The Few, the Proud, the Infantilized
he U.S. military-service academies—at West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), Colorado Springs (Air Force), and New London (Coast Guard)—are at the center of several debates, both military and civilian. The military is downsizing, and the federal budget is under scrutiny: Do the academies deserve to continue?
They’re educational institutions, but do they actually educate, and furthermore, do they produce “leaders” as they claim to? And are they worth the $400,000 or so per graduate (depending on the academy) they cost taxpayers?
After all, we already have a federal program that produces officers—an average of twice as many as those who go to the academies (three times for the Army)—at a quarter of the cost. That program is ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which has expanded considerably since World War II, when the academies produced the lion’s share of officers.
No data suggest that ROTC officers are of worse quality than those graduating from the academies, who are frequently perceived by enlisted military as arrogant “ring-knockers” (after their massive old-style class rings). The academies evoke their glory days by insisting that many more admirals, say, come from Annapolis than from ROTC. But that is no longer true. Between 1972 and 1990 (these are the latest figures available), the percentage of admirals from ROTC climbed from 5 percent to 41 percent, and a 2006 study indicated that commissioning sources were not heavily weighted in deciding who makes admiral.
Another officer-production pipeline is Officer Candidate School, which is about as large a source of officers as the academies. It gives a six- to 12-week training course for mature enlistees and college graduates who paid for their educations on their own (that is, did not participate in ROTC), and it costs taxpayers almost nothing. It could be expanded by pitching it to college students who might want to become officers when they graduate.
So the service academies are no longer indispensable for producing officers. Their graduates now make up only about 20 percent of the officer corps in any given year. It’s clear that we don’t need the academies in their current form—versions of a kind of military Disneyland. These institutions do produce some fine officers, even some leaders. But the students I respect the most tell me that those who succeed do so despite the institutions, not because of them.