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How West Point and Annapolis are like East Berlin

by Bruce Fleming

The blurb for Lance Betros’s Carved from Granite (Texas A&M University Press, 2012) announces that “The U.S. Military Academy at West Point [all of whose graduates are commissioned as officers in the U.S. Army] is one of the nation’s oldest and most revered institutions.” The title of the book shows similar confidence in the institution’s longevity and power, suggesting that West Point has remained like a rock for the two centuries of its existence, especially the second century covered in this wide-ranging, sober, and sobering book.


Cadet at West Point, May 1998 (photo by AHodges7, Wikimedia Commons, Released under CCA-SA3.0 Unported License)

Sobering, because the book itself tells a different story than is suggested by its title, that of a deeply volatile and troubled institution that has expanded in size, dealt (badly at times) with the integration of women, tried to turn itself into a college from a technical training school (with variable success), gone into big-time American athletics and recruited students for that purpose, and embarked on a full-bore and largely behind-the-scenes race-based “affirmative action” admissions process that shuts out many better prepared applicants. All this is carried out at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer: West Point cadets, like all U.S. service academy students, not only get a free education but room and board, guaranteed employment on graduation, access to free military healthcare, retirement credit for federal service, and the prestige of having gone there. This contrasts to other educational options in America in a way not comparable in any Western ally. In America each state has a state university, partially funded by state tax monies but still costing on average of $50,000 for four years. Some are first rate (such as Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina) but all the top-twenty universities in the U.S., and many just below, are private universities such as the well-known members of the “Ivy League” (Harvard, Yale, Princeton and so on) or their equivalents (Stanford, Chicago, MIT, Duke, Vanderbilt, and CalTech) which typically cost that amount for each of four years for those students who pay full price (some are given scholarships for varying reasons). In fact the cost of West Point to taxpayers is more than twice the cost of an Ivy League education: close to half a million dollars per student. So going to one of these places is a huge gift courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer—a salient fact in this era of austerity and budget cuts.

The US has four military academies, all of which date from about the same time as their European counterparts. West Point, Sandhurst in England, and St. Cyr in France were all founded shortly after 1800 (West Point in 1802); Annapolis was founded in 1845, Coast Guard in 1876, and Air Force, when the Army Air Corps split off from the Army, in 1954. Though initially, in the nineteenth century and beyond, each produced most of the officers in its respective service, that proportion has dwindled to below 20% in all services. Most U.S. officers nowadays come from the hugely expanded Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) track where students go to normal colleges, take a normal course load with a few military classes, and put on a uniform a day or two a week (but are not in the military, as students at the service academies are), and from Officer Candidate School (OCS), where those who have done university (‘college’, as it’s called in the U.S.) on their own or enlisted seeking to be officers complete a several-months-long training course: all end as officers doing the same jobs, working side by side. There is no evidence that those coming from the service academies are better.


The U.S. Naval Aademy at Annapolis in the late 1860s (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cost of an ROTC officer to taxpayers, trained a few hours a week, is on average a quarter of that of a service academy officer (the government gives ROTC scholarships to college of varying degrees of generosity). OCS doesn’t last four years; it lasts a few months, and anybody who has risen through the enlisted ranks or finished college on his or her own can apply to go through it. If the candidate makes it through the training (most do), he or she is an officer—at one-eighth the cost to U.S. taxpayers of those shut in behind the walls of the service academies for four years. At the academies, they may not choose their clothes – or most classes, for that matter – and are involved in a simulacrum of “leadership” exercises where students one year further down the pipeline control those one year before and determine their lives: their liberty to go into town, their presence or absence at a thousand and one functions, their sleep cycle, the times they are allowed to wear their own clothes, and their hours for homework or working out—and where no sex of any kind, even hand-holding, is allowed. For four years. The vastly more numerous officers from ROTC and OCS, again, had none of these constraints, and apparently are just as effective as officers.

