Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A few words in defense of West Point: They sure do Model United Nations well

I’ve bashed West Point and the rest of the professional military educational establishment quite a bit in this blog, so I welcomed this chance to let a CNAS colleague say a few nice words about the USMA. By Peter Bacon Best Defense guest columnist Last week the program Parks and Recreation showcased one of the ...

usma.edu
usma.edu
usma.edu

I've bashed West Point and the rest of the professional military educational establishment quite a bit in this blog, so I welcomed this chance to let a CNAS colleague say a few nice words about the USMA.

By Peter Bacon
Best Defense guest columnist

Last week the program Parks and Recreation showcased one of the nerdiest extracurricular activities of all: Model United Nations. This activity, known for its geeky high school and college students and its focus on international affairs, offers some surprising insights into the state of civil-military relations and international affairs education in this country. I know -- I spent three years in college competing as a delegate.

I’ve bashed West Point and the rest of the professional military educational establishment quite a bit in this blog, so I welcomed this chance to let a CNAS colleague say a few nice words about the USMA.

By Peter Bacon
Best Defense guest columnist

Last week the program Parks and Recreation showcased one of the nerdiest extracurricular activities of all: Model United Nations. This activity, known for its geeky high school and college students and its focus on international affairs, offers some surprising insights into the state of civil-military relations and international affairs education in this country. I know — I spent three years in college competing as a delegate.

At the college level, some of the best teams for Model UN are from our military academies. West Point’s team is consistently rated as one of the best programs in the country; the other service academies that field teams, the Air Force and Naval Academies, always put up solid teams and delegates. In part, these delegates excel because they are instructed in leadership in the classroom and on the parade field. Nice uniforms, including the renowned cadet gray, also help make a good first impression. But most of all, these delegates excel because they know just that much more about the military-aspect of international affairs than the average college student. Civilian delegates understand the bare minimum of military culture and tactics: civilians will illustrate their basic grasp by making arguments in committee amounting to “bomb this, not that” or “move X troops here.” Service academy delegates, meanwhile, will explain complex military and diplomatic operations to committees ranging from 30 to 300. Routinely, this means that civilian students fail to question any military-related policies of West Point or Naval Academy delegates. As a testament to this, most committees will give a military delegate a portfolio related to the military, such as Secretary of Defense or a military commander.

It’s not hard to see why this happens: civilian students simply do not learn anything about this facet of our society. Foreign policy classes focus more on flighty theory than actual practice. History classes barely focus on hard military or diplomatic history. When I led delegates as an undergraduate, one of the things that I struggled with was teaching freshmen straight out of high school about general military capabilities simply because they knew so little about the topic.

The service academies, specifically West Point, are trying to correct this educational imbalance: West Point’s Model UN team set up its own conference, dedicated primarily to educating civilians about the military. I had the privilege of attending the conference in April: the Cadets made a great effort to create realistic committees and instruct civilian students about the military. From panels and speakers to eating alongside cadets and learning about military culture and doctrine, the conference was, by the accounts of my teammates, both “fantastic” and “eye-opening.”

West Point has hopefully set a precedent that will follow: directly engaging civilians, in an era when few ever interact at length with members of our military, may be the only way to get them educated about military affairs.

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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