Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

“Missing the ‘Point'”

Here’s a response to my call to shut down West Point from Col. Cindy Jebb, Ph.D., a professor in the social sciences department there: There has been a great deal of discourse prompted by Tom Ricks’s article that calls for the dissolution of West Point.  Perhaps because Mr. Ricks has only seen a glimpse of ...

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Here's a response to my call to shut down West Point from Col. Cindy Jebb, Ph.D., a professor in the social sciences department there:

There has been a great deal of discourse prompted by Tom Ricks's article that calls for the dissolution of West Point.  Perhaps because Mr. Ricks has only seen a glimpse of West Point, he fails to understand the institution and its contributions. To appreciate West Point and its multidimensional value, one must grasp that it is much more than the sum of its programs, its graduates, and its faculty. 

Here’s a response to my call to shut down West Point from Col. Cindy Jebb, Ph.D., a professor in the social sciences department there:

There has been a great deal of discourse prompted by Tom Ricks’s article that calls for the dissolution of West Point.  Perhaps because Mr. Ricks has only seen a glimpse of West Point, he fails to understand the institution and its contributions. To appreciate West Point and its multidimensional value, one must grasp that it is much more than the sum of its programs, its graduates, and its faculty. 

I would like to provide another voice, one with experience that Mr. Ricks lacks: West Point graduate with 27 years of service in the Army, a PhD from Duke University, and a professorship at West Point.  Furthermore, I am the co-chair of West Point’s Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) Self Study. MSCHE is a regional, peer review commission that accredits institutions of higher learning. Because the brightest students and the best faculty want to work at excellent institutions, colleges and universities seek MSCHE accreditation or its regional equivalent. 

The MSCHE perspective values a holistic approach to learning. Tom Ricks misses much of the extraordinary work conducted around the Academy that plugs into key offices at the Pentagon, Training and Doctrine Command, and Combatant Commands as well. Why do these offices seek out West Point? West Point is a genuine academy in the classical sense. It brings together the best minds, from all academic disciplines to forge new ways of thinking and to solve issues of national and international importance, while simultaneously focusing on the personal and professional development of its students and faculty. 

(Read on)

West Point embraces two cultures, academic and military, and there is a synergy that develops when an institution, guided by the concept of Duty–Honor-Country, coalesces with the mission to produce highly educated leaders. To do this, West Point selects the best faculty members, both civilian and military; ensures that they excel at the best graduate school programs in their fields; and continues to develop them professionally.  Subsequently, all faculty members engage academe through conferences, publications, and other outreach venues, and apply that continued intellectual growth in the classroom, to academe, to army problems, and to national issues. This environment is unique and produces a symbiosis that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

The core of the professional cadre is our rotating military faculty whom we select usually after company command and then send them to the best graduate school programs in the world. Most receive master’s degrees and some earn PhDs, and they serve in classrooms with small groups of approximately 15 cadets, teaching, learning, and mentoring during a two or three year assignment before returning to operational army assignments. They also pursue scholarship beyond the master’s level. They become West Point’s “second graduating class” because they leave West Point after teaching, mentoring, and learning ready to take the reins of positions of high trust and responsibility in the army. Civilians comprise approximately one-fourth of the faculty and virtually all have PhDs. They serve as mentors, scholars, and teachers as well and collaborate with their military faculty colleagues, thus enriching the faculty experience. A third faculty flavor are our senior military professors who have excelled as field grade officers, earned a PhD, and have dedicated themselves to  West Point, collaborating with senior civilian faculty, to mentor cadets and faculty, shape the curriculum, conduct outreach, and lead and govern the institution.

Just yesterday, COL Bill Ostlund, the Deputy Commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment visited, and he mentioned three points that highlight the importance of an institution that embraces both academe and the military. First, he said he gained important credibility among Afghan tribal and religious leaders precisely because they knew that he had taught at West Point before his arrival in Afghanistan. He was introduced everywhere as COL Ostlund, the former professor. Second, COL Ostlund mentioned that officers competing for assignment in the Rangers have very similar military experiences, and many times what separated the exceptional candidates were their academic achievements. Finally, he mentioned that good decisions grounded in discipline, morality, and ethics determined victory more than anything else. West Point is truly the bedrock of our profession’s moral and ethical grounding, and it is at West Point that we embrace the axiom of choosing “the harder right, rather than the easier wrong.”

So does our nation need West Point? The institution does more than produce platoon leaders. It produces strategic thinkers, which is now necessary even at the small unit level. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke’s Basketball Coach, has said that the hardest part of coaching is teaching people how to think. West Point is driven to do just that, that is to teach current and future leaders how to think, not what to think. 

Mr. Ricks uses dollars and cents to measure effectiveness. How does one put a dollar figure to such graduates as Senator Jack Reed, Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Petraeus, and so many, many others? How about the non-West Point graduates who taught at West Point such as Generals Pete Chiarelli and Kip Ward, Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs, Deputy DHS Secretary Jane Holl Lute, COL Bill Ostlund, and again so many others? Young men and women can be educated at many institutions of quality, and they can prepare for service as army officers elsewhere. At many colleges and universities, faculty ponder important issues and influence the thinking of those who lead us. And those values that make this nation a bastion of freedom are not the invention of West Point. But nowhere else do these values, intellectual energy, and mission of producing leaders of character come together with such purpose.

Every day I feel at once humbled and honored to serve at West Point, and now even more so as my son will soon join the Long Gray Line that continues to offer this country its long held traditions, while always out front creating new ones that reflect who we are as a people, as a nation, and as a trusted officer corps.

Also, more points for West Point: I just learned that Gore Vidal was born there!

Seriously, I do take her point about West Point’s “second graduating class” being the younger faculty. I’ve seen this in other contexts, such as Marine boot camp, where the younger drill instructors are molded into solid NCOs. But I get a little suspicious whenever people who are spending the taxpayers’ money tell me not to worry about dollars and cents. I think there is an argument to be made for West Point, but it tends to be, as here, that the value is hard to quantify. 

woodgrinder/flickr

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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