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Op-Ed: Maybe We Don't Need Military Academies


U.S. military academy like West Point are 19th century relics that infantilize their students, produce officers no better than those that emerge from ROTC and look increasingly outdated in comparison to their counterparts in other western democracies. That's all according to Bruce Fleming who's taught at the U.S. Naval Academy for the past 25 years. In a recent op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fleming argues that these academies have lost sight of their goals, and he questions whether they should even exist anymore.

If you attended a military academy, what needs to change? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

BRUCE FLEMING: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And you write one culprit for disappointing state of affairs in military academies isn't any one person but rather the history that these institutions so revere.

FLEMING: That's right. They made sense in the 19th century, I maintain. Back - Annapolis was founded in 1845, West Point in 1802. And, of course, Air Force split off in the 20th century, but it was part of Army before. So in the 19th century, it was realized that you couldn't become an officer in the Navy anymore but just shimmying up the riggings in the ships. That's where our - the title for our students comes from, midshipmen, guys who went up the middle of the ships and so on. So there had to be a classroom component. And that classroom component was engineering based. It was a lockstep curriculum. All that changed bit by bit, of course.

We got academic majors. We admitted women in 1976. Now of course, with "don't ask, don't tell" gone, we have openly gay students. We're a college. So the question is why should the military be running colleges in this day and age? In the 19th century, if you went to Harvard or Yale, you studied classics and you studied religion, things that were considered suitable for gentlemen until - when MIT was founded, it was looked down upon because it was purely practical. We were a practical institution.

So all story well and good, but fast forward to the 20th century, all of a sudden, ROTC, which had been vestigial before, is huge. And for the second half of the 20th century, ROTC, which is Reserved Officer Training Corps, embedded in civilian colleges, has produced more than twice as many officers as the Service Academy. So what the taxpayers, who completely own - they're 100 percent owners of the service academies, don't understand - a lot of them - is that the academies produce only one officer in five, less than 20 percent. So, very, very small group of officers.

We're also ferociously expensive compared to other officer production pipeline such as ROTC. One officer in the Service Academy costs between $400,000 and about - I think close to $450,000 for West Point. That's four times what the average ROTC officer costs and eight times what the average officer from Officer Candidate School, OCS, costs.

So we're a minority commissioning source. We're ferociously expensive. We offer things that are essentially identical to what's now offered in every college in the country. You can take engineering anywhere. So the question then becomes why should they exist at all, especially given the fact that they're so incredibly disappointing for their students? And here I'm summarizing 25-point-something years of experience.

CONAN: How disappointing, how frustrating for their students? In what ways?

FLEMING: We attract hard-charging students. I'm very fond of the students at Annapolis. That's one of the reasons why I've been so happy there for so long. And they come in - they believe the hype that we emit. The hype is emitted by the administration, which wants to make the world believe that we're kind of a combination between Parris Island, where the Marines trained, and Camelot.

And they come from far and wide. We're a geographically diverse school, so you have a better chance of getting in from North Dakota than from Annapolis. So they come from far and wide. They've seen all the military movies. They've seen "Top Gun." They've seen - you name it. They've seen the muscle movies, and they think they're going to find that in Annapolis. There's even a movie called "Annapolis," but it wasn't even shot there.

CONAN: It wasn't very good either.

FLEMING: It wasn't very good. It was a boxing movie. That's right. It was shot in Philadelphia. So they're arrive, and they discovered that we're a sausage factory. That's my terminology, not theirs. They discover that the military side of things is largely a joke. We announce high level inspections, and then call them off at the last minute or do them halfway. The academics suffer because they have to do all sorts of Mickey Mouse things on the side. The (unintelligible) for example, my favorite example is that they make bulletin boards. They make bulletin boards.

CONAN: They what?

FLEMING: They make bulletin boards - on your dime, at the taxpayer - these are people, are all - they're in the military. They get full military benefits. If they get sick, they go to Bethesda. And the first-year students make bulletin boards like in elementary school. They're sort of 18-year-old fantasies of bulletin boards. They're full of muscle guys and guns going ack, ack, and airplanes raining death and so on. But it's a mandatory thing. They have to go to the football team - to the football games and cheer. Needless to say, the tourists love it. The people who love us most are the tourists.

CONAN: A phrase that will rankle some - military Disneyland.

FLEMING: Yeah. It's - by which I mean, it's a what the Texans call all hat and no cattle. We're a great façade, but you - it's another phrase for the same thing, is we're a Potemkin village. The façade is beautiful. Our - all the service academies are beautiful, but Annapolis is the one that's most accessible and maybe, I would think, most - I would say most beautiful.

