Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The cynicism of the cadets: an officer reports from Iraq

A lieutenant not long out of  West Point checks in from Iraq with this thoughtful note. He agrees with some of my arguments, disagrees with others. Based on this, I’d say the Army and West Point have some issues to deal with. Like: I’d never heard of being able to pass college classes without even ...

586321_090428_GeorgeMcClellan2.jpg
586321_090428_GeorgeMcClellan2.jpg

A lieutenant not long out of  West Point checks in from Iraq with this thoughtful note. He agrees with some of my arguments, disagrees with others. Based on this, I'd say the Army and West Point have some issues to deal with. Like: I'd never heard of being able to pass college classes without even getting the textbooks.

Also, I think West Point seriously needs to think about this cynicism thing. That kind of attitude could get old real fast in a remote FOB in Iraq.

It's hard enough being a new platoon leader coming into a combat-hardened Army nowadays without carrying that sort of snarky baggage.  

A lieutenant not long out of  West Point checks in from Iraq with this thoughtful note. He agrees with some of my arguments, disagrees with others. Based on this, I’d say the Army and West Point have some issues to deal with. Like: I’d never heard of being able to pass college classes without even getting the textbooks.

Also, I think West Point seriously needs to think about this cynicism thing. That kind of attitude could get old real fast in a remote FOB in Iraq.

It’s hard enough being a new platoon leader coming into a combat-hardened Army nowadays without carrying that sort of snarky baggage.  

I have deleted from his note some identifying references. The rest is as he sent it to me:

I’d like to preface this message by saying four things. First, I am sure you have had many responses to your article, but I feel the need to add another. Second, I would like to say that I mostly agree with what you have said, however, there are some things I disagree with and I will address both. Third, I am a 1LT currently serving in…, Iraq …and I am a graduate of West Point Class of 2007. Fourth, this response ended up being about 4 pages single spaced, so hopefully you can make it through the whole thing.

I suppose I will first address the things I agree with. I will tell you as a graduate that I think that your point regarding the academics at West Point is a valid one. I can say personally, whether right or wrong, I did very little work academically and I was still able to maintain a very mediocre average GPA. At no time during my academic career did I feel as if I was going to fail out or not make the cut academically. On essentially every occasion I didn’t do a single night of homework in any class, waited till the absolute last second to start papers or attempt to study for large exams, and put forth as little effort as possible into my academics. On several occasions, I purchased none of the required books and resources for the class (I know this can actually be tracked and proven) and told teachers that I learned nothing in my classroom time and I felt it was a waste of time. I would like to say again, wrong or right, this is the truth. Looking back now I feel completely cheated academically in almost every instance; though there were some instances where I did learn a lot from a course or instructor. One of those occasions was a class in which I had a civilian instructor with multiple PHDs and was in her last year of a 30 years career…she really was a SME (subject matter expert). I feel like her expertise should be the standard, not the exception.

I’d also like to state that I furthermore agree that sending someone to a civilian university and then a short military school afterwards is much more beneficial. Isn’t this what the Brits do?  One thing that I find very ironic about West Point and West Pointers is that they are always told to think outside of the box, but I think you can see from the responses you got from them during your chat session, it’s anything but that. It’s the same way you hear every West Pointer say; I am not the typical West Pointer… In my humble and experienced opinion, you are often punished or shunned for thinking outside of the box at West Point. One of my favorite courses at West Point was American Politics because my instructor was knowledgeable about each side of each argument, no matter what anybody had to say, right wing, left wing, libertarian, etc, he would play devil’s advocate. Again, likely the norm at many other universities.

