Time to Hold Military Boots to the Fire: On 70 Years of Military Mediocrity
The shared failings of America’s military academies and senior officers
Thomas Jefferson Hall, West Point’s library and learning center, prominently features two quotations for cadets to mull over. In the first, Jefferson writes George Washington in 1788: “The power of making war often prevents it, and in our case would give efficacy to our desire of peace.” In the second, Jefferson writes Thomas Leiper in 1815: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
Two centuries ago, Jefferson’s points were plain and clear, and they remain so today: while this country desired peace, it had to be prepared to wage war; and yet the more it avoided resorting to raw military power, the more it would prosper.
Have America’s military officers and politicians learned these lessons? Obviously not. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. unquestionably ranks number one on this planet in its preparations for waging war -- we got that message loud and clear -- but we’re also number one in using that power aggressively around the globe, weakening our nation in the process, just as Jefferson warned.
Of course, the world today is a more complex and crowded place than in Jefferson’s time and this country, long a regional, even an isolationist power, is now an imperial and global superpower that quite literally garrisons the planet. That said, Jefferson’s lessons should still be salutary ones, especially when you consider that the U.S. military has not had a convincing victory in a major “hot” war since 1945.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, but I want to focus on two: what cadets at America’s military academies really learn and the self-serving behavior of America’s most senior military officers, many of whom are academy graduates. Familiar as they may be with those words of Jefferson, they have consistently ignored or misapplied them, facilitating our current state of endless war and national decline.
America’s Military Academies: High Ideals, Cynical Graduates
America’s military academies are supposed to educate and inspire leaders of strong character and impeccable integrity. They’re supposed to be showcases for America’s youth, shining symbols of national service. Ultimately, they’re supposed to forge strong military leaders who will win America’s wars (assuming those wars can’t be avoided, as Jefferson might have added). So how's their main mission going?
I taught at the Air Force Academy for six years, and I’ve talked to former cadets as well as fellow officers who taught at the Army's West Point and the Navy's Annapolis. Here are a few reflections on the flaws of these institutions:
1. In reality, the unstated primary mission of the three military academies is to turn raw cadets into career officers dedicated and devoted to their particular branch of service. On the other hand, service to the American people is, at best, an abstract concept. More afterthought than thought, it is certainly mentioned but hardly a value consistently instilled.
Careerism and parochialism are hardly unique to military academies. Still, as one former cadet wrote me, it’s surprising to encounter them so openly in institutions dedicated to “service before self.” More than a few of his peers, he added, were motivated primarily by a desire for “a stable, well-paying career.” While a perfectly respectable personal goal, to be sure, it’s a less than desirable one at academies theoretically dedicated to selfless, even sacrificial service.
2. The academic curriculum is structured to prepare cadets for the technical demands of their first jobs, meaning that it’s heavily weighted toward STEM (science/technology/engineering/math). Despite the presence of a Cadet Honor Code, the humanities and questions of ethics play too small a role in the intellectual and moral development of the students.
3. Cadets quickly learn that excelling within the system is the surest path to coveted opportunities -- increasingly scarce pilot slots, Special Ops schools, or the like -- after graduation. Educationally speaking, they are driven by the idea of advancement within the conformist norms defined by their particular academy and branch of service. A system that rewards energetic displays of conformity also tends to generate mediocrity as well as cynicism. As one former cadet put it to me, “There is something deeper and more perverse here as well: The ‘golden boys’ [in the eyes of Academy officialdom] got the coveted slots but were generally hated by their cynical peers. Cynicism seems to define the Academy experience.”
A former colleague of mine had this comment: “The [military] academies don't make great people and they don't always make good people better. I have seen them turn off a few really good people, however.”
4. Because the academies are considered prestige institutions as well as symbols of rectitude and their reputations are always at stake, few risks are taken. Misconduct, when it occurs, is frequently hushed up "for the good of the Academy." Scandals involving cheating, sexual assaults, and religious discrimination have often been made worse by not being dealt with openly and honestly. Cadets know this, which is another reason many emerge from their education as cynics when it comes to the high ideals the academies are supposed to instill.
5. As schools, they are remarkably insular, insider outfits often run by academy graduates whose goals tend to be narrow and sometimes even bizarrely parochial. For example, I knew of one superintendent (a three-star general) at the Air Force Academy whose number one goal was a winning football program. In that sense, he certainly reflected American society: think of the civilian college presidents who desire just that for their institutions. But military academies are supposed to be about creating leaders, not winning football trophies -- and the two bear remarkably little relationship to each other no matter how many times the Duke of Wellington is (mis)quoted about the Battle of Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton.
6. Finally, there’s a strong emphasis at all the academies on simply keeping cadets busy. To the point where -- especially in their first year -- they're often sleep-deprived and staggering into class. Theoretically, this is meant to be a test both of their commitment to military life and their ability to handle pressure. Whether they learn anything meaningful while dazed or sleeping in class is not discussed. Whether this is a smart way to develop creative and strong-minded leaders is also not up for consideration.
As one former cadet put it: busywork and demanding rituals that sometime cross the line and become hazing are embraced in military education as a “rite of passage.” The idea “that we [cadets] suffered through something and prevailed is an immensely powerful psychological ‘badge’ which leads to pride (or arrogance) and confidence (or hubris).”
Add up the indoctrination and the training, the busywork in classrooms and the desire to excel in big-time collegiate sports, and what you tend to graduate is a certain number of hyper-motivated true believers and a mass of go-along cynics -- young men and women who have learned to subsume their doubts and misgivings, even as they trim their sails in the direction of the prevailing winds.
