-justification, and corruption. The military has become too big, yes, but as Bakkan puts it, it’s failing in every way possible.

That’s a lot of charges! Aside from the fact that the US military has not grown exponentially—or, indeed, even arithmetically—one can argue that there is merit to some of them. Alas, they’re not supported by information given in the review.

In addition to losing wars, “the military’s loyalty to itself and determined separation from society have produced an authoritarian institution that is contributing to the erosion of American democracy,” writes Bakkan, who is still, we emphasize, teaching at the school. “The hubris, arrogance, and self-righteousness of officers have isolated the military from modern thinking and mores. As a result, the military operates in an intellectual fog, relying on philosophy and practices that literally originated at West Point two hundred years ago.”

So, we have definitely been losing some wars, at least in the Clausewitzian sense of failing to achieve national political objectives. And there is an internal loyalty inherent in the military code. And it has always been authoritarian. But it’s simply absurd to claim that the institution—or, indeed, the service academies—are isolated from the intellectual world. They have had civilian PhDs on staff for generations now and they almost bend over backwards trying to learn, for example, the latest wisdom from the business world.

Bakken contends that West Point and the other U.S. military academies is first “on the assembly line,” providing cultural and social firmament for this separate world. It is where young men and women are indoctrinated and conditioned to be “of the body” and become career-long missionaries of the system. It has been like this for as long as the schools have had their place, yes, but as the civilian-military gap has grown significantly post-Vietnam, it endures less and less scrutiny from its federal minders and enjoys more reverence than it deserves from the public at large. This has led to the creation of an unaccountable hierarchy based not on merit, but on what Bakken calls “the primacy of loyalty.”

“The military has almost become a religion to a lot of Americans, where it cannot be challenged, and if we do (challenge it), we are accused of being unpatriotic,” Bakken said in a recent interview with TAC. Aside from the issues of accountability, leadership ends up working in a massive bubble where they end up believing their own hype. 

That the US military endures too little scrutiny and is placed on too high a pedestal is a longstanding critique that I won’t argue with. Indeed, I laid out that case in detail in my own TAC feature way back in 2011. But the academies produce a sliver of new officers; most come from ROTC.

And officers get multiple stops in professional military education during their careers. Indeed, even West Point grads attend a months-long basic and branch course before being assigned to their first unit.

But, this, is frankly moronic:

“In the end, the proof is in the pudding, in the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq,” he told TAC. “The generals do not know how to win these wars, and they don’t have the courage to tell Americans that we can’t win and that we shouldn’t be fighting them.” Furthermore, he added, “the generals of all those wars were graduates of West Point.”

The causality here is beyond insipid. West Point graduates, by the same token, won both World Wars. (Although VMI grad George Marshall had a hand in the second.) So, something happened between VJ Day and the kick-off in Korea three years later? Even though the commander of US forces during most of that war was Douglas MacArthur, who was reasonably effective in WWI and WWII?

And it’s odd that, if the problem identified is an attitude change that took place after Vietnam, how did we lose Korea and Vietnam?

For that matter, we won in Desert Storm with West Pointer Norman Schwarzkopf running the show. Now, granted, it was a blip on the radar screen compared to Korea and Vietnam. But, while it certainly lasted much less time than Afghanistan and Iraq, it was a much larger troop deployment.

The Cost of Loyalty was born out of two major events in Bakken’s career as a law professor. 

First was his experience in 2007 setting up a department of law at the new national military academy in Afghanistan. It was clear he said, that the conditions on the ground did not match the positive rhetoric broadcast back home and, “that something was happening that had not been fully analyzed, at least from my perspective.”

So, I simply don’t have enough to go on here to evaluate the critique. But it’s certainly true that military (and civilian) leaders tend to paint a rosy picture of ongoing wars. That’s problematic in a number of ways. But it’s almost inherent in leadership. For uniformed leaders, they need to maintain the morale of those who are risking their lives. For civilian leaders, they need to maintain public support.

Second, back in the U.S., he filed for federal whistleblower status, claiming the West Point leadership retaliated against him for calling out favoritism among the military staff. There are both civilian and military professors at the military academies, but unsurprisingly, the military instructors enjoy an elevated status, and it’s not based on experience or merit. Brought in through entrenched cronyism and under lower academic standards, they get more money, choice leadership positions, and preferences for course work. He won the case in 2012, and was able to keep his job.

