Man, just when I think I’m going to get caught up on all the stuff I’ve been meaning to write, I get an avalanche of garbage to respond to that takes up all my time.
I have only myself to blame for this. Bruce Fleming, USNA’s outspoken English professor and self-appointed military expert, trots out more or less the same op-ed every year or two questioning the nature, and occasionally the existence, of the Naval Academy. A refined opportunist, he tweaks it slightly each time to maximize its effect, relating to whatever recent events he can use to suit his purpose before shopping it around to various publications. This time he exploits the Marcus Curry situation in the New York Times, telling readers that the service academies have “lost their way” and should either be “fixed or abolished.” If I was a smarter and more productive person, I would have had a canned response ready for his canned commentary. Unfortunately, my lack of foresight means that I have to start from scratch. So be it. Fleming’s argument that the service academies are on a bullet train to mediocrity is specious, relying on extrapolations based on anecdotal evidence and unfairly blaming athletes. His conclusions illustrate a fundamental lack of appreciation for what service academies are supposed to be.
The op-ed really doesn’t contain anything new to those of us who are tuned into these matters. “Football versus faculty” is a debate as old as the college game itself, taking place almost every year from private academic hotbeds like the Ivy League, Vanderbilt, and Rice, to the larger public universities of the Cal State system. The ROTC vs. service academy cost-benefit analysis is almost as ancient, and it is here that Fleming begins stating his case. Other commissioning sources are cheaper, he says– and it’s true. It’s also true that the service academies are no longer the primary source of officer accessions, and haven’t been for decades. Furthermore, according to Fleming (or more accurately, according to random people in the military he says he knows), the product of a Naval Academy education isn’t worth the premium that taxpayers invest; junior officers from service academies are “no better” than those of, say, Vanderbilt ROTC. And you know what? They probably aren’t better. I’m sure that some USNA graduates like to think of themselves as “better,” but officers are supposed to be adequately trained to do their jobs regardless of their commissioning source. How well they do those jobs is a matter of personal pride and work ethic, not where one receives their degree. In this, Fleming is right… But he completely misses the point. The role of the service academies is to produce the bulk of the career officer corps of the nation’s military. Officers from the service academies aren’t supposed to be “better,” a nebulous term that Fleming fails to define. They’re supposed to serve longer.
Fleming mentions the rise of ROTC units during World War II, but there is more to the story than just the numbers. With the American public’s isolationist sentiment after World War I, and with the Great Depression putting a strain on government resources, military spending was kept to a minimum. The National Defense Act of 1920 authorized an Army of no more than 300,000, but that number was never approached. From 1922-1936, the active Army consisted of only 137,000 people, including 12,000 officers. The explosion of military growth caused by World War II was so great that by war’s end, 16 million Americans had served in the Armed Forces. The government needed to train officers in a hurry to lead its new military leviathan, and ROTC units were part of that solution. As the military wasn’t going to retain its wartime strength in perpetuity, ROTC graduates weren’t expected to be fully indoctrinated into military culture; they were expected to provide sound, competent leadership during a crisis, returning to their civilian lives once the crisis had passed. Since then, military service hasn’t only been the realm of the professional soldier or sailor; it has been used by millions of Americans as a means to jumpstart their civilian careers.
There is still the need for those who are dedicated to a lifetime of service, of course, and that is where the service academies fit in. Obviously there are ROTC graduates who decide to make a career out of the military, just as there are Naval Academy graduates who do not; but over time, it’s the academy graduates who are more likely to stick around. While Fleming points out that service academies are responsible for only 20% of new commissions, their graduates make up 50% of those who achieve flag rank. It takes more ROTC graduates to produce one career officer than it takes their academy counterparts. So yes, it’s cheaper to produce ensigns through ROTC, but it’s cheaper to produce admirals through the Naval Academy. It makes sense, if you think about it. The more one has invested into an enterprise– whether with time, money, or anything else– the less willing that person is to give up on it. Total immersion into the military lifestyle for 4 years is one hell of an investment. That is also why there is no art history major at the Naval Academy, despite Fleming’s lament. The school offers majors in disciplines that best serve the interests of career officers. Engineering, mathematics, and the sciences are the principles behind the systems these future officers will one day use to fight their ships. The humanities provide fundamentals that future officers will use in their roles as the nation’s front-line ambassadors, as well as in their future dealings with government. Yes, one can major in art history at other schools and probably do just fine as a junior officer. Those ascending the ladder into more complex roles, however, are better served by having something else to draw upon.