But the students aren't allowed to talk. I mean it's like East Berlin. I say that one might also rankle people. I was a Fulbright Scholar in West Berlin, and East Berlin could say whatever it darn well pleased about how great the industrial capacity was and how happy its citizens were. And the citizens had no access to the media, so they couldn't talk back. The same is true of our students. You can't wander around our campus with a microphone, getting them to say what they think about it. They're in the military. They have to refer you to the public affairs officer.

So there's no true information coming out of the service academies. And once they're uniform, of course, they're not allowed to contradict what the brass had said. So all the information the taxpayers have ever heard about the service academies comes from - this is going to be a kind of a reach - but the fox is guarding the henhouse.

CONAN: You also say the very structure of the institution takes these hard-charging alphas and infantilizes them.

FLEMING: It tells them what to do 24/7. We have so many regulations. It's just staggering. And the really infuriating thing is that the regulations change. Every time we got a new administration, which is every three to four years, the pet hobby horse of the previous administration is thrown out. Several superintendents will go. The superintendent is our equivalent of a president.

We had a guy who loved sailing, so everything was sailing. And he also loved to hear the midshipmen sing. So they would put on these parades on Wednesdays afternoons in the nice weather, and they would stop dead in their tracks, and they'd sing a song. It was ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But all that was considered that it was - they heard that that was part of becoming a good leader. They're told - there are things that become almost ugly punch lines because in reality they're so meaningful but repeated ad nauseam they're almost sickening. They're told you've just killed a platoon of Marines by doing something incredibly trivial.

And ostensibly, the reason that they do this is to make it clear to them that if you forget a bolt in the airplane, the airplane can go down and so on. But they hear it so often that it just strips their gears. They just - they think it's a punch line so...

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation.

I expect you may find some people who may not always agree with you. Dave is on the line, calling us from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

DAVE: Yes, hi. Hey, I'm one of those people who graduated from a service academy. And I'm retired, so I'm no longer a puppet of the military administration. And I can say unequivocally that everything that's come out of that gentleman's mouth was hogwash. And I'll tell you why.


DAVE: Because after a career in the Air Force, in peace and in war, the lessons I learned at the academy, and my brothers and sisters who went to the other service academies, were not merely for the benefit of new superintendents' affection for sailing or singing but to produce officers that have the integrity, the honor and the intelligence to carry out a very grave and serious mission of serving this country. This man has been on this chair for a long time. I don't know why he's attacking the naval academy that served him for a quarter of a century, but it is hogwash.

CONAN: Well...

FLEMING: I have a response. Am I allowed to talk?

CONAN: Of course.

FLEMING: I think it's great that Mr. Dave here found his sense of duty and honor and integrity through a service academy. But the question is, how do all those other ROTC officers and officers who come through OCS, how do they find their sense of duty and honor? Apparently, they found...

DAVE: (Unintelligible)

FLEMING: Excuse me, Dave. I don't think this is an argument. You've said your piece, and I'll say mine till the end of the sentence with your kind permission. Somehow the other officers seem to do just as well. So the question is not whether the service academies can produce valuable officers. It's whether they're worth the cost and whether they have any point anymore or whether we should just send everybody to ROTC and OCS.

DAVE: Well, let me say this. As the son of an OCS grad and the spouse of an ROTC grad, I appreciate those other forms of commissioning(ph). In fact, it is the diversity of producing officers that adds the credibility and uniqueness to the American officer corps.

FLEMING: Mm-hmm.

DAVE: While (unintelligible) officers from a civilianized environment, you get people closer to the ground. But by getting people where you have the opportunity to create a crucible, to mold men and women in this particular manner, that's a unique opportunity. Now, if the leadership squanders it, (unintelligible) blame the instructor.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call. We'll give some other people a chance. Appreciate it.

DAVE: Sure.

CONAN: He talked about the unique qualities. One of the things you examined in your article was comparisons. Sandhurst, for example, the famous equivalent to West Point in Britain.

FLEMING: That's right. The British have gone out of the business of having the military run undergraduate institutions, and that's certainly an option for us as well. They send their people to - or the people go to whatever university they go to. And then they go to kind of a buff-up course that's less than a year at Sandhurst. So it's not a perfect fit for us because we do already have ROTC. But as a kind of a beefed up officer candidate school, OCS, I don't see why not. The buildings are beautiful. We could certainly use them for that.

