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.