- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Robert Bateman
Best Defense guest columnist
As a product of ROTC, but also a former Professor at West Point, I’ve seen both sides, and I am inclined to think that the problems at the United States Military Academy, academically and sociologically, generally outweigh the benefits, when compared to most, but not all, ROTC programs.
The fact is that cadet life at USMA, also known as West Point, ironically creates one of the most anti-military (and misogynist) sub-cultures I’ve ever seen, anywhere, and that includes every infantry battalion I’ve ever served in over the years. By the time they are "Cows" (juniors), my observation is that the majority of USMA cadets thoroughly dismiss the Army itself, and are as disillusioned as they are steadfast. This is somewhat understandable. As one of my less conventional cadets once noted of his school, "Sir, West Point is the only place in the country where it is not only legal, but mandated, that 18 year old boys hide their dirty underwear … and 30 year old men go looking for it." (For the record, he was referring to barracks inspections conducted by the "tactical officers" who oversee the cadets.) Of course, all of this is belied by the nearly instantaneous sentiment of nostalgic gilding applied by 95 percent of new Lieutenants the moment they see Highland Falls disappearing in their rear-view mirrors. But the bottom line about military training at USMA came as a shock to me…there is practically none, and what there is, is limited.
OK, USMA is not Sandhurst (the one-year British military academy which focuses nearly exclusively upon the tactical preparation of new officer candidates), and it probably should not be, but I seriously expected more military training there than I got, for example, at the University of Delaware a quarter century ago. Such, however, was not the case. Whereas I was participating in air assault training missions as a freshman, sophomore, and junior (by my senior year I was the CDT CDR, so couldn’t have fun anymore), riverine small boat insertion training, and general patrolling techniques under the constant tutelage of a three-tour Vietnam Special Forces sergeant major (thank you Leo Brown), and two-tour Vietnam and Grenada Ranger first sergeant (and thank you, Charles Laws, you bastard), USMA Cadets get nothing like that. Their days are hyper-managed, impinging on their intellectual and social development, and their lives are so totally consumed by the draconian demands of the academic and "barracks life" officers that they have no room for actually learning about, well, war.
If anything USMA should be brought up to ROTC standards of military training.
That being said, West Point holds the potential of being the greatest source of military training, intellectual development, and education, extant in our country. I am merely disappointed that it has not achieved that potential. And I am embarrassed because I know exactly the reason why: Mid-Career officers like me who each believe that if only they add one more thing to the schedule, that will make USMA that much better — without realizing that time is a zero-sum game.
Robert Bateman is a professional military officer and, curiously, an academic. He is currently stationed in England, bound for Afghanistan as a strategist. His last book was No Gun Ri, A Military History of the Korean War Incident.
Disclaimer: Robert Bateman is an Army Officer, but his opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or indeed, his own mother.