Document created: 25 July 01
Air University Review, May-June 1981
Captain Phillip S. Meilinger
In the preface to his book Ivory Fortress, Dr. Richard C. URen notes that much of the literature regarding West Point is useless, "unless one has a taste for boys adventure stories." He has a point. In the past few years several authors, including URen himself, have tried to redress this deficiency. Unfortunately, most of these effortsThe Brass Factories by Arthur Heise, West Point: Americas Power Fraternity by K. Bruce Galloway and Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr., URens book, and a recent novel, Dress Gray, by Lucian K. Truscott IVare largely anti-service academy polemics and of little merit. A more balanced work is School for Soldiers by Joseph Ellis and Robert Moore, but it deals only with West Point. There is a need for a balanced look at all the military academies, how they operate and where they are headed.
John P. Lovell, a political scientist at Indiana University, has attempted to fill this void with Neither Athens Nor Sparta? The American Service Academies in Transition.* He maintains that the four military academies in this country are in serious trouble and need to be transformed. After summarizing the histories of the academies, he argues that changes in American society since World War II have forced a search for new directions in the service schools. These new directions resulted in a clash between those who emphasized military training and discipline (the Spartans) and those who pushed for an increasingly academic environment (the Athenians). Because of this clash and its destructive nature, the academies have failed in their primary mission of graduating quality military leaders. This failure is evidenced by high dropout rates and recurring "honor scandals." Lovell contends that radical new solutions are required and offers four options in his concluding chapter.
*John P. Lovell, Neither Athens Nor Sparta? The American Academies in Transition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979, $17.50), 362 pages.
The authors insights into academy operation and politics and cadet attitudes and motivations are often excellent and thought-provoking. Deficiencies in Lovells research, however, diminish the overall impact and importance of the book.
Lovell begins by sketching histories of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard academies. The oldest of these, West Point (1802), was based on what he terms the seminary-academy model. In this model, the cadet received a sound education in engineering and mathematics from officer-instructors who enforced strict discipline and required daily recitation in the classroom. This environment placed a premium on what Lovell terms the Spartan values of duty, loyalty, and courage. In the nineteenth century such an education proved adequate for training officers to fight Indians and the Civil War. Thus, the Naval Academy (1845), and the Coast Guard Academy (1876) adopted similar programs.
Lovell claims that the academies continued with these century-old methods until after World War II. That conflict showed some political and military leaders that the seminary-academy model was no longer viable because of the increased complexity of modern warfare. Nuclear technology, systems analysis, occupation duty, and enormous mass armies demanded new techniques of leadership and command. The obvious place to begin such change seemed to be in the military academies, but academy officials, as well as many high-ranking graduates throughout the services, were reluctant to break with tradition. Even when the Air Force Academy was founded in 1954, the obsolescent West Point model was extensively copied. The values of culture and learning, the Athenian values, were given secondary importance to the Spartan. As a result, the new institution began with a flawed orientation. Fortunately, a young and dynamic dean, Brigadier General Robert F. McDermott instigated sweeping reforms that modernized the curriculum, diminished the Spartan influence, and strengthened the Athenian. McDermotts unusual innovationsvalidation and transfer credit, academic majors, and follow-on graduate school evoked immediate resistance and disapproval from the older, more conservative academies. Over the next decade, however, these changes gained considerable publicity, and eventually many were adopted, albeit reluctantly, by the sister schools.
But these new departures proved to be insufficient. A cheating scandal which swept West Point in 1951 was duplicated at Colorado Springs in 1965. Other cheating scandals flared in 1967 and 1972 at the Air Force Academy and in 1976 at West Point. Lovell implies that when General McDermott retired in 1968 a major force for reform and innovation at the academies was retired as well. Subsequently, the schools have sunk into a period of reaction and retrenchment from which they have not yet emerged, except for a recent major alteration forced upon them from without: the admission of women.
Lovell feels it is time to pick up the reins of leadership dropped over a decade ago. The schools have failed to keep pace with the changes in society, and unless enlightened leadership is discovered, the academies will continue to suffer from high rates of attrition and periodic honor scandals that are symptomatic of deep-rooted institutional ills.