While the cadets are encouraged to over-identify with their particular academy and service branch, they’re also encouraged to self-identify as “warriors,” as, that is, an elite apart from and superior to the civilians they’re supposed to serve. That this country was founded on civilian control of the military may be given lip service, but in the age of the ascendant national security state, the deeper sentiments embedded in an academy education are ever more distant from a populace that plays next to no part in America’s wars.
That the classic civilian-military nexus, which was supposed to serve and promote democracy, has turned out to have a few glitches in our time should surprise no one. After all, President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about what was coming back in 1961. As Ike noticed, the way it was working -- the way it still works today -- is that senior officers in the military too often become tools of the armaments industry (his “military-industrial complex”) even as they identify far too closely with the parochial interests of their particular service branch. Add to this the distinctly twenty-first-century emphasis on being warriors, not citizen-soldiers, and you have the definition of a system of self-perpetuating and self-serving militarism rather than military service.
To the extent that the military academies not only fail to curb this behavior but essentially encourage it, they are failing our democracy.
America’s Senior Officers: Lots of Ribbon Candy, No Sweetness of Victory
In my first article for TomDispatch back in 2007, I wrote about America’s senior military leaders, men like the celebrated David Petraeus. No matter how impressive, even kingly, they looked in their uniforms festooned with ribbons, badges, and medals of all sorts, colors, and sizes, their performance on the battlefield didn’t exactly bring to mind rainstorms of ribbon candy. So why, I wondered then, and wonder still, are America’s senior military officers so generally lauded and applauded? What have they done to deserve those chests full of honors and the endless praise in Washington and elsewhere in this country?
By giving our commanders so many pats on the back (and thanking the troops so effusively and repeatedly), it’s possible that we've prevented the development of an American-style stab-in-the-back theory -- that hoary yet dangerous myth that a military only loses wars when the troops are betrayed by the homefront. In the process, however, we've written them what is essentially a blank check. We’ve given them authority without accountability. They wage “our” wars (remarkably unsuccessfully), but never have to take the blame for defeats. Unlike President Harry Truman, famous for keeping a sign on his desk that read “the buck stops here,” the buck never stops with them.
Think about two of America’s most celebrated generals of the twenty-first century, Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and how they fell publicly from grace. Both were West Point grads, both were celebrated as “heroes,” despite the fact that their military "surges" in Iraq and Afghanistan proved fragile and reversible. They fell only because Petraeus was caught with his pants down (in an extramarital affair with a fawning biographer), while McChrystal ran afoul of the president by tolerating an atmosphere that undermined his civilian chain of command.
And here, perhaps, is the strangest thing of all: even as America’s wars continue to go poorly by any reasonable measure, no prominent high-ranking officer has yet stepped forward either to take responsibility or in protest. You have to look to the lower ranks, to lieutenant colonels and captains and specialists (and, in the case of Chelsea Manning, to lowly privates), for straight talk and the courage to buck the system. Name one prominent general or admiral, fed up with the lamentable results of America’s wars, who has either taken responsibility for them or resigned for cause. Yup -- I can’t either. (This is not to suggest that the military lacks senior officers of integrity. Recall the way General Eric Shinseki broke ranks with the Bush administration in testimony before Congress about the size of a post-invasion force needed to secure Iraq, or General Antonio Taguba’s integrity in overseeing a thorough investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Their good deeds did not go unpunished.)
Authority without accountability means no one is responsible. And if no one is responsible, the system can keep chugging along, course largely unaltered, no matter what happens. This is exactly what it’s been doing for years now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Can we connect this behavior to the faults of the service academies? Careerism. Parochialism. Technocratic tendencies. Elitism. A focus on image rather than on substance. Lots of busywork and far too much praise for our ascetic warrior-heroes, results be damned. A tendency to close ranks rather than take responsibility. Buck-passing, not bucking the system. The urge to get those golden slots on graduation and the desire for golden parachutes into a lucrative world of corporate boards and consultancies after “retirement,” not to speak of those glowing appearances as military experts on major TV and cable networks.
By failing to hold military boots to the fire, we've largely avoided unpleasantness between the military and its civilian leadership, not to speak of the American public. But -- and here's the rub -- 70 years of mediocrity since World War II and 14 years of failure since 9/11 should have resulted in anti-war protests, Congressional hearings, and public controversy. It should have created public discord, as it did during the Vietnam War, when dissent was a sign of a healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry. Nowadays, in place of protest, we hear the praise, the applause, the thank-yous followed by yet another bombastic rendition of “God Bless America.” Let’s face it. Our military has failed us, but haven’t we failed it, too?
Listening Again to Jefferson
America’s military academies are supposed to be educating and developing leaders of character. If they're not doing that, why have them? America’s senior military leaders are supposed to be winning wars, not losing them. (Please feel free to name one recent victory by the U.S. military that hasn’t been of the Pyrrhic variety.) So why do we idolize them? And why do we fail to hold them accountable?
These are more than rhetorical questions. They cut to the heart of an American culture that celebrates its military cadets as its finest young citizens, a culture that lauds its generals even as they fail to accept responsibility for wars that end not in victory but -- well, come to think of it, they just never end.
The way forward: I don’t have to point the way because Thomas Jefferson already did. Just read his quotations in the West Point library: we need to become a peace-loving nation again; we need to act as if war were our last resort, not our first impulse; we need to recognize that war is corrosive to democracy and that the more military power is exercised the weaker we grow as a democratic society.
Jefferson’s wisdom, enshrined at West Point, shouldn’t be entombed there. We need a new generation of cadets -- and a few renegade generals of my generation as well -- who want to serve us by not going to war, who know that a military is a burden to democracy even when victorious, and especially when it’s not. Otherwise, we’re in trouble in ways we haven’t yet begun to imagine.