Thursday, October 11, 2012

Response: The Few, the Proud, the Infantilized

This post is a response to Professor Fleming's article, The Few, the Proud, the Infantilized, published earlier this week.

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.
--- John Paul Jones

I read Bruce Fleming piece entitled The Few, The Proud, the Infantilized. The knee jerk reaction of many of my fellow service academy graduates might be, as was said in A Few Good Men, "I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post." However, I want to add some deeper insight. Some of Fleming's premises are right, but many of his conclusions are wrong, or, at least, incomplete.

As a Naval Academy graduate, I can tell you that Fleming is spot-on with his facts regarding the perception of midshipmen. From his articles and his book, Annapolis Autumn, I'm amazed at how much he gets right. He has the pulse of the Brigade of Midshipmen but without adequate context. Annapolis needs smart people who think differently, and, as painful as a pill it is to swallow, Professor Fleming's presence at the Naval Academy helps to keep us thinking critically about that institution.

Costs and Insights
Mr. Fleming has extraordinary insight into the inner workings of the U.S. Naval Academy's academic machine. He has been a professor at Annapolis far longer than any superintendent, commandant, or academic dean has been in charge. He has probably seen a few mistakes made at my beloved alma mater; no system is perfect. However, the downside of his overexposure to the Brigade is that Fleming has become a perpetual midshipman.

Without a doubt, a four year education at a service academy costs more than NROTC or OCS. However, his conclusion to eliminate or "repair" the academies, is shortsighted. I see Professor Fleming as a liberal thinker at a conservative institution; yet his propositions are too conservative in nature, while other comments, such as "Most of what the Naval Academy's PR machine disseminates is nonsense," are exaggerated.

Fleming needs to take a holistic view of the service academies and their function within the military. I greatly disliked the Naval Academy when I attended it; but, you would be hard pressed to find a graduate who, after completing their military obligation, still maintained the same view of their respective service academy that they held when the attended it.

The U.S. military has many pipelines to become a combat officer. As Lieutenant General Victor H. “Brute” Krulak wrote, in 1957, to the Commandant of the Marine Corps: terms of cold mechanical logic, the United States does not need a Marine Corps. However, for good reasons which completely transcend cold logic, the United States wants a Marine Corps. Those reasons are strong; they are honest, they are deep rooted and they are above question or criticism.

Replace the words Marine Corps with service academy in the above quote and it is equally valid.

Things are not always what they appear. From the hottest fire comes the strongest steel is an old cliche with a deep truth. As a midshipman, we are put through trials and tribulations. Military indoctrination is the most extreme physical, academic, and emotional roller coster ride that one can experience at such a young age this side of combat or being a POW. On the surface, Plebe Summer may look like sadistic hazing. Every plebe is systematically set up for failure. They are scorned, yelled at, and punished. More stress and negativity is compressed into several weeks than is imaginable. Can this humiliation be productive? Just ask a graduate. Analyzing this and drawing negative conclusions, without experiencing it, is incomplete.

What other academic institution of comparable size has such laser focus on the product it produces? None come to mind other than private military schools. More generals and admirals now ascend to flag officer rank not because the service academies are worse at what they do, but, rather, it is, I believe, because the other commissioning pipelines have vastly improved over the decades.

Learning the Untaught
At first, I took exception to Fleming characterization of service academies as a military Disneyland. But, then I reflected on my time as a plebe when I, too, thought the same thing and nearly quit so I could return to being a corporal in the Marines. That would have been shortsighted. I am much better off for sticking it out.

The problem is that Fleming is standing too close to only one side of the equation without being able to visualize the bigger picture. He only sees the academic portion of the pipeline without participating in the full experience that extends past graduation. I cannot convey strongly enough the importance of what I learned at Annapolis that was never explicitly taught. Rather, it has to be experienced; and not in a classroom or on campus.

For example, Fleming comments on sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation taught me my capabilities and limitations of what I can and cannot accomplish when physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. In a civilian school, I would have simply slept in and skipped class. Midshipmen who skip class are punished for being AWOL. Most civilian school graduates who did not experience what I did in this area had to learn their reactions later in their careers; perhaps at follow on training after they were commissioned or when they were in an operational environment. It is much better to learn it in a safe academic setting where the repercussion of failure is minimal. Learning from failure is a huge part of success.

My entire view on ethics was shaped as a result of what I learned in leadership classes at the Naval Academy. Mandatory leadership and ethics classes of this caliber are few and far in between at civilian schools. For example, I was explicitly taught when it is, in fact, okay to lie and be deceptive; and I try to remind others of the same:

"But the students I respect the most tell me that those who succeed do so despite the institutions, not because of them." Ahh, no truer words were spoken by a midshipman. I know the sentiment. Even as a "firstie" (senior) preparing for graduation, I too resented the Academy. I didn't just mark the days until graduation, I memorized them. But, alas, midshipmen are held to a higher standard than their peer college students while giving up more liberties than could be imagined. We don't do it because it is easy; we do it because it is hard and, ironically, we end up taking pride in what we hate. It's a great honor for an active duty academy graduate to return to their alma mater to serve in uniform five, ten, or twenty years after graduation. I would be eager to see professor Fleming anonymously interview these returning active duty alumni a decade after graduation.