To remedy these ills, Lovell presents four scenarios: a combined service academy, mixed civilian-military collegiate experience, the academies as postgraduate institutions, and continued gradual incrementalism. None of these proposals are really new; rather they are ideas previously advanced by various sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. Significantly, all options would result in a marked turn toward the Athenian ideal and also a continued "civilianization" (Lovells term) of the academies.
These proposals are of some interest and deserve serious thought and discussion. American society, as well as the American military establishment, has undergone great change in the past three decades. It would seem reasonable to expect change in the academies as well. The schools do have problems; they have had
them for some time and no doubt will continue to have them in the future. It is important that men like Lovell, himself a West Point graduate, illuminate these problems and offer solutions. No doubt some will disagree with the extent of the problems described by Lovell and contest his proposed remedies. But it would be unwise for anyone to dismiss his observations and proposals out of hand as unnecessary or unjustified. They deserve consideration.
However, I think the author skirts a central issue in his analysis. What is the mission of a military academy? That question, though posed, is never really answered in this book. Unfortunately, that may be because the academies themselves are unsure of the answer. Nevertheless, resolving this question is the first essential step to understanding the schools.
First, it is necessary to state what is not the mission of a military academy. In my opinion, it is not to graduate top scholars or engineers. These specialists are an absolute necessity in the military today, but they can normally be recruited from the civilian sector. Nor is it the mission of an academy to produce athletes. Teaching military studies is another highly desirable but nonessential function. Such topics can be learned in summer camp or an ROTC classroom at considerably less expense to the taxpayer. Not even a combination of these functions comprises the total mission of the academies. All are important, even necessary to an officer, but by themselves they are meaningless.
The real mission of military academies would seem to be of the spirit. They should engender an attitude, a feeling, a sense of responsibility and duty to country. Academics, athletics, and military studies are merely tools that the dedicated leader can employ. Without the proper devotion and inborn sense of commitment, such tools are useless. As Lovell points out, all the curriculum changes in the world will not increase devotion to duty; such things are not learned from books. Rather, the academies should serve as leadership laboratories to train people to obey and command, to take care of subordinates, to react under pressure, to do what is right even though it is unpopular, and to develop a toughness of the mind as well as the body. One attempt to achieve these unquantifiable and somewhat nebulous goals is through a close and continuous association between cadets/midshipmen and officers. Hence, the academies emphasize military faculties, small classes, frequent counseling sessions, and, perhaps most important, participation by all staff members, and their families, in the cadet environment. The Air Force Academy places particular emphasis on the latter idea.
Desirable leadership traits are also fostered by what the author somewhat sarcastically refers to as "saga building." In order to instill pride and esprit, students are told of heroic exploits performed by previous graduates (The Long Gray Line approach). Buildings, auditoriums and dormitories bear the names of famous predecessors. Uniforms, customs, and ceremonies recall previous erastradition is continuously emphasized and fostered. Although such influences may be smiled at by some, one only need read, or better yet hear, the Duty, Honor, Country address of General MacArthur at West Point in 1962 to understand the powerful hold such ideas do generate. The academies hope that a sense of history and fraternal relationship between staff and student will plant seeds of inner commitment that will bloom at a later date. This inner commitment when coupled with an excellent education, athletic prowess, and military studies will produce a quality officer and leader.
A second crucial question is whether the academies are in fact producing a suitable product. To me, the criteria of too many "honor scandals" and excessive attrition rates seem inadequate for this purpose. As has been pointed out by academy officials, discovering and punishing those guilty of cheating is not a scandal, but failure to move against violators is. Even so, the number of students who leave the academies as a result of honor violations is small and has decreased appreciably in recent years. This is not to imply that men and women are necessarily more honorable now than previously, but it does indicate that the academies have heard the criticisms and are taking a closer look at their honor codes and how they are administered. (The Air Force Academy is currently carrying out a major revision of its honor system. The degree and impact of this change is not yet known.)