So why do these institutions still exist? The blurb cited above gives some indication: people revere them and they don’t understand how they’ve changed—and how the world has changed around them. I do: I’ve taught as a civilian English professor for 26 years at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, founded with a handful of all-male students to respond to the mid-nineteenth-century realization that ships had become so complex they required some classroom instruction. We still preserve the title “midshipman” for students at the Naval Academy, in memory of their forebears who shimmied up the riggings on sailing ships a-midships (in the center of the ship) to learn their trade. At the time, universities taught largely religion and classics to gentlemen, so clearly another kind of institution was necessary: it wasn’t until 1876 that Johns Hopkins was founded as the first U.S. university based on the German discipline-centered model to give Ph.D. degrees. In the more than 160 years of Annapolis all the buildings currently there were built, the institution expanded to its current 4500 undergraduates, the lockstep technical curriculum was replaced by a slightly more flexible one approaching that of a civilian college, and we now give the standard bachelor’s degree after four years. Betros’s chronicle of women, big-league sports, and racial preferences for West Point is also, mutatis mutandis, that of Annapolis and the other academies as well. As in the case of West Point too, the proportion of the officer corps represented by Annapolis in its respective military service has shrunk from near-total dominance before World War II to the current level of about 20% .

Yet they are vociferously defended by their proponents—which usually means, those who run them and some of those who graduated from them, all at government expense. The service academies, with a tuition of zero and countless benefits, are the gift that keeps on giving. Those who have been the recipients of this astonishing government generosity tend to defend it. Not just graduates love them, however. They’re certainly pretty, so tourists are enamored of them too: the less they know about what actually goes on there, the better. And those who run them make sure they never learn.

Germany was cured of its worship of the military by the Third Reich—the uniforms, the salutes, the boots, the goose-step (Stechschritt in German, less mocking), the Fahnenweihe—consecration of the flags. But it’s still strong in America: photographers can’t get enough of ranks of healthy fit young people with short hair and wearing form-flattering identical uniforms standing in ranks, or throwing their caps in the air, as they do at our graduation. We give parades for the public on Wednesday afternoons in spring and fall, and every day at lunch there’s a show at Noon Meal Formation.


Map of the U.S. Naval Academy, 1924 (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

Aside from the spit and polish that makes the service academies military Disneylands, what do taxpayers get from them? A small proportion of the officer corps. But the government could expand other programs and get those. Why do we need the service academies? We don’t. The U.S. academies are marked by wrap-around control that has largely disappeared at the service academies of allied Western countries. Students at Canada’s RMC/CMR (Royal Military College/College Royal Militaire) can marry, live off campus, and be any age that can do the physical part of things—none of which are options in the United States. Cadets at St. Cyr may also marry; the German military academies have dispensed with uniforms, the Australian is run by the University of New South Wales, and the Belgian one alternates academic blocs with training blocs, rather than allowing the training—ineffective, by almost all accounts—to encroach on studies, as they do at Annapolis and West Point. The British military has gone out of the undergraduate education business entirely: Sandhurst is now a cluster of post-graduate programs after students finish university elsewhere with their peers. In none of these countries is there the equivalent of ROTC, or the vast gulf between the 100% taxpayer-funded military academy experience (with guaranteed employment and prestige) and the staggeringly expensive civilian alternatives.

Because the actual utility of the U.S. service academies is so unclear, and their price so staggering, students are, in my experience, largely cynical and unmotivated as they realize that they are living props for the public, like the “cast members” at Disneyland, that their academic experience is compromised by the training, and the training simultaneously pointless and erratic, dependent on the whims of their classmates who are just as clueless as they are about the purpose of it all. Because the position of these academies in a changing world is so precarious, it also leads to a barrage of salesmanship from the academies themselves, eager to have the public fund them forever. (All government programs, as the U.S. right wing likes to point out, have as their primary goal their own survival.)