This is a bizarre critique. Historically, West Point professors have been post-command captains fresh out of a master’s program. Starting in the 1980s, the faculty has been leavened with civilian PhDs. I fully understand why the latter would resent being viewed as less prestigious than the former. But the institution has “Military Academy” right there in its name. Its mission is to “educate, train, and inspire” cadets “for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.” Of course uniformed officers are going to have primacy in that setting.

It’s less the case in the staff and war colleges. At least in my own institution, civilian PhDs are given equal treatment with our military colleagues—and we’re widely understood to be the institutional glue because of our longevity. We have a civilian dean of academics. But, quite naturally, we all report to a Director who is an active duty colonel. And he reports to a President who is an active duty brigadier general. Because the mission of the school is to prepare mid-career officers for command and staff assignments, not to groom future college professors.

This experience on campus and in the field, watching the results of the “assembly line” system at work, led Bakken to his theory, a “formula” if you will, going “from the academy, to the military, to lost wars.”

There’s not enough in Vlahos’ summary to understand, let alone critique, that thesis. But I would say that I find it odd that, if you think West Point is contributing to lost wars, it’s odd, indeed, to file a lawsuit to stay there.

Some of his other critiques of the academy are, however, bizarre.

He contents that West Point’s high national rankings on annual college lists are due to its resources and reputation for the highest student academic standards. A closer look reveals, first, that the “resources” are courtesy of the American taxpayer—an over-inflated budget of $500 million a year, even though the school graduates only 950 cadets annually.

Second, Bakken says West Point consistently overstates its high standards and misrepresents admissions numbers in order to maintain the reputation of selectivity.

For example, West Point boasted that it received 15,171 applicants for the class of 2016, but only accepted a fraction, suggesting an acceptance rate in the low double-digits, if not single digits, like Yale and Harvard. The reality is, the school was counting student requests for information as “applications.” It turns out that the school only received 2,394 “fully qualified and nominated” applications that year. Of that number, 1,358 were accepted for the class of 2016, resulting in an acceptance rate of 56.7 percent. He said he and other professors raised concerns about this, but nothing changed.

That USMA’s “high national rankings on annual college lists are due to its resources and reputation for the highest student academic standards” is axiomatic. That’s what college rankings are!

That its “resources are courtesy of the American taxpayer” doesn’t require a closer look, it’s a given. The first two words in its name are “United States” and the cadets are members of the United States Army.

If West Point is inflating its numbers by “counting student requests for information” that’s scandalous—unless that’s how all institutions account for acceptance rates. But counting only “fully qualified and nominated” candidates as applicants would be absurd. Aside from the academies, no other school of which I’m aware requires a nomination from a Congressman, Senator, or the Vice President as a condition for consideration. And “fully qualified” is a much higher standard at West Point than it is at Yale. Not only must cadets meet minimum academic standards, as with the Ivies, but they must pass rigorous health and physical fitness tests, be unmarried, and qualify for a security clearance.

Most of the rest of Bakkens’ critique, at least as recounted by Vlahos, is selective criticism of officers ranging from MacArthur (.who graduated West Point in 1903) to Colin Powell (who was actually an ROTC graduate, not a West Pointer) to David Petraeus (USMA 1976). To the extent his thesis is based on a disconnect between the academies and the civilian world that began after Vietnam, these are strange cases.

I’m amenable to an argument that the academies are a poor investment. They’re extremely expensive compared to other commissioning sources and I’ve seen no evidence that they produce better officers—which is saying something considering how much more selective they are.

Similarly, it’s worth asking ourselves whether the curricular model introduced by Sylvanius Thayer two centuries ago are still the best way to educate future Army officers. Or, indeed, whether captains with master’s degrees rather than civilians (or more senior officers) with PhDs should comprise the bulk of the faculty.

But the notion that we’re losing wars because of a pattern that begins at West Point is a hard sell and the petty arguments advanced in Vlahos’ summary certainly don’t help the case.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Education, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies 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. Jay L Gischer says:

    Hmm. If you’re teaching calculus, a captain with a master’s degree is probably about the same as what you’d get at a large university, which would be a grad student, or an adjunct. They are perhaps more dedicated to the idea of military service, but I’m not sure that translates to better performance in the job.

    The other kind of lower-division class is the Psych 101 giant lecture. There, a tenured Ph.D. will probably be a lot more entertaining, and probably better at bringing in current/advanced topics for a peek. But that’s probably as much a function of “they’ve been doing it for 20 years”, which won’t happen at an academy, unless I misunderstand something.