Regarding cynicism — You are 100% correct. I can honestly say at this point, there is no amount of money that could make me stay in the Army past my commitment. By the time I graduated West Point, I was so cynical about the Army, and since then the cynicism has only grown because I feel like I was lied to on so many occasions. I spent four years hearing you will be prepared; you are the best and brightest, etc, etc. When I got into the Army I learned I was not prepared and more importantly I was not anymore prepared than my peers who had done ROTC. This is just one example of the feeling of dishonesty I have felt over the past two years, I could continue, but I will spare you and keep to the point of this response. I feel if I had gone to a different university I would not only have gotten a better education, but I would have been able to enter the military without the cynicism I feel now. 

I think you make a completely valid point regarding just because this would only save us about 1% of our national deficit, is this a reason not to ask the question. You have to begin somewhere and every little bit helps. The focus of your article is not “West Point Sucks,” as one person stated, it is that the money being spent on West Point could likely be spent other places and give the same results if not better. Knowing this and understanding it, I still feel a sting when I think about your article because for many of us who have given our heart and soul to that place in ways that few can understand it hurts to hear something you do not want to hear. Does this make me any less proud of what I have done? No, I can almost guaranteed I am as proud if not prouder than many who wrote in (I didn’t see any other grown men besides myself crying in their fathers arms graduation day).

All this said, I’d like to present some opposition because I do not believe I would be doing my ‘duty’ if I failed to do so. It seems as if the most controversial comment you made was regarding the “community college education.” As you can see above I agree, the education is not what it should be, I do believe however, your comment was an over exaggeration. I understand being in the media is about selling papers in the best way to do that is to create controversy, but come on now, really? I had this argument with my fiancee and I stated that while I have serious knocks on my academic education I believe that I got a better academic education that I would have at Ohio University which is another school I was considering. She asked, “how do you know though?” I stated I do not know, but I can say with semi-confidence because my brother who is two years younger than me who is class of 2010 attended…University…for a year and has stated on several occasions he believes he is receiving a better education at West Point. 

Several people have pointed to rankings and small class room sizes as counter points to your comment. You stated that you don’t hold much weight in rankings. I think this may be a little bit naive, because though any sort of data or rankings are imperfect, what else does the average person have to go off of. It’s impractical to think that high school students can travel the country checking out every single college in the US prior to making their decision.  You have to start somewhere and a good starting point is through reputable magazines, authors, and newspaper columnists to find what you are looking for. That said, I think that many West Pointers are in for a rude awakening when they get into the corporate world (acknowledging I myself have not been there) are expect to fall back on the ranking of West Point and “all the things” they have done in the military. Less than 1% has ever served and the majority of those people do not know the difference between a sergeant and a captain. Most people do not know what a…and a …do (my two positions). So falling back on everything I done, especially in this economy likely will not cut the mustard.  The bottom line “What can you do for my company?” and “How can you make me money?” are the two things people are going to what to know. Unless I can think outside of the box and relate my experiences to someone, then it’s not going to work.  Like I said, some people may be in trouble. As I said before, I don’t put much weight into the small classroom environment because I do not feel as if I got a good classroom education because most of the professors are not SME’s, and that is a shame.

My last disagreement is that while I have many complaints I do not think we should get rid of West Point, but I think there need to be many changes made to it. While back during Macarthur’s, many of his quotes may have been true, I do not think they are true today. I think as one cadet leaving said, “West Point is a decaying institution.” And oh, by the way, I made it through so nobody can use that argument with me. That said, I do not think it is a lost cause. Things can be change and the prestige can be restored. For all my cynicism and negative comments, I honestly believe that. Having officers there to relate their stories about Iraq and Afghanistan is extremely beneficial however, instead of sending anyone to West Point, they should pick the absolute best and send them, and I believe without a shadow of a doubt, that this is not done. I learned most about how to be an officer from seeing bad examples and saying “that will never be me” than the other way around. When I saw the opposite I meant something to me every time, that’s how infrequently it occurred. Same thing with the NCO’s. By starting there, a lot of West Point could be changed in a short time.

I have re-read this moving note several times. I am especially struck by his comment about how he was stung because he gave his “heart and soul” to West Point despite his misgivings about the place. I salute him for doing so.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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