Copyright John T. Reed

Bruce Fleming is a 25-year English professor at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Apparently he has tenure because he has a habit of denouncing his employer with ferocious, withering criticism yet still works there. I do the same with my alma mater the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but I am just a grad, not a professor. Fleming is not a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and, as far as I can tell, not a military veteran. I was in the Army after West Point including a tour in Vietnam.

Here are links to Fleming’s two anti-Academy articles:

I recommend those interested in attending service academies read them. Also those interested in seeing the academies move closer to their ideals and purpose and away from their nuttier bad habits and traditions.

I generally agree with Fleming’s second article although he is a bit off in a couple of respects regarding West Point. Those parts may be accurate with regard to Annapolis, I was only there for one long exchange weekend. He says the Academies infantilize their students. That’s one way to put it. My wording would be they make you behave like obsessive, compulsive neat freaks and that the Academies and their services all but prohibit students and members from ever making any decisions. That latter is infantile, but the neat-freak stuff is not.

Fleming says the Academies need radical change and if not, they should be closed or put to some other purpose. That, I agree with. The mission of them is to win our wars. Their graduates no longer win wars. Haven’t won one since 1945. The Academies seem to have morphed into some sort of politically-correct Colonial Wiliamsburg (Fleming calls it Disneyland) of well-behaved, well-groomed, polite young men and women. If that’s the best they can do, if they think that’s all they have to do, shut them down.

Fleming says the best Academy students are “deeply angry, disillusioned, and frustrated.” Maybe they are now, but when I was there I would say a percentage of the student body felt that way but those people were a cross-section of the students, not just the top ones. Indeed, the top ones were probably less likely to feel that way because they were the fair-haired boys (males only then) of the place. Also, having been to a half dozen reunions, I would point out that who the “top” students are turned out to be something you could not really be too sure of until decades later.

Fleming says the students are not as great as a group as the Navy PR says. I say the same about Army. When I was there in the 1960s, they were pretty top notch academically as a group—not counting many recruited athletes. I think they have been lowered by the Vietnam war and general anti-military feeling in the country since the 60s.

Fleming also says even the PE programs at the Academies are over-hyped. My position is the average cadet or midshipman is in better shape than the average civilian college student but that the average Division III athlete is is far better shape than the average service academy student.

He says the current emphasis on reducing attrition has lowered all standards at the Academies including academic, physical, and moral. I have heard that as well.

Fleming says the Academies claim to teach leadership but that,

Leadership can't be taught, it can only be modeled.

I have discussed that at length in my articles and some books. The way I put it is that there are mechanical tricks that anyone can learn in any field including leadership, like how to give a command or going to the back of the chow line and making sure your men eat before you do. There is also simply knowledge of the job like how to set up an infantry defense perimeter. But mechanical tricks and subject knowledge alone to do not make you a leader. Generally, leaders are, indeed, born not made.

He depicts an incredibly sloppy Annapolis by the standards of my era but I have heard and noticed as did my wife that the standards at West Point are now much lower than when I was there. Fat cadets. Lousy food in the mess hall. Honor code violators not being thrown out. Etc.

As I and many others have said, the Academies probably ought to change their student age range to an older range and only teach students with years of military experience rather than 17-year-olds like me. And they should not be four-year bachelors degree institutions. America has plenty of good colleges.

He says to end letting upperclassmen practice leadership on underclassmen. I disagree. That was quite valuable.

He says to let them make more decisions. Okay, but how’s about doing the same to the Army and Navy services where they will become officers. Otherwise, why let them make decisions when they are going to work for an organization where all decisions are made in the White House.

He says to stop paying cadets. Never thought about that. Now that I am, he’s nuts. Who would put up with all that crap and pay for the privilege? Some would say the students at places like VMI, Citadel, etc.. Fine. Then close West Point and Annapolis and try to recruit more grads of VMI, etc. I think that would get a very different group of students than they have had at the government academies.

He says to raise the standards. I agree and add make sure we are talking about substantive standards not aligning belt buckles with shirt seams.

He wants a civilian PhD for head of the academies. I have trouble imagining that. Don’t think it’s a good idea. Generally, I do not like lifer bureaucrats, especially military ones. But as long as the academy grads keep going into the officer corps after graduation, seems like they ought to have an active-duty grad in charge.

I expect Fleming will be fired on some trumped-up charge or that the Naval Academy will end all tenure in order to silence Fleming. I am amazed he has lasted this long.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

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