An official statement of the Naval Academy’s Public Affairs Officer at the Naval Academy in response to a radio interview of mine asserted that “we stand by our record of producing the nation’s finest leaders.” When I asked what this statement was based on—given that “finest” is a superlative, meaning better than any other officer commissioning source (the service academies produce less than 20% of officers in any given year)—aside from an inability to define “leaders” as opposed to officers, which of course they have the power to create, the response was this: “The statement is based on public record which shows the number of graduates who have gone on to serve distinguished careers.” So having “distinguished careers”—which Annapolis gets to define—is the same as being “finest leaders?” What about former President Jimmy Carter, the first recipient of the Naval Academy’s self-serving “Distinguished Graduate” award? He’s universally acknowledged to be a better ex-president than president, and Harvard has produced far more presidents than USNA.

Of course we can list some stellar officers who graduated from Annapolis. Are they better than ROTC officers? More of them for the period when ROTC was a larger source? And what of the opposite side of things (remember the claims are for the institution as a whole): what of those graduates who have ended their careers ignominiously? Are they also the product of the institution? Eight out of the 25 commanding officers removed for malfeasance in 2012 were Naval Academy graduates. Is there a list of them too? What of the half the class that serves its military time as junior officers for the mandatory service period of five years (or is discharged for medical or other reasons before that time)—are they finest leaders too?


Naval Academy midshipmen climbing the Herndon Monument in an old tradition (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

All in all, the academies and the hype they emit in direct proportion to their increasing irrelevance remind me of nothing so much as the tottering—could we have only known it—regime in what we, in the then West Berlin of the Wall years, called East Berlin. For when I lived in West Berlin as a Fulbright Scholar at the Free University in the 1980s, some half a dozen years before the Wall fell—an event almost no one at the time seriously thought would happen—the most extraordinary thing about the grim world of East Berlin, which began one street over on the other side of the Wall, was how unselfconsciously and how relentlessly it claimed to be the opposite of what it was. East Germany, called by its leaders the DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the “German Democratic Republic”—that the Western Bildzeitung always wrote as “DDR”—‘neither German nor democratic, and no republic either’, in Willy Brandt’s phrase—insisted that it was the “Worker-Farmer Paradise,” the world’s 9th largest industrial power. The hated Wall, that in any case was permeable to the West German radio and television secretly beamed into the living rooms of countless Easterners, was according to East Berlin not built for its true purpose, to stanch the hemorrhaging of population before its construction in August 1961, but rather to keep out Westerners who otherwise would deluge the Worker-Farmer Paradise, and to protect the socialist paradise of the East. (Of course the DDR, or “DDR”, didn’t call East Berlin “East Berlin” or even “Berlin (Ost)” as it was officially called in the West: it was “Berlin–Capital of the GDR” (Berlin—Hauptstadt der DDR), and Berlin-West, the official Western name for itself, was the oddly suburban-sounding “Westberlin,” a darkened island on the maps of the East German subway and East-German controlled S-Bahn train maps.

Then the Wall fell. East Berliners streamed out of the worker-farmer paradise that had been constructed for them, eager to be part of the decadent world of the West. In short order several things became clear: the industrial products of this “9th largest industrial power” were valueless in a world that suddenly had access to Mercedes and was not limited to Trabants and Wartburgs, not to mention the East’s gimcrack coffee makers and vacuum cleaners that had only had value in the closed market of the Eastern Bloc. The claims to being a top-ten industrial power were grounded, in any case, on the artificially set exchange rate that determined the ludicrous but face-saving mandatory exchange rate of one East Mark to one West Mark; in the banks of West Berlin one could get 10 East Marks for one West Mark, their true value. So the industrial might of East Germany, such as it was, was already exaggerated by a factor of 10. As the months and years passed after the fall of the Wall, even worse came out: in order to achieve even the shoddy goods, the Easterners had hopelessly polluted their fields and streams. Now there is no East Germany, no East Mark, no East Berlin: one moment the East was asserting its own power, the next it had given up. The former DDR has become “the new federal states”—die neuen Bundesländer. And money flows in one direction only: West to East.