    I think it’s the advanced, upper division courses that probably show a difference. Still, I’m not sure how big it is.

    The money argument, however, is knockdown. We pay for these academies because of history and tradition, not because they do a better job of educating people.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s not the job of the military to tell the American people we can’t win a given war, it’s their job to tell their civilian leadership that. At the same time, it’s also not their job to lie to the American people, as was done on a daily basis in Vietnam. Talking rot to the American people should be considered an illegal order and refused.

    When we use the US military as the tool it was designed to be – a big-ass hammer – we do OK. When we try to get cute and use that hammer as a scalpel, we fail. But that’s on the civilian leadership, that’s their choice. If they wanted a scalpel they should have bought a scalpel.

    Let’s stop pretending we know anything about nation-building in 3rd world countries. We don’t. We also clearly don’t know how to turn locals into a viable fighting force. Maybe we should stop trying to do those things with a military designed to slaughter large numbers of people with maximum efficiency.

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  3. Scott says:

    I read this article last week. One aspect that is never discussed is that national goals and objectives are set by the elected officials, not the military members. To say they never won a war is wrong because 1) traditional war is not the goal and 2) our national goals do not include occupancy of territory as in traditional wars. Our national goals since WWII have been containment (not defeat) of adversaries, nation building, democracy propagation, and protection of free trade. So to grade the military on”winning wars” is nonsensical.

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  4. Slugger says:

    I don’t know “how we lost Korea and Vietnam,” but I do know that we did not discuss these problems. We certainly never talked about the outcome in Korea, and Jane Fonda and Walter Cronkite are held up as problems in Vietnam far more often than Westmoreland.
    Military planners are optimists. German leaders thought that they’d be in Paris by Christmas 1914 and in Moscow by Christmas 1941; British leaders thought that the Battle of the Somme would be a walk-over.
    The world would be better off if military and civilian leaders looked at one another with healthy skepticism’

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  5. Kathy says:

    You don’t lose a war until you lose a war in your own territory.

    It would then follow America has never lost such a war(*). But ti would be more accurate to say the United States has never lost such a war. the South has a different view.

    Back on topic, I think “losses” in Korea, Vietnam, etc. have more to do with how the leadership allows wars to be fought, than with any military deficiencies. It’s not as though we hear of whole US regiments being wiped out, overrun, or pushed back 200 miles.

    (*) As far as I know, America has never lost any territory to war, either.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    But I would say that I find it odd that, if you think West Point is contributing to lost wars, it’s odd, indeed, to file a lawsuit to stay there.

    While I will agree with your point, I would add that it comes from a perspective of someone who has managed to be successful in teaching without the benefit that comes from being granted tenure. For many tenured faculty (I would guess most, but I’ve never gotten into the rarefied air of that level and can’t say for sure) the jobs they have now are probably the last jobs they will ever haves, so even if the post is unpalatable, the best choice is make do.

    It’s easy for someone like me to say “if you don’t like the job, then leave.” On the other hand, my business card reads like cards that I received from Korean professors that I met:

    Kim Seung Mo, Professor, Anyang University
    Formerly of Busan National University
    Formerly of Busan Polytechnic
    Formerly of Masan University
    Formerly of…

    Fortunately, they live in a system where tenure is mostly not granted. (Indeed, even elementary school teachers have to change schools–and sometimes cities–every 3 to 5 years.) Losing a post is not a big deal; it literally happens to everyone. Losing a post here is a big deal–even in K-12 sometimes. The system can shape attitudes and reactions more than we realize.

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  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Kathy:

    As far as I know, America has never lost any territory to war, either.

    Not permanently, no. We did lose territory in WWII to the Japanese, but eventually won it back. I think the closest we’ve come to permanently losing territory is with The Philippines. Japan kicked us out, we recaptured the islands in 1945, then recognized their independence just a few months later.

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  8. Chip Daniels says:

    I would say it is more that the American citizens who have failed to perform their duties as citizens of a republican democracy.

