By Grady Hawkins
It’s called a controversial topic, but it shouldn’t be. The fact is that the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, The Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis are luxuries our economy can no longer afford. The officer corps can easily be staffed without these ridiculously expensive private schools.
Of course, anyone who even suggests such an idea generates hostility on all fronts. And of course those people who object are primarily those who should be calling for their closure: the conservative right. After all, they are demanding an end to run away spending, ear marks, entitlements, and expanded government. All this sounds like an academy.
These academies do deliver a first class education to those who attend, and the cadets and midshipmen are first class students. It seems rather counter productive to expend all that time and trouble to get them commissioned, and then send them off to be killed. This is harsh but true. You can be a West Point, tops in your class, well trained and motivated second lieutenant when you rise up and yell “follow me!!” Then some 16 year old illiterate peasant drills you right between the eyes at 200 yards with his M-1 garand rifle left over from WWII.
Taxpayers are spending a lot of money on this front line cannon fodder.
One of the first excuses for maintaining these institutions is “tradition”. The first that comes to mind would be the treason of Benedict Arnold in the revolutionary War. This could be justified because the list of west Point graduates who resigned their commissions and joined the confederacy right before the civil war is impressive indeed: Lee, Longstreet, Stuart, Pickett and Jefferson Davis just to name a few. Whether or not they were traitors is a matter of opinion. (Being the great-great grandson of North Carolina confederates, I take an opposite view). Hazing plebes and the class ring are also two other traditions that come to mind; and walking punishment tours. And wearing uniforms left over from the Mexican War.
Evangelizing seems to be an entrenched tradition at the Air Force Academy. If you’re a Jewish, Moslem or less than enthusiastic chapel attendee you can count on bracing against the nearest wall while an upperclassmen provides you with some Christian attitude counseling. God will be your co-pilot; get used to it.
Nothing at the Naval Academy comes to mind, unless collecting the bones of dead admiral’s count. One of the most famous fighting admirals was John Paul Jones who rests there. He never attended the academy.
Leadership, tactical skill and ethics are sighted as the primary focus of the academy experience. Ethics should indeed be stressed because the service academies seemed to have invented the cheating scandal. So much for the Honor Code.
Perhaps the most famous and beloved general officer ever produced by West Point was Robert E. Lee. He was first in his class and had no demerits. Lee was famous for leading unfed, ragged, and barefoot confederate soldiers. That’s because he either didn’t know or didn’t care about logistics. He is most famous for butchering the cream of the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. Leadership and tactics not so much, but his ethics were outstanding. The headstrong, flamboyant General George Custer showed none of these attributes at the battle of Little Big Horn. Custer’s opposite numbers at this famous skirmish, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull did not attend West Point. They couldn’t even speak English. Neither of these stopped them from wiping out five troops of the seventh cavalry.
George Patton was of course famous for his leadership in the western front in World War II. His nickname was Old “blood and guts” as he told the press to call him. His men agreed, but they saw it as “our blood, his guts”, but the press didn’t report that. Before slapping enlisted men in Europe he crushed bonus marchers in Washington City, along with fellow graduates Douglas Macarthur and Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower.
Douglas Macarthur deserves some scrutiny. He commanded all United Nations troops from Japan during the Korean War. Prior to the Chinese sending 300,000 troops across from Manchuria to rout his armies, he told Truman it wouldn’t happen. When it did he wanted wipe them out with 24 tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, he wanted to create an impregnable atomic wasteland between Korea and China to keep those commies in their place. When President Truman finally fired him the entire planet breathed a sigh of relief.
There have been successful if not brilliant military leaders who did not attend a service academy. Many of whom are not American. Perhaps the most famous is Vo Nguyen Giap. Born in Hanoi in 1912, Giap taught high school and attended law school until he turned soldier. He created the Vietminh. He became its chief strategist and tactician, and defeated the French by 1954. In the second Indo China war he defeated the United States. He retired in 1975.
There are notable Americans. My favorite would be the former Marine Commandant David Shoup. Shoup won the congressional medal of honor during the savage fighting on the pacific island of Tarawa. He commanded from a makeshift headquarters at the waters edge, bleeding from multiple wounds and without sleep for 48 hours. He had attended DePauw University. After becoming Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1963 he performed another heroic task by condemning the war in Vietnam.
Curtis LeMay obtained his commission through R.O.T.C. after failing to get into West Point. Undaunted LeMay rose to become the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, a four star general who invented the entire Strategic Air Command.
But the fundamental question is that of expense to the American taxpayer. It cost about $300,000 dollars for a West Point education. It’s a free Ivy League education for the cadet, who owes just a five years military commitment after graduation. The class of 2,000 graduated 1,000 soldiers. Over 30% of them choose to resign after their initial five years. That’s about $90,000,000 dollar investment lost. Mind you, when quitting after five years, these are company grade officers for the most part, platoon or company commanders, battery commanders and the like. They are the closest to the front line, the closest to the fighting. Those cadets who are killed are of course lost as well, but not counted here. It makes no financial sense to spend millions on an education that can become killed in action.
Remember, theses platoon and company officers are fighting the war at the simplest level. The tactics are basic here, there is nothing Napoleonic about killing the enemy. You can learn it in 90 days at the infantry school at Fort Benning, for considerably less than $300,000 dollars. Pin down the front and roll up the flanks. Also known as “hey diddle-diddle right up the middle.” Advance strategy and tactics and be easily taught during University classes or at the Staff Colleges.
This applies to the Air Force and Navy as well. Most pilots and officer-sailors are trained at sea or at an Air Force base, not anywhere else.
The military cannot afford these free educations any longer. I suppose they have had their place, but that place is long gone. Close these billion dollar anachronisms and give the troops a raise.