Replacing the Naval Academy with ROTC units would necessitate a substantial increase in the number of ensigns produced each year to make up for the higher attrition rate. This puts a greater strain on fleet units already hard-pressed to find meaningful billets for JOs to fill; the more new ensigns that are showing up to overmanned wardrooms, the more likely it becomes for them to have things like “Junior Vice Assistant for Coke Machine Public Affairs” etched onto their name tags. This deprives junior officers of the well-rounded leadership and technical experience they need for their department head tours, and ultimately, command. Far from the 19th-century anachronism that Fleming describes, the Naval Academy is very much a modern and vital component of the nation’s defense infrastructure.
Even if you accept the importance of the Naval Academy’s role in officer accessions, closing the school was only one option presented by Fleming. If we aren’t going to abolish it, then he believes it must be “fixed.” Again, though, Fleming’s USNA to-do list reflects a skewed vision of the institution. The midshipmen that talk to him are disillusioned, he says; Annapolis is not the “military Camelot” that they expected. Really? Who exactly does Fleming think is coming to the Naval Academy? What 18-year old coming straight out of high school has enough knowledge and experience with the military to even know what a “military Camelot” should look like? Hell, I’m not even sure that I do. The idea that the average plebe shows up on I-Day gung-ho about the Navy and ready to do his 20 years, only to have his dream crushed by his Annapolis experience, is beyond preposterous. The reasons people come to the Naval Academy are as varied and numerous as the midshipmen themselves. Some come because it’s free. Some come for the school’s prestigious reputation. Some come for academics, some for athletics, and some because their parents want them to. I’m sure there are some who do come in thinking they’re going to make a career out of it, but how can they truly know if they have no concept of what life as an officer in the Naval Service means? Of course there are those who are disappointed, but if they didn’t think that there would be seemingly arbitrary and petty rules at the Naval Academy, maybe the problem was with their expectations.
Plenty of things seem petty and arbitrary to mids, but that doesn’t mean that they are. Let’s use Fleming’s example:
The students quickly see through assurances that “people die if you do X” (like, “leave mold on your shower curtain,” a favorite claim of one recent administrator).
No, unless you’re dealing with some toxic mold you only hear about on episodes of House, nobody will die if they leave mold on their shower curtain. They do die, however, when those in charge of dozens of people and multi-million dollar equipment lack attention to detail. The Navy isn’t about to give midshipmen multi-million dollar machines to maintain, so the lesson is taught using the tools available to them; personal appearance and room inspections. Hell, of all the examples Fleming could have used, I’m not sure I can think of one that’s more applicable in the Fleet, between maintenance spot checks, safety inspections before dangerous evolutions, berthing inspections, FOD walkdowns… You name it. Of course prior enlisted midshipmen find these things tedious. Having come from the Fleet, they already understand these lessons. The fact that Fleming complains about the way these duties can potentially conflict with time that could be spent on academics shows that he does not.
The first lesson taught during plebe summer is that before you can lead, you have to learn how to follow. When these mids get out into the real world, they are going to find that there are lots of things that might seem pointless and arbitrary to them. They will be expected to give the same level of effort on these tasks even if they don’t understand why. It’s the commanding officer’s butt on the line if the mission is not accomplished, so if he or she feels something is necessary, it’s the junior officer’s job to do it. Would an explanation be nice? Sure, but they aren’t always going to get one. That’s what learning how to follow means. Fleming criticizes the Naval Academy for not grasping the “big picture” because he listens to those who see less of the big picture than anyone: midshipmen. The difference is that they’re not supposed to know the big picture yet. Fleming is. Furthermore, his current attempt to sympathize with prior enlisted midshipmen rings incredibly hollow considering how, in the past, he was their most outspoken (maybe only) critic. In 2005, Fleming published a commentary in the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine entitled “The Academy Can Do Better” in which he labeled mids with Fleet experience as one of the academy’s “set-asides”– groups who receive special consideration during the admissions process. Back then he thought they were part of the problem, but now that he wants to use them to make a point, he’s the sympathetic ear they tell their troubles to? I doubt it.
