- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
Longtime readers of this blog know that I have some views about the military academies (like I think we should shut them down as undergraduate institutions and replacing it with a Sandhurst-like approach). We’ve argued all that out, and I have no desire to re-litigate the matter. But here is a different perspective, from an Army Special Forces officer who is a West Point grad and is leaving the USMA faculty for Afghanistan, and is pretty dismayed with what he saw at the academy.
By Maj. Fernando Lujan, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
I graduated from West Point in 1998, served several combat tours, then received a master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School so that I could instruct the cadets in politics, policy, and strategy. I have worked on the West Point faculty for two years, and this summer I’ll return to the operational Army in Afghanistan. From my own limited perspective, I can say that the Academy is falling heartbreakingly short of its potential to prepare young officers.
While West Point has recently made an effort to change with the times by adding a handful of elective courses in counterinsurgency, expanding its foreign immersion programs, and hosting several high level conferences on key Army issues, the founding principle of the cadet system remains the same: We lecture the cadets on professionalism but we practice bureaucracy. To summarize the difference, professional cultures debate, discuss, and continually innovate to stay effective in the changing world. Bureaucracies churn out ever-restrictive rules and seek to capture every eventuality in codified routines.
Consider this: From day one at the academy every possible situation that a cadet could conceivably encounter is accounted for by strict regulations. Not sure how many inches should be between your coat hangers, whether you can hold your girlfriend’s hand on campus, or how your socks should be marked? Consult the regulations. Moreover, all activity is subjected to the cadet performance system, which essentially assigns a grade to every measurable event in a cadet’s life (think shoe shines, pushups and pop quizzes) then ruthlessly ranks the entire class from first to last. Cadets at the top of the list get the jobs and postings they want after graduation. Those near the bottom end up driving trucks at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The result is two-fold: First, cadets have very little experience adapting to unfamiliar environments. After all, what happens when the regulations don’t describe what’s going on around you? Second, cadets devote zero attention to activities that “don’t count.” If it’s not on the syllabus, and it’s not for a grade, the cadets aren’t learning it. Ask a cadet to spend a few minutes writing up a list of the skills, traits, and knowledge that he wishes he’d have when he finally takes over his first platoon in combat. Then compare this to his four-year curriculum and summer training plans. There will be surprisingly little overlap between the two lists, and the cadet has neither the time nor the incentive to learn what’s missing. In the end, we graduate far too many cadets that are more bureaucrat than professional, lacking the expert knowledge of their trade and the flexibility to be effective in the complex environments they’ll soon encounter.
Unfortunately, wars — particularly the types of wars we’re currently involved in — are very unforgiving of bureaucrats. In Iraq, I commonly ran across young officers who were convinced that if they answered their reports on time, followed the unit operating procedures to the letter, and strove to make their casualty numbers look ever better, that they would “win” the war. These bureaucrats might keep the proverbial machine running, but it took mentally agile professionals with expert knowledge to realize that the rulebooks needed to be thrown out, that the old routine wasn’t working.
To change the academy’s culture and better prepare our young officers, we must first change the strategic vision of the academy and its role within the larger Army. West Point should not just be a mass-production facility for new officers, no matter what their unique qualities or commitment to ethical values. This part of the mission — while essential — is roughly identical to other officer-producing programs such as the university-based Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS). The Academy, above and beyond its role as a commissioning source, should also be the thriving, vibrant home of the “profession of arms.” Let’s make West Point the epicenter of the Army’s intellectual renaissance.
At West Point, new ideas should be developed, the future of the military debated, and the military profession continually reshaped to remain effective. The Academy should be connected by a thousand links to the operational Army in the field; it should serve as a bridge between theory and practice. West Point should be home to a “Center for the Study of Modern Conflict” where civilian and military experts, cadets, and officers in the field collaborate to advance the Army’s collective understanding. Up until now, the most vibrant professional debates have been almost exclusively hosted by privately run websites such as “Small Wars Journal” and “Abu Muqawama.” West Point should become the hub of these discussions, bringing together disparate groups of enthusiasts.
Why West Point and not some other institution? Simply put, there is no other place in the entire military establishment where such a perfect combination of resources exists. West Point combines the youthful energy of four thousand talented, committed cadets with the practical wisdom of a predominately military faculty, most having just returned from combat tours overseas. Add to this a strong contingent of civilian academics and the legacy of two hundred years of military history, and the potential for electrifying discourse is overwhelming.
At West Point, all the right conditions exist to produce a military version of what some economists call critical “idea density” — the notion that by packing people with the right knowledge, skills and ability together in the same place, exponential returns will be unleashed.
But as everyone knows, just having the right ingredients doesn’t ensure success. (Ever try making lemon meringue pie?) To implement a new strategic vision, we as military professionals must begin a serious, sustained dialogue now. How do we create and sustain a thriving professional dialogue? How can we change the system to give cadets more “white space” and flexibility on their calendars to acquire the expertise their profession demands? Should the Academy’s strong engineering focus still outweigh language, culture, history, and politics? The incoming Superintendent, Commandant, and Dean of the Academy (all new this year) should encourage this debate and lead the change.
Finally, while this writer certainly doesn’t have all the answers, the one lesson I’ve learned is that combat and overseas experience is the best remedy for entrenched military bureaucracy. Consider the difference between a unit that’s never deployed versus one that’s returning from its fourth combat tour — all the extraneous processes and “parade field” silliness is stripped away. The organization most closely involved with the conflict will have placed its mission and effectiveness above all other considerations. Darwinian survival ensures it.
In other words, the primary engine for change at West Point will be intimate, sustained contact with the changing world. We should connect the Academy firmly and permanently with the company grade military officers, the USAID development workers, the junior diplomats who are working right now in dozens of conflict-ridden countries overseas. Involve the cadets deeply with these ongoing discussions and I am confident that the results will surprise everyone. Over time, the West Point that some consider an “ivory tower” institution will no longer exist. Instead, the Academy will come to resemble a “frontier outpost” — half in academia, half overseas — where bureaucracy is kept at bay by the urgent lessons of war.
Fernando Lujan is an Army special forces officer and former assistant professor of politics at West Point. He is currently participating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands program. The opinions expressed herein are his alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of Defense or the United States Army.