    We are too willing to venerate the troops and too willing to engage in cheap belligerent shows of force without demanding much of a explanation from our diplomats, politicians and generals.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence that our willingness to admire militarism has resulted in the creeping authoritarianism in our political system.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Neil Hudelson:
    Arguably Cuba when Castro came to power? Sure, we didn’t exactly own Cuba, but we had a major ownership position.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    Fair point.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Given that the “U.S. ownership” was the Mafia who were trying to create their own little playground of drugs, sex, and casinos for visiting Americans (yes I’m looking at you Frank Sinatra) in cahoots with upper-crust Cubans, somehow the “loss of territory” fails to move me. (One reason also why I’m not in that much sympathy with the Cubans who fled to Miami and have been moaning about the “confiscation” of their estates at the time–how many of them were benefiting from the whole sordid setup and battening on the local peasants? Castro was a bastard, but there were damn good reasons that the revolution was supported by the average Cuban.)

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  12. Mu Yixiao says:

    I’ve never been in the military, and don’t know much about it (except via stories from friends–mostly about getting drunk and doing stupid stuff–and from my father, who served in WWII (and mostly told stories about trying to get drunk and get in trouble).)

    But most of what Bakken is saying (if it’s being accurately relayed) doesn’t make sense to me. Is he expecting graduating cadets to be some form of Harvard MBAs–only with sharper suits and sharper shooting skills?

    Edit: Typo

  13. Ken_L says:

    I’m no fan of American militarism – the opposite, in fact – but I confess I don’t understand this meme about America never having won a war since 1945. In Korea, both sides looked into the nuclear abyss and agreed to call the whole thing off. The 1991 Gulf War was an unqualified victory. So was the invasion of Afghanistan. So was the invasion of Iraq. American armies met their opponents and crushed them on the battlefield.

    The failures in the Middle East have been political: failures to set clear war objectives, failures to plan for post-war occupations. These are not the responsibilities of military staff but of governments. The tendency of US administrations this century to task senior military officers with responsibilities that should be the State Dept’s is something that ought to be reversed, not reinforced by teaching junior officers how to be diplomats.

    Vietnam was the only unqualified defeat the US military has suffered since the Second World War. It lost for the simple reason the US government concluded (correctly) that the ostensible war objective wasn’t achievable by any means, military or otherwise, and no other potential benefits that could be won by war were worth the price that would have to be paid. Indeed if not for the sunk cost fallacy, it would have acted on that obvious truth years before it did.

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  14. Not the IT Dept. says:

    James Joyner: “I simply don’t have enough to go on here to evaluate the critique. ”

    Doesn’t seem to have stopped you, does it?

    We haven’t just lost “some wars”. We’ve lost all the major long-term military involvements like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Citing Desert Storm actually proves Bakken’s point more than you one you’re making. We can still pull off the quick in-and-outers; long-term, not so much. MacArthur and Eisenhower were pre-WWII WMers. How have the recent crop done lately?

    We need to get over WWII, really. All the “Greatest Generation” self-celebration has given us the idea that this is how all wars are supposed to end. That’s the real source of our hubris.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Ken_L:
    Korea was fought to a draw. Vietnam was a clear loss. Afghanistan is a loss. Iraq is a loss. Syria is a loss.

    Our successes, such as they are, have been Panama and Iraq 1. We also won the Cold War, but not militarily, we won by being more right on economic theory than the Soviets were.

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    We need to get over WWII, really. All the “Greatest Generation” self-celebration has given us the idea that this is how all wars are supposed to end. That’s the real source of our hubris.

    100%. We could start by getting it through our heads that while we won the war against Japan, we came into the fight against the Nazis late and didn’t really engage seriously with the Germans until the Brits had already fought off the possibility of invasion and the Soviets had already turned the tide. If you get down to cases, we survived North Africa because the Brits had already broken the Afrika Korps. We took Sicily but let the Germans escape. We did a miserable job in Italy. And we prevailed in Normandy thanks largely to the fortuitous stupidity of Adolf Hitler.

    All our genuine solo military victories have been against much weaker opponents: Mexico, the Confederacy, Native Americans, Spain and Japan. In the last 200 years we have never fought an equal. We managed a draw against North Korea and China, and we lost to the Vietnamese, Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians.

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  16. dazedandconfused says:

    We didn’t lose in Vietnam, we simply got tired if it and left. It had been in the hands of the ARVN for a couple years, with only token US forces in the area.

    James, great piece, I quite agree. Like he never bothered to crack a history book! All based in a foundation of sand, to assume all those conflicts are lost wars because the US military got beat?? I can only quibble if “idiotic” might be more fitting than “moronic”.