Of course everybody knew that what East Berlin said about itself was usually lies, and at best empty cheerleading (how do you define “paradise”?). But still, how amazing that they could keep a straight face in repeating these ridiculous self-representations! No less am I amazed at the ability of the US Naval Academy, similarly protected by its Wall from the civilian world it claims it exists to defend, to say things over and over that are either simply untrue or lack all foundation. For East Berlin, it was the “Worker-Farmer Paradise.” For the US Naval Academy, it’s an institution devoted to “Leaders for the Nation.”

“Finest leaders” falls in the same category as “Worker-Farmer Paradise”: it’s not an empirically verifiable claim. The students are repeatedly told by all and sundry that they are the “best and brightest”—despite the fact that “best” seems to mean only the circular notion of “being at the Naval Academy.” This self-stroking at taxpayer expense is common to all the service academies. According to its website, the US Military Academy at West Point goes even further: it’s the “nation’s premier leadership institution.” Whatever that means, aside from the fact that students have to take courses in something called “Leadership.”

The Wall that separates the 338 acres of the Naval Academy from the rest of the town of Annapolis is eerily similar to the Berlin Wall too: it has its official crossings like Checkpoint Charlie with gates and guards, is lined with sensors that catch students trying to get over it, and cuts down the length of streets so we can see the houses and buildings on the outside from the inside. It’s easy for outsiders to get in, and out, as it was for me going over to the Brecht-Theater in the East to see a play, so long as they have the proper documents (“100% ID check,” say the gates)—but almost impossible at most times for those inside to get out. (There is some amnesty, called “liberty” for upperclassmen, as there was in the last years of the Wall for East Berliners visiting family in the West: they are allowed out at specified times so long as they come back when they are supposed to.)

East Berlin put on good theater too: the last place in Europe where the goosestep was on show was Unter den Linden, in front of the Alte Wache. And the First of May parade with all the red flags! Remembering all that is Ostalgie at its most virulent. The East got people on the streets by ordering them out, or punishing them if they didn’t. Midshipmen are similarly ordered to line parade routes and cheer, and under the adoring eyes of Annapolitans, march in formation to mandatory football games at our stadium a mile out of town.

But of course you can’t believe what they say. In the U.S., selectivity of institutions (the percentage of applicants they turn away) is a close indicator of quality, at least in the public mind. Recently, as a result of a Freedom of Information request I submitted (which means federal agencies are supposed to respond honestly), it became clear that the service academies had been claiming a rejection rate comparable with only a handful of well-known universities (such as Stanford and Princeton, both well above 90%) by inflating statistics: counting as “applicants” all the high school students who sought entrance into a week-long summer program, for instance, or who began an online application by putting in their name. This allows us to claim that we had over 20,000 applicants for about 1500 admits—including the 7500 who wanted to be among the 2500 coming to the summer program. This way of counting applicants is in direct contravention to the way other schools are expected to do it, but it makes us look good, so we’ve continued to do it. Meanwhile our average scores on the national Scholastic Aptitude Tests are lower than the (solid but not stellar) University of Maryland, the state university (the city of Annapolis, where the Naval Academy is located, is the capital of the state of Maryland ). West Point uses the same definition of “applicant” as Annapolis. This practice is defended by the administration by insisting that the service academies are “different.” Fine, but shouldn’t selectivity by definition be with respect to other schools?

When asked to justify their existence, therefore, the service academies come up empty—just like East Berlin. Yet they’re the ones in control of the information—just like East Berlin. Students are not allowed to speak to journalists not certified as safe by the administration, but are to refer all questions of tourists or inquiring outsiders to the Public Affairs Officer. The fact that they are in the military (as ROTC cadets are not) means they cannot publicly contradict their superiors. So according to the institutions themselves, they are the best of the best. According to whom else? Is there any evidence from the fleet that their officers are better? None. What is clear is that Annapolis is used as the taxpayer-supported staging area for countless examples of military pomp—retirements, funerals, changes of command, aside from providing vast support staffs of maid, butlers, and groundskeepers for the brass, all of whom live in the high-ceilinged Victorian houses maintained at taxpayer expense—just like the dachas of the East German nomenklatura.

