Copyright John T. Reed 2015

Scott Beauchamp wrote an article titled “Abolish West Point” in the 1/23/15 Washington Post. A reader sent me the link and asked what I thought.

I am the author of the Web article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” If that article is effective and read by all prospects, they will have to abolish West Point for lack of applicants.

His favorite platoon leader did not go to West Point

First impression, the impetus for the article is Beauchamp liked his ROTC platoon leader from UCSB (my middle son’s alma mater) more than he liked his West Point platoon leader. That’s anecdotal—too small of a sample size. But he does offer some other fairly superficial evidence.

He says the academies have tons of prestige and rate high with the American people. Okay, but his evidence is lame. I would have liked to see some polling or ranking as to number of SAT scores sent to the academies or something more solid. Two of the most prominent West Point graduates recently in the news were Petraeus and McChrystal, each of whom got fired or resigned in disgrace.

He says the academies are charged with producing men and women to lead future military enlisted personnel. Actually, I think that’s just the entry-level role. After a couple of years, West Pointers, and other officers, supervise other officers who, in turn, supervise enlisted personnel.


He says the academies are centers of nepotism. Well, I believe I read and put in my main West Point article that 41% of the cadets have a parent who is career military—not necenssarily a West Point grad. I find that creepy and bad for America—a sort of separate tribe.

His sentence was,

They are centers of nepotism that turn below-average students into average officers.

I have heard slight rumblings about children of West Point getting in because of connections, but not much. He offers no evidence or stats.

University of Maryland equivalent

The only way I could think of to compare West Point students to civilian colleges was SAT scores in the college guides. West Pointers often say it is the academic equivalent of an Ivy League school. Nope. My oldest son went to Columbia, which is an actual Ivy League school. My wife and I graduated from Harvard Business School. West Point’s SAT scores came closest to matching Yeshiva University and the University of Maryland at College Park. I know of no reason to believe UMD admits below-average students.

Average at what officers actually do, but not at what we were taught at West Point

Regarding West Pointers being average officers, I would say we were not even close to average officers when we first graduated. See my article “West Point versus other sources of commission.” First, gimme a break! We were marinated in West Point 24/7 for 47 months. ROTC guys spend a couple of hours a week on it and go to some summer training. OCS guys attend a school that lasts 115 days or some such.

I got out four years after graduating so I did not get a longitudinal view of it. But my impression was that West Pointers were wasted on the military. It’s like using a Ferrari only to buy groceries and take your kids to school. The performance would look about the same as the other cars that cost less.

If you want to see what the taxpayers’ money bought in terms of West Point training, have West Point grad lieutenants compete with the ROTC and OCS guys in the realm of solving differential and integral equations, nuclear physics knowledge, designing a steel bridge. That’s what we spent so much time at West Point learning, not how to hang around the motor pool at Camp Swampy or the other stuff that patoon leaders actually do in the real Army. If you want a military competition, compare the rifle qualifications scores of the West Pointers and non-West Point officers. I and th erest of my West Point classmates almost all qualifed “Expert” which is the highest rating. I suspect the ROTC and OCS guys got a much lower average score.

An Army officer career simply does not require that which they would have you believe. The actual key skills are ass-kissing and signing false documents and “playing the game”—none of which were taught, or even acknowledged, at West Point during my time there in 1964 to 1968. So I would not expect West Pointers to be any better at that stuff than ROTC or OCS guys.

I do have some stats about who becomes generals and such, as does Beauchamp, and he is correct to say that West Pointers are no more successful in Army careers as evidenced by the generals’ sources of commission. I agree.

West Pointers are a discriminated-against minority in the Army officer corps

But here’s another angle on that. I say that West Pointers are a discriminated-against minority in the Army officer corps. Beauchamp says they are only 20% of the Army officer corps. That makes my point. Between the world wars, West Pointers apparently constituted the majority of Army officers. And we are heading there again with the cutbacks in size of the Army to 1940 levels. So during World War II, West Pointers had the high ground and promoted their fellow West Pointers. I do not believe they showed favoritism, but the more important thing is they did not discriminate against West Pointers.

