Recently, there’s been a string of nasty essays written about why we should dismantle the United States Military Academies. The argument usually revolves around cost and the fact that we don’t actually need them. That is, we can produce the requisite number of officers through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) and Officer Candidate Schools (OCS). As much as I love watching my West Point peers get worked up about it, and despite my undying loyalty to my own alma mater (OCS), I’m of the mind that the military academies are precious and valuable institutions that produce superior officers, and dismantling them would undermine the quality of officership in the military.
For the purpose of this post, I’ll refer mostly to the United States Military Academy at West Point, simply because it is the institution I have the most experience with by virtue of my daily interactions with its chief product (officers) over the past fourteen years.
While I refuse to come out and say that West Point graduates make better officers, I will say that on the whole, they are a different breed of officer. And while almost universally derided by subordinates and peers alike, they are invaluable to the work and mission of the United States Army.
Before getting into why West Point officers are different and uniquely valuable, it is important to briefly discuss some of the stereotypes that officers from the different commissioning sources face. Stereotypes, that while unfair, are often rooted in some reality.
The OCS officer is usually expected to be one of two extremes – either really good or a total dud. They are thought to be prior-service enlisted (although this is not always the case; most OCS officers are simply civilians with a college degree), and they are expected to be wiser through life experience and more in tune with the reality of doing the Army’s actual work. Similarly, the older ones might be accused of “burnout” by virtue of being older in a young man’s game, or getting too involved in “NCO business” and having a hard time staying in their lane as officers.
The ROTC officer usually comes in many more shades in terms of expected performance, being anywhere along the spectrum from “ok” to “great.” They are generally thought to have partied pretty hard in college, using ROTC as a kind of safety net that accidentally landed them in the military, and their stories of their college experience are invariably better and more interesting than their USMA and OCS peers.
The greatest (and most damning) stereotypes are reserved for West Point officers. When soldiers learn their next platoon leader or commanding officer is from West Point, it’s almost always followed by a deep breath and a mental bracing for impact, and usually an audible “Oh god…” West Point officers are generally thought to be a little more uptight and focused on mission accomplishment at all costs than other officers. The expectation is that the officer will be of the “Captain Sobel” of Band of Brothers fame variety. That is, strict, intense, and deeply committed to mission success, even if that success comes at the expense of his subordinates’ well-being.
Of course, all of these are stereotypes that unfairly color officers before they ever step in front of troops. These stereotypes exist though, and soldiers (and especially officers) are always interested to learn of one’s commissioning source as a snippet of information to either confirm or deny deeply held biases.
In my personal experience, some of the best officers I have ever worked with were graduates of West Point. I’ve met the quintessential, hard-charging, I’ve-read-every-platoon-leader-memoir-in-existence West Pointer who could have been a stand-in for Captain “your weekend pass is revoked” Sobel. I’ve also met “total bros” who would seem a better fit at Animal House than anything remotely military. And although I’ve met West Point officers whom I personally didn’t like, I’ve never met one that was wholly incompetent. Even the “bad” ones accomplish the mission, no matter how awkward or strange their behavior might seem.
The first time I had a real conversation about West Point as an institution was when I was working closely with a new Captain who was a graduate. I was a young and angry Sergeant at the time, and on our LESs, we had the same number of years of service. He made the argument that being a student at West Point is more of a military experience than a college experience, and he essentially served four more years than I did, despite what it said on his LES. I didn’t agree with him at the time, and thought this was just typical West Point ring knocking.
Over time, however, the more that I’ve learned about West Point and its traditions, the more I’ve come to agree with him.
If the logic holds true, that attending West Point is more of a military experience than a college one (and I think it does), then it should also hold true that those officers are receiving four (er, sometimes five) additional years of military experience that their ROTC and OCS counterparts just don’t get. From a younger age they are immersed in a military environment, and over time, everything that is supposed to be expected from an officer is ingrained. You just can’t do the same thing with a college student sporadically attending ROTC courses, or an OCS candidate who has just 12 weeks until pinning on a gold bar.
It’s also true that ROTC and OCS officers bring something different and unique to the service by virtue of their not being completely immersed in a military environment, which is why ROTC and OCS are also important to preserve.
I have a growing respect and admiration for my peers who graduated from our military academies. I am in awe of the work and dedication it takes to apply, get selected, and thrive there – in many ways because I was completely not prepared to do so myself at that age. I’m proud to serve alongside USMA graduates and wanted to write this gentle love letter, because I can imagine how frustrating it must be to have your alma mater drug through the mud every couple of months, and thought that as a non-USMA guy, I could offer a perspective not tarnished by years of doing The Rocket.