History showed that there was no purpose to East Germany except its own survival. But isn’t that enough? Similarly, we might ask, why should the service academies be required to justify their existence? Haven’t they always existed? Aren’t they, as their most verbal alumni loudly repeat, “national treasures”? Have they not in fact produced many generals and admirals who have defended the U.S. in her hour of need? Why should we mess with success?

The historical record of the US service academies is based on a world that is no longer. The U.S. service academies, like East Germany, were at least plausible in their early years, when they filled a gap due to the absence of universities that taught more than religion and classics. But even this was mere theory. The military needed something grittier more attuned to the complex machines of ships and warfare. But in today’s world the officers don’t run the submarines—the enlisted do that, because the machines are so complex; and colleges offer countless practical majors. Why does the United States need a parallel system of military-run colleges that cost so much and invest so much time for little to show, like a second stand-alone Germany when the much larger first seems to work so much better? East Germany was initially defended by a number of writers and intellectuals such as Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers, and Christa Wolf. But as the grim reality of life there became plainer and the blossoming life in the West more florid, the voices became fewer and the pretensions to justification became ridiculous.

The historical record of the service academies is based on the fact that until World War II, they produced the lion’s share of officers—so the wars that were won were won by the service academy graduates, and they filled the lion’s share of top slots—presumably the “leaders” that the USNA PAO was referring to. (We don’t talk about the US wars they lost, such as Vietnam, or more recent conflicts.) Then ROTC expanded, both in the 60s and 70s, to the point where now the service academies produce only a tiny minority of officers. So of course the proportion of top jobs filled by service academy graduates has plummeted. Do they stay in longer? The most recent data indicated a 6% greater retention rate over time—including the years when ROTC was not so dominant—which is to say, insignificant. Are they better officers? No evidence that this is so. Better “leaders”? Start by defining terms. And again, no evidence precisely because it’s a vacuous claim—the Worker-Farmer Paradise all over again.

Though some form of service academies have existed since the 19th century, their current form as military-run undergraduate colleges is quite recent, and exists in relation to quite a different world outside. Before the 1960s they did not compete with the college education that goes along with a ROTC officer production pipeline, awarding a sui generis diploma. But in the 60s and 70s, as Vietnam made the military less popular, the service academies introduced majors (before, all students took an engineering-based progression of courses) and earned the right to award a bachelor’s degree. So they’re as much college as our ca. 4500 students are ever going to have. And they compete as officers, more tellingly, with graduates of normal colleges, who vastly outnumber them. And are apparently not better than them as a group.

As the French novelist François Mauriac wrote, he liked Germany so well he was glad there were two of them. So let’s concede that the claims of the service academies are silly, and their products are no better than others. All institutions engage in harmless boosterism and cheerleading, we might say. Why shouldn’t we be happy there are a multiplicity of commissioning sources? It’s sort of like the rainforest—we can’t right now say what the point of all that biodiversity is, but it’s bound to come in handy some day.

First of all there’s the fact that the academies are so hugely expensive to U.S. taxpayers. A service academy officer, again, costs taxpayers eight times what an OCS officer costs—many of whom pay for their own college and join the military after—and four times what the average ROTC officer costs. Even the most generous ROTC scholarship pays the price of a private school, about $200,000 these days for four years, whereas the service academies range from over $400,000 to close to half a million dollars per student—all paid for with taxpayer money.

In the same category of problem is the fact that a place at the service academies is one of the biggest government giveaways to individuals, and is awarded behind closed doors by people who refuse to identify themselves based on criteria that these unseen dispensers of public largesse refuse to outline even in the most cursory fashion: I have been through two rounds of appeals on Freedom of Information Act requests where the Naval Academy refused to say who admitted whom based on what. A service academy education is a free gift of the taxpayers worth twice even the closest competitor, with incalculable prestige and guaranteed employment after, as well as the lifetime aura of being a graduate—awarded by people who don’t provide the money, and with no oversight to correct the appearance of favoritism. This is not about access to military service: any American can go to college on his or her own dime and apply for OCS later, or join the ranks of the enlisted and work his or her way up. It’s a system of Deciders who refuse to identify themselves giving