CONAN: Patrick in Boise, Idaho writes an email: I've read Dr. Fleming's article on service academies. Having a son at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, I'm profoundly impressed with the institution and most of the students, faculty and leadership I've met. Dr. Fleming made many assertions in his article about the effectiveness of the academies that does not - he does not support. As an English teacher at a science and technology oriented institution, perhaps he's not best qualified to decide whether the program is rigorous enough. And why compare our academies to the Europeans? Excepting the British, most Americans would not want to adopt their military programs.

FLEMING: I'll be happy to let the word - the last word be given to the fleet, to the officers in rank, looking aside from the snideness of some of that observation there. Fine, show me the data where anybody in the fleet or the army or the Coast Guard says that academy graduates are better. There are no doubt whatsoever that substantiate the assertion that the people who go to these minority, ferociously expensive institutions are in fact any better. And you would expect from an economic standpoint alone that people - that officers that cost four to eight times the amount of other officers would be better.

There are - I've anecdotally asked, and of course gone on every website I know, dredged through the Internet for any sort of substantiation for the possibility that in fact the service academy graduates are better off. There is none. There is absolutely none.

CONAN: We're talking with Bruce Fleming, a professor at the - of English at the U.S. Naval Academy about his piece "The Few, The Proud, The Infantilized," which ran last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can find a link to that at our website. That's at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go to Mike, and Mike's with us from Salt Lake City.

MIKE: Yes. I was commissioned through ROTC in the army, still serving. One of the things that I've noticed through the service officers that come through, they seem like they were like, I guess sort of - they were told what to do for four years. And once they get into the service, they seemed a little lost. And I'll tell you why I kind of lean a little more towards the ROTC officers. Myself, I had to, through four years of college, I had to balance schoolwork, ROTC, a job, I was in a fraternity, and my own personal life. So I had to balance all of that by myself. And I think that gave me a lot of real-world experience that is lacking in the service academies.

FLEMING: Well, that certainly in consonance with my point. I think it's funny or maybe only to be predicted that the people who are most outraged at my suggestions are either the people - some of the people who went to the service academies and who turned out fine and think that that's the reason that they turned out fine or the parents. So it's people like you who didn't do any of that that see it a little differently maybe. But there are more of you than there are of the service academy graduates.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go next to Reuben(ph), and Reuben is with us from Savannah.

REUBEN: Hey, thanks, gentlemen. Hey, I'm a product of the officer accession(ph) program, Aviation Officer Candidate School. And (unintelligible) we interact a lot with a lot of academy graduates. And now it's intermixed with Air Force and Coast Guard and Marines and Navy, all go through different and each other's different flight schools. But my observation is more practical. The entire military structure has changed. For example, in the years that I was in, I never saw a PowerPoint presentation. And now, it's all about PowerPoint presentations when you're in front of a, you know, making a presentation to an admiral staff or digesting data, you know, combat information.

They have - an admiral or a flag officer is like a rock star, and we saw what happens when they lose their, you know, lose their perspective on chain of command. Even a general can be dismissed from his position...

CONAN: But certainly an ROTC graduate can master a PowerPoint.

REUBEN: Yes. But the point is, I'm making is, they are an elite group whether they're better than any other officer; they are selected principally for future senior military positions because, as I started off the statement, is the entire military force structure has changed.

CONAN: Reuben...

REUBEN: In the old...

CONAN: ...I don't mean to - Reuben, I don't mean to cut you off. We just have a few seconds left and I want to give Bruce Fleming a chance to respond.

REUBEN: Sure. You have a good day.

CONAN: Thank you very much.

FLEMING: As I've pointed out, the people that we - it is true that we hire all of our graduates. But we claim that we produce a thousand leaders a year. We don't produce a thousand leaders a year. We produce a thousand officers. I mean whatever we take in, if we are committed to graduating them, they're going to, of course, be the officers. I'm not sure that I see the logical force...

CONAN: Well, are they necessarily the high-ranking officers?

FLEMING: They're not. They're not. And there's no indication of that, incidentally. In the old years, it is true that naval academy graduates had a disproportionate percentage of the flag officers, so-called, the admirals basically. That's no longer true, and it's been descending for years. So there's no proof whatsoever that what we're doing, just because we do it the way we do it, is any better.

CONAN: Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, author of the book, "Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide." Nice to have you back on the program.

FLEMING: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tomorrow, after the second presidential debate, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.