Mark Twain's sentiment about his father can be similarly applied to a midshipman:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Better or Worse?
Is a service academy graduate better than an OCS or NRTOC graduate? No, but, the individual service academy graduate is, without a doubt, a better officer for having attended a service academy.

Many standards at the service academies are higher than both civilian schools and the military, in general. I've seen midshipmen expelled from Annapolis for academic or conduct issues only to embark on a long, honorable career in the Navy or Marine Corps. I have also seen other students voluntarily decide that Annapolis wasn't for them, only to attempt, and fail, to follow another pipeline to commissioning. I would speculate that the tolerance of wrongdoings which Fleming witnessed at Annapolis were failures of the institution's human leaders, not the principles of the institution.

Just like Fleming, I am personally very close to this issue. If it were not for Annapolis, I would not have become a Marine officer. In high school, and three years later when I applied to Annapolis, my SATs were 950, combined, out of 1,600, both times. That score put me in the bottom 36th percentile academically. When I sought admission, in 1988, the Naval Academy was the most competitive school in the nation with SATs averaging around 1,200 (if my memory serves). I graduated in the bottom half of a so-so high school. I was rejected by all the four year universities and two year community colleges I applied to. I had no motivation for college. Yet, despite this lack of self-discipline, I excelled in a military environment. Had it not been for the Naval Academy, I would not have graduated with a bachelor's degree from any other institution within four years.

For many of us, the structure provided by the service academies is so important that it literally means the difference between success and failure. In this area, I frequently think about the success of Buzz Aldrin, West Point class of 1951. Once his disciplined structure was removed, after leaving NASA and retiring from the military, his depression demons surfaced. It's amazing what one can accomplish when he or she has the full force and good faith of the U.S. government behind him or her.

I cannot stress to Fleming strongly enough that he is only seeing the tip of the iceberg. He is looking at a newly born baby and concluding that it is less capable than any other animal which can walk or swim right after birth. Judging the product of a service academy primarily by interacting with cadets or midshipmen is like judging a person's career at high school graduation. Midshipmen can be misinformed and hold on to those misbeliefs for a long time. Unlearning mislearned lessons usually requires a paradigm shift – one that midshipmen won't experience until years after graduation.

Service Academy Flaws?
It is easy to follow leaders. It is harder for leaders to lead followers. But, there is no harder leadership task than leading your own peers. Your peers see all of you, 24/7. Your motivations and beliefs must be pure in order for them to follow you. I think Fleming completely misses this experience. In the short term, an officer may fool both a senior or subordinate but it is nearly impossible to fool one's own peers.

All will agree with Fleming that the service academies should reduce their worst flaws. But, it is not obvious what those flaws actually are, especially from the view point of a midshipman. And we need to approach change very cautiously. Regardless of national politics, no other country, or the U.N., maintains the same global commitments and responsibilities as the United States. A mistake in training our military service members cannot be fixed with a software update. We all know what is at risk. We can make the right decision for the right reasons and still get the wrong result if poorly executed. 

Perhaps, one day, the service academies will outlive their usefulness; but it will be obvious as applications decline and interest is lost. When the service academies become the telegram or slide rule for combat officer commissions, it will be apparent. But, in the mean time, we should keep in mind, as Fleming points out, that the service academies are a means to an end, not an end itself. 


pkc75 said...

Thank you and BZ!

alanlg said...

Nice job.

Here's the comment I submitted to "Talk of the Nation" regarding the interview with Prof Fleming:

Regarding Bruce Fleming and "Maybe We Don't Need Service Academies". Facts were presented about costs. What's missing are facts about results. There was only anecdotal evidence about how the fleet or ROTC regards officers from various sources. The world offers endless lessons of how focusing solely on costs usually leads to bad decision making and failure.

As a USNA graduate who served aboard a nuclear submarine on the front lines of the cold war, I suggest that getting the best and the brightest to serve in harm's way takes more than black and white cost data. Tradition and pride are key ingredients. When it comes to federal government spending, there are bigger fish to fry.

And, if bulletin boards are an issue, let's address that specifically, along with an understanding of why Plebes engage in this activity in the first place. Attacking individual elements of the Academy program is easy but lacks credibility without testing for a link to the mission. Should he take a look, Mr. Fleming would probably find things in the fleet that would seem "infantile" without being seen through the lens and appreciation of the military environment and mission.

alanlg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
G. M. Plaster said...

As a potential counterpoint to some of Fleming's generalities, I would suggest reading "In the Shadow of Greatness" a new book, recently added to the Chief of Naval Operations Reading List, by 33 members of the US Naval Academy Class of 2002, the first class to graduate post-9/11. Info: Our book presents some of the reasons why the academies will continue to give a priceless return on investment.