On the Corruption of the Military Academies

A recent West Point graduate, still serving in the U.S. Army, shocked admirers of the venerable American military academy with his candidly pro-Communist views. How could such an institution, founded on “duty, honor, country,” produce such a student?

A junior Army officer who states his anti-American opinions so openly may seem novel, but we should quell our surprise. After all, his views are indistinguishable from many of his peers at other distinguished universities.  The craziness so common at other American college campuses is now demonstrated to have infected even our military service academies. We should not be surprised, but we are right to be outraged.

I have some experience here. I taught at the United States Air Force Academy from 1996 until 1999, and in addition I’ve taught at other civilian universities.

The Red Cadet scandal hurls a major national pillar—one that has manfully held out against much of the progressive revolution in politics—against the leading advocate of progressivism today, the universities. At stake is the question of the practical purpose of higher education and the ethos necessary to support it. Thus, the real focus of the recent condemnation of disciplinary standards by a former West Point faculty member and graduate was, in fact, the decline of the institution he had known, and not the repellent, even subversive views of a recent graduate. In his estimation, the academy has fallen away from its purpose.

The military, with its service academies—West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy—have understood this purpose mostly implicitly:  military officers must be loyal to the country. That’s why soldiers swear an oath to the Constitution. Alumni of other colleges may pledge financial support to their alma mater but no such serious and legally binding oath is expected of them.  

To state the issue in dramatic terms: Does a distinguished general and scholar such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster belong more to the traditions of West Point and the military, or to those of the progressive academic world?

Yet, civilian universities today all too often require de facto oaths to the latest tenets of progressivism, from politically correct language (by which pronoun would you like to be addressed?) to suppression of robust debate. Graduates of these institutions may as well be goose-stepping in ever-tightening mental circles—a herd of independent minds, as it were. Whether in promising careers, personal fulfillment, or graduate school placement, the focus of these schools is on individual professional achievement. Even a the dubious focus on “leadership” at some institutions betrays a thoughtlessness about whom is being led and to what purpose.

Countering both formal and informal pressure from society at large, the service academies take great pains to produce men (and now women) with the character required to be officers. These institutions are vocational schools (until recently, they were engineering schools), but the vocation they train students to fulfill is not one meant merely to fulfill those students in their personal calling, it is a vocation that demands service to the nation. That requires qualities ignored, defined differently, or even defined contrarily by civilian institutions.

Loyalty or patriotism was ready enough to come by in the days when flag burning was universally condemned and people stood for the National Anthem without spectacle. But this new political world of increasing social divisions makes it more difficult to find and adds more pressure to the already demanding lives of cadets. After all, isn’t it possible that the Red Cadet embraced the official ethic of “service before self”  so fanatically that he  embraced communism as its natural fulfillment?  Might he have rejected  his duty toward a nation conceived in liberty in favor of his bizarre  understanding of service?

An instructor sees the root of this confusion when cadets mistake studying in groups with forbidden plagiarism. More ominously, cadets think they are being devoted to their buddies by overlooking inherently wrong behavior—such as copying a roommate’s solution to a tough mathematical equation. At least as bad, cadet approvals or condemnations in the student-run justice system may occur for reasons of personal favor or spite.

There have also been spectacular instances of the leadership’s surrender of the military ethos to progressive forces—take the removal of the “Bring me men” exhortation above a major ramp at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the midst of a sexual assault cover-up scandal.

Is it impossible to be inclusive without denying manliness? Advocates of inclusiveness should never take from those who preceded them. Whatever the relative wisdom of permitting women and gays in the military, addition need not require subtraction (though it may produce division).

What makes the military and its undergraduate education curriculum distinctive from the civilian world is the soldier’s ethic of duty, which Thomas Ricks describes vividly in Making the Corps.) As far as I know, cadet attendance at home football games is still compulsory. Cadets sit together in their units. These are rituals, not simply entertainment. Once, a student who pled illness and studied in her room was expelled. She wasn’t expelled for not attending the football game but for lying for her personal advantage.

Perhaps an argument could be made for less severe discipline, especially when one considers that expulsion following one’s sophomore year requires the cadet to reimburse the government for the cost of her education (easily a six-figure amount) or enter the military as an enlisted person. Such debilitating consequences should cause anyone to hesitate applying such extreme discipline. Military decisions may well be harsh, even brutal, and yet still be just. Officers need to learn to take responsibility. The honor code requires not only prohibitions on cheating but also a policy of not tolerating those who do. The latter part of the code seems spottily to be applied.

align=”right” In one sense the military academies with all their virtues are an anomaly in a democracy, but in a more compelling sense they are a necessity in a democracy. Thus in these trying times, the need for cadets to be properly instructed in the principles of American democracy is more pressing than ever.

I once caught a cadet in a flagrant plagiarism case, and it took some effort to see it to its successful end. What horrified me most about her attitude was her insistence she had confessed her plagiarism in a footnote and because if she were truthful in the commission of her crime she could not be charged with an honor code violation. (The footnote she claimed was in the paper did not exist, which compounds the violation of honor, but the idea that she thought it should exonerate her was astonishing to me.) Other professors had bad experiences with the same student, while others supported her. Once justice had been served, a preposterous cover story spread among the cadets, one repeated to me by a cadet who had not known I played a role in her dismissal.

Thus, due to privacy requirements, her misconduct could not be used as an example to instruct her former peers. Would it not be better for such a person to be offered a modest dis-honorarium to leave the academy, once she confessed her crime?  Instead, it became easier for me and others just to give suspected plagiarizers poor grades and maybe send their non-commissioned supervisors a harsh note. In other words, the corruption of the honor code long predated the recent Red Cadet controversy.

Contrast such honor requirements plus six or seven academic courses per semester (with lots of multiple-choice testing), military training and classes, and a highly regimented life with the lax ways and loose lifestyle of an undergraduate in California. But assuming cadets survive their first-year doolie (from doulos or slave) ordeal, they not only have an all-expenses paid education but a most precious opportunity to enjoy the finest friends one could possibly know. This struck me about my military teaching colleagues, the finest I’ve ever had. I regret that I never fully appreciated how the ethic of  “service before self” worked while I taught at the Air Force Academy.

In one sense the military academies with all their virtues are an anomaly in a democracy, but in a more compelling sense they are a necessity in a democracy. Thus in these trying times, the need for cadets to be properly instructed in the principles of American democracy is more pressing than ever.


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About Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. He has been a speechwriter for two cabinet members, and a special assistant for Clarence Thomas when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Masugi is co-author, editor, or co-editor of 10 books on American politics. He has taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he was Olin Distinguished Visiting Professor; James Madison College of Michigan State University; the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University; and Princeton University.