Thomas Jefferson Hall, West Point’s library and learning center, prominently features two quotations for cadets to mull over. In the first, Jefferson writes George Washington in 1788: “The power of making war often prevents it, and in our case would give efficacy to our desire of peace.” In the second, Jefferson writes Thomas Leiper in 1815: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
Two centuries ago, Jefferson’s points were plain and clear, and they remain so today: while this country desired peace, it had to be prepared to wage war; and yet the more it avoided resorting to raw military power, the more it would prosper.
Have America’s military officers and politicians learned these lessons? Obviously not. In the 21st century, the United States unquestionably ranks number one on this planet in its preparations for waging war—we got that message loud and clear—but we’re also number one in using that power aggressively around the globe, weakening our nation in the process, just as Jefferson warned.
Of course, the world today is a more complex and crowded place than in Jefferson’s time and this country, long a regional, even an isolationist power, is now an imperial and global superpower that quite literally garrisons the planet. That said, Jefferson’s lessons should still be salutary ones, especially when you consider that the US military has not had a convincing victory in a major “hot” war since 1945.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but I want to focus on two: what cadets at America’s military academies really learn and the self-serving behavior of America’s most senior military officers, many of whom are academy graduates. Familiar as they may be with those words of Jefferson, they have consistently ignored or misapplied them, facilitating our current state of endless war and national decline.
America’s Military Academies: High Ideals, Cynical Graduates
America’s military academies are supposed to educate and inspire leaders of strong character and impeccable integrity. They’re supposed to be showcases for America’s youth, shining symbols of national service. Ultimately, they’re supposed to forge strong military leaders who will win America’s wars (assuming those wars can’t be avoided, as Jefferson might have added). So how’s their main mission going?
I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years, and I’ve talked to former cadets as well as fellow officers who taught at Army’s West Point and the Navy’s Annapolis. Here are a few reflections on the flaws of these institutions:
- In reality, the unstated primary mission of the three military academies is to turn raw cadets into career officers dedicated and devoted to their particular branch of service. On the other hand, service to the American people is, at best, an abstract concept. More afterthought than thought, it is certainly mentioned but hardly a value consistently instilled.
Careerism and parochialism are hardly unique to military academies. Still, as one former cadet wrote me, it’s surprising to encounter them so openly in institutions dedicated to “service before self.” More than a few of his peers, he added, were motivated primarily by a desire for “a stable, well-paying career.” While a perfectly respectable personal goal, to be sure, it’s a less than desirable one at academies theoretically dedicated to selfless, even sacrificial service.
- The academic curriculum is structured to prepare cadets for the technical demands of their first jobs, meaning that it’s heavily weighted toward STEM (science/technology/engineering/math). Despite the presence of a Cadet Honor Code, the humanities and questions of ethics play too small a role in the intellectual and moral development of the students.
- Cadets quickly learn that excelling within the system is the surest path to coveted opportunities—increasingly scarce pilot slots, Special Ops schools, or the like—after graduation. Educationally speaking, they are driven by the idea of advancement within the conformist norms defined by their particular academy and branch of service. A system that rewards energetic displays of conformity also tends to generate mediocrity as well as cynicism. As one former cadet put it to me, “There is something deeper and more perverse here as well: The ‘golden boys’ [in the eyes of Academy officialdom] got the coveted slots but were generally hated by their cynical peers. Cynicism seems to define the Academy experience.”
A former colleague of mine had this comment: “The [military] academies don’t make great people and they don’t always make good people better. I have seen them turn off a few really good people, however.”
- Because the academies are considered prestige institutions as well as symbols of rectitude and their reputations are always at stake, few risks are taken. Misconduct, when it occurs, is frequently hushed up “for the good of the Academy.” Scandals involving cheating, sexual assaults, and religious discrimination have often been made worse by not being dealt with openly and honestly. Cadets know this, which is another reason many emerge from their education as cynics when it comes to the high ideals the academies are supposed to instill.
- As schools, they are remarkably insular, insider outfits often run by academy graduates whose goals tend to be narrow and sometimes even bizarrely parochial. For example, I knew of one superintendent (a three-star general) at the Air Force Academy whose number one goal was a winning football program. In that sense, he certainly reflected American society: think of the civilian college presidents who desire just that for their institutions. But military academies are supposed to be about creating leaders, not winning football trophies—and the two bear remarkably little relationship to each other no matter how many times the Duke of Wellington is (mis)quoted about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton.
- Finally, there’s a strong emphasis at all the academies on simply keeping cadets busy. To the point where—especially in their first year—they’re often sleep-deprived and staggering into class. Theoretically, this is meant to be a test both of their commitment to military life and their ability to handle pressure. Whether they learn anything meaningful while dazed or sleeping in class is not discussed. Whether this is a smart way to develop creative and strong-minded leaders is also not up for consideration.
As one former cadet put it: busywork and demanding rituals that sometime cross the line and become hazing are embraced in military education as a “rite of passage.” The idea “that we [cadets] suffered through something and prevailed is an immensely powerful psychological ‘badge’ which leads to pride (or arrogance) and confidence (or hubris).”