By Tom Mahnken
As someone who has spent the better part (in both senses) of my career educating U.S. military officers, I read with great interest Tom Ricks's opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post. In it, Ricks makes a bold proposal:
Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships.
He argues that officers who graduate from the academies are no better, though more expensive to educate than those who come from ROTC programs. To save money, the United States should shutter its military academies and commission its officer corps entirely through civilian colleges and universities.
Ricks's proposal highlights the sad fact that too many of the nation's best universities refuse to host ROTC programs due to their faculties' disagreements with U.S. government policy -- first opposition to the Vietnam War, and more recently over the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals in the military. (It is equally true that many of the nation's finest universities did not bow to such pressure and retain vigorous ROTC programs). Getting ROTC programs back on campus is highly desirable, and has indeed been pushed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, himself a former university president. But don't hold your breath.
The fundamental question, however, is whether it would be desirable to close our military academies. It is not. The mission of the academies differs from that of civilian colleges and universities. The latter seek to educate the nation's sons and daughters, to turn them into well-rounded individuals. The service academies seek to educate as well, but in the service of the military profession. This results in curricula and faculties that differ from those of civilian schools.
Ricks criticizes the military academies, and West Point in particular, for its lack of instructors with Ph.Ds: "Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates."
Ricks is correct in noting that West Point's history and social science departments have a tradition of excellence, both in educating students and in producing soldiers/scholars who apply their insights not only during their tours as professors, but also throughout their careers. But service academies also mandate participation in organized sports and teach subjects not commonly found in civilian universities, such as leadership and military doctrine. To teach leadership you need instructors who know how to, well, lead. Doctoral research is by definition a solitary endeavor. There are clearly those who possess Ph.D.s who know how to lead, but getting a Ph.D. doesn't make one a leader. Similarly, to teach doctrine you need instructors with operational, preferably combat, experience -- but not necessarily academic credentials.
It is not that the service academies are without flaws. Given the wars we are fighting now and those we may face in the future, it makes sense for cadets and midshipmen to devote more of their studies to the humanities and social sciences and less to the hard and applied sciences. To equip future officers better to interact with other cultures, cadets and recipients of ROTC scholarships should be required to take four years of a foreign language. And it would be worthwhile to expand opportunities for cadets and recipients of ROTC scholarships to spend semesters abroad, immersed in a foreign culture.
But Ricks does not stop at undergraduate military education. Instead, he argues that we should consider shuttering the services' war colleges (he is silent on the National War College), where, in his view:
colonels supposedly learn strategic thinking. 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.
I don't know how much time Ricks has spent at any of our war colleges, but questioning assumptions and interacting with those with different views and experiences is precisely what the war college experience is all about. I've taught at civilian and military education institutions and served in government, and my time teaching strategy at the Naval War College was among the most challenging and intellectually rigorous experiences of my career. Students going through the Naval War College's strategy curriculum average 500-600 pages of reading a week and must examine questions such as whether civil-military relations impeded the conduct of the Vietnam War and whether economic sanctions were a viable alternative to the use of force against Iraq in 1991. Being a war college student is a full-time job, one that doesn't permit afternoons on the links, I'm afraid.
In fact, the study of strategy in the United States owes a lot to the service war colleges, and to the Naval War College in particular. Many of the nation's top civilian graduate programs -- those at SAIS, Harvard and Yale are but three examples -- owe a deep intellectual debt (one their faculty members would readily acknowledge) to the Naval War College. The Strategy and Policy courses that are taught at those institutions bear the strong imprint of the course of the very same name that is taught at Newport.
Of course there is room for improvement. Particularly in time of war, the services need to ensure that they are sending the best and brightest to the war colleges. Too often it seems as though the leadership of the services do not fully appreciate the treasures they possess. And it would be good to provide opportunities for more scholars from civilian universities to join the war college faculties, even temporarily, to increase interaction between military and civilian educational institutions.
Ricks is right that we need to be sending more officers to study at civilian graduate schools for both master's degrees and Ph.D.s. But such programs do not, and cannot, substitute for a strong and vigorous war college system.