The use of attrition figures can also be misleading. There is no demonstrable correlation between attrition rates and the degree of strictness or laxity at the academies (in Lovells jargon, whether the Spartan or Athenian influence is ascendant). The reasons cadets give for resigning are varied and defy neat, categorical analysis. Moreover, I think it is important to realize it is not desirable that all cadets/midshipmen graduate. Some individuals are not suited for the military life although they may have unusual or exceptional talents in other areas. To take steps to ensure that the majority of cadets/midshipmen graduate and obtain a commission would not be in the nations best interest. Any program so easy or agreeable that it takes no effort or causes no hardship will not produce the kinds of leaders necessary in the stress of combat. It will always be difficult to measure the effectiveness of a military academy. But attempting to derive cost-effectiveness figures based on the cost of educating each cadet/midshipman and such factors as attrition rates before and after graduation, GRE scores, numbers of scholarships and the like are a contrivance. They will not determine the outcome of the next conflict and should be treated only as a reference, not as a standard.
The problems with this book, however, lie more with its research than its conclusions and proposals. As a graduate and former instructor at the Air Force Academy, I will comment primarily on the authors historical account of that school.
Lovells research is based largely on newspaper and magazine articles, official histories, and oral interviews. Primary documents in the Academy files and archives were largely ignored. For example, Lovell contends there were athletic recruiting violations in 1955 and 1965 at the Air Force Academy. He maintains, based on an interview he conducted with a former dean, General McDermott, that preadmission evaluation scores were changed in the Registrars office to allow academically deficient athletes to qualify and enter the Academy. But there is no evidence to support this explosive claim. The proof for this allegation, if it exists, would probably be in the Registrars files or Academy archives; which apparently Lovell did not examine. He also maintains that the uncovering of these violations in 1965 resulted in an investigation launched by Lieutenant General William S. Stone, a former superintendent who was then in the Pentagon. This investigation supposedly resulted in the removal from office of the incumbent superintendent and commandant.
However, there is no mention of such an investigation in Academy records, and none of the key participants involved were contacted by Lovell to confirm or deny the allegation. In an oral history interview conducted in 1979, General Robert W. Strong, Jr., the Commandant involved, maintained that the story was a fabrication.
Another incident discussed by the author that merits further investigation is the 1965 honor incident at the Academy. Lovells account relies heavily on information provided him by a former dean; the superintendent and commandant were not contacted for their accounts. This omission is of importance because an oral history interview conducted with that commandant by the Air Force Academy Department of History in 1979 differs substantially, not only in the believed causes of the incident but also how it was discovered, investigated, and, most important, how and why it was terminated. Another interview conducted with the director of athletics involved gives yet another perspective. In short, the last word on the 1965 "scandal" is yet to be written; the authors lopsided account does little but muddy already murky waters.
This incident points up another of the books flaws, the interviews (or lack of them) conducted by the author. Although he purports to be presenting a balanced view of the academies, it is in fact one-sided. He briefly spoke to only one superintendent. Although he blithely comments that the role of the commandant "can be important," he did not interview any of the ten men who have held that position. He also charges recruiting violations concerning athletes and overemphasis on football, but he did not contact any of the six former athletic directors. The result of this inexcusable deficiencymost of the men neglected are still available for commentis a continued skewing toward the academic, or "Athenian," point of view.
There are also many minor factual errors in the book that indicate careless research and editing. Basically, however, the books main flaw is that its scope is too ambitious. Lovell has attempted to summarize the histories and experiences of four institutions that are geographically, chronologically, and ideologically separated. He then attempts to draw analogies and conclusions from these scattered histories. In the best of circumstances this would be a difficult and demanding task. But this problem is compounded because there are no adequate general histories of the academies that Lovell could draw upon. A book of this kind needs a strong foundation already extant that can be expanded and improved. Since this foundation does not exist, Lovells first step was to build it himself; his efforts have been only partially successful.
Thus, the book falls short of the mark even though his issues are timely and important. The mission and operation of the service academies do need to be examined in detail; problems do exist and have for some time, but this book does not provide the solutions. The research necessary to write a quality book simply was not done. Consequently, the definitive work on the American military academies has yet to be written.
67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron (MAC)
Woodbridge, Suffolk, England
Captain Phillip S. Meilinger (USAFA; M.A.,
University of Colorado) is an HC-130 instructor pilot, 67th Aerospace Rescue and
Recovery Squadron, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. He has served as a Pacific ALCC
air operations officer, ATC instructor pilot, C-130 pilot, and has taught
history at the Air Force Academy. Captain Meilinger is a previous contributor to
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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