Not all of Fleming’s “set-asides” have received the benefit of his apparent change of heart. Athletes remain his favorite target. Two paragraphs after dismissing the school’s Rhodes, Marshall, and Truman scholars as mere outliers in his supposed norm of academic mediocrity, Fleming contradicts himself by using two football players’ scandals to cast all Academy athletes as pampered rebels who “know they’re not going to be thrown out” (apparently missing the incongruity of using two players who were thrown out to make his point). One could just as easily point out recruited athletes that have risen to leadership positions in the Brigade, like Zerb Singleton and Rashawn King. If Fleming needs two football players to use to paint them all with his broad brush, wouldn’t these guys do? How about Ross Pospisil, Craig Schaefer, and Greg Zingler, who were inducted into the 2010 Hampshire Honor Society earlier this month? Can we use them? What about graduates like Terrence Anderson– I’m sorry, Doctor Terrence Anderson– or Brian Stann, who received the Silver Star in 2006? And these are just football players. With a little effort, one can find example after example of Navy athletics success stories. But that’s the problem– it actually takes a little effort, because these aren’t the kind of people the Navy Times likes to write about. They also don’t like to report on the shortcomings of random mids in the Brigade; they don’t have that celebrity element that sells newspapers. To the casual observer, it can seem as if football players are the only mids getting into trouble, making it easy for someone like Fleming to paint the picture he wants.
Scratch the anecdotal surface, though, and a different picture emerges. Fleming speaks of midshipmen who say that athletes “often have little commitment to the military itself,” yet the school’s Office of Institutional Research found that letter-winning athletes, on average, actually serve longer than those who aren’t varsity athletes. Athletes are like everyone else; they all have their individual motivations coming to Annapolis, and maybe some don’t think they’ll make a career out of military service. Along the way, feelings change. Maybe it’s because athletes have even more invested into their USNA experience. Fleming tries to give the impression that varsity athletes have it easy at USNA, avoiding some of the “onerus duties” that others are required to fulfill. Yet how many midshipmen would be willing to skip these tasks in exchange for giving up their weekends? How many of them want to give up Christmas, spring break, or summer vacation? That’s what varsity athletes do, especially when in-season. Do a couple of parades per week compare to the rigor of a Division I practice? Hardly. Varsity athletics provide midshipmen with a chance to learn leadership skills they won’t get in their company areas. Earning the respect of your peers is far different than receiving respect by virtue of rank. Varsity athletics, especially at the Division I level, also teach midshipmen how to deal with high-pressure situations, how to handle media scrutiny… Things you don’t get from intramural softball.
Couldn’t these things be learned through competition at a level lower than Division I? Perhaps. But a move to Division III, as Fleming suggests, would make it impossible to fund these opportunities in the first place. Division I-A football is the revenue engine that makes 30 varsity sports possible. There are I-AA schools that sponsor as many sports programs, but most of them draw money from the school’s general fund–an option not palatable to a taxpayer-funded institution. Football does more than just pay the bills; it gives the school the ability to cast the widest possible net in reaching potential applicants. The “Flutie effect” is very real; while Fleming mocks the football team’s wins over Notre Dame, those two singular events probably single-handedly increased the number of applications the Academy received. Then again, they might not be from the kind of applicants that Fleming wants.
And that is the real issue here. Fleming speaks of creating a “military Camelot,” but that isn’t really what he wants. His bemoaning of admissions stantards and study time being consumed by other duties demonstrate his true goal– an academic Camelot. Not that there is anything wrong with academic pursuits; they just aren’t the primary purpose of the school. The school is tasked with producing well-rounded graduates to lead the men and women of the Naval Service. Academics are certainly a large part of that. They are not, however, the only consideration. The most important role that football serves at the Naval Academy is keeping it in the mainstream alongside household names like Notre Dame, Maryland, Missouri, and Stanford. The Navy and Marine Corps draw people from every corner of the country and from all walks of life. They protect people in every corner of the country and from all walks of life. The officers leading them need to be from every corner of the country and from all walks of life. That includes athletes, minorities, and prior enlisted– Fleming’s “set-asides.” To do otherwise– to take the Naval Academy out of the mainstream and turn it into some reclusive, elitist, academic monastery– would create the very military/civilian divide that Fleming writes books about closing.
Fleming talks of excellence “abandoned,” but doesn’t say what was so much better about past generations of midshipmen. I suspect that if he compared the past to the present using more than just the sea stories of a few select individuals, he would find that academy graduates are serving the nation just as honorably and effectively as they always have. Not that service academies are perfect; no institution can make that claim, let alone one run by the government. They are not sacred cows that should be immune to criticism; the “Alternative Service Option” debate of the last two years is evidence enough of that. It is important, however, to distinguish between good-faith suggestions for improvement and misguided sensationalism meant to sell books.