In the Civil War, there was no question that the West Pointers were far better officers than the non-West Pointers—on both sides—but there was no ROTC then and lots of politics in selecting officers.

I believe the ROTC guys have discriminated against West Pointers.

Nowadays, West Pointers typically get out of the Army in substantial numbers so to measure the quality of the output of the academy, you need to see how the non-military-career West Pointers did. And I also point out most of those suffered from having to spend five or more years in the Army while their civilian peers were climbing up the corporate and other ladders.

So I doubt the below-average students thing and I would say that the ROTC guys figure out over time after they actually become officers most of what were advantages to us West Pointers when we first were competing with the ROTC guys as lieutenants. They were so screwed up we laughed at them as lieutenants and captains. For example, they did not know how to wear their uniforms or give commands. Pretty basic stuff we had learned five years before and been doing ever since.

West Point costs far more—agreed

Beauchamp says Academy grads cost about four times as much as ROTC officers to produce. I believe that. He says they are not worth it. I agree with that, too, but again because I think the job of Army officer is a sort of blue collar construction foreman type of work. Most of the money spent on us cadets was so we could learn calculus and nuclear physics and civil engineering, etc., none of which we used as lieutenants.

What many, if not most, of my classmates actually did after graduation was to spend five to 12 years in the Army then get out and become professionals: namely doctors, dentists, engineers, MBAs, lawyers, and so on. So we made good use of the West Point education, but the Army did not. If the Army does not need 1,000 new second lieutenant engineer-types each year, they should not be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce them. Don’t blame us grads for the cost or the non-utilization of what we spent most of our time learning at West Point.

Beauchamp rants about some other military programs like the F-35 jet and the M1 tank as too expensive, but that is not relevant to his article topic.

Opaque academy-selection process

He complains that the academy selection process is opaque—going through Congresspersons and all that. Well, you would think. But it’s a two-step process. 1. The Congressperson nominates the candidates 2. the academy admissions office decides whether they meet admission standards. The Congressperson can nominate a bum as a favor, but the bum will get rejected by admissions leaving the Congressperson to tell the parent he was doing a favor for, “Hey, I tried.”

I’m not buying the nepotism accusation

Beauchamp says,

According to an investigation by USA Today, nepotism often governs the nominations, with many going to well-connected families or big-name donors.

I never heard of such a thing, but neither did I read that article. Again, the Congressperson controls nominations, not admission. Except for two foreign cadets in my class, I do not recall ever thinking or hearing that anyone else in the class got in by pull. It was also well known that some of the dumbest guys at West Point were the intercollegiate athletes. Also, the solution to nepotism would be to end nepotism, not abolish the school.

I was impressed by my West Point classmates and the other six classes I knew when I was there. I score in the 99th percentile (the highest) on standardized tests and my final class rank at West Point was 473 out of 706. Below-average students my ass. And if the students were below-average, again, the solution would be to raise the standards, not close the school.

Beauchamp quotes some critics of West Point, albeit mostly from the 1800s. That’s a bit much when evaluating a college in 2014.

Maybe the right conclusion for the wrong reasons

This article is lame. But I am close to agreeing with it’s recommended action. The way I would put it is that West Point needs to start producing officers about whom such articles could not honestly be written.

By my calculation, I had 10,560 hours of mandatory instruction in my four years at West Point. If I had gotten that many credit hours at a university, I would probably have earned a couple of bachelors degrees, a masters, and a PhD. The problem with West Point was too much of that time was spent on trivia like polishing shoes or brass and the academics had no focus. We only got one BS degree with no major!

If West Point is unwilling or unable to use those 10,560 hours more productively such that its grads are clearly head and shoulders above graduates of other colleges where they spend far fewer hours getting instruction, close it down.

My long article “Should you go to, or stay at West Point?” is an infinitely better article on this topic than Beauchamp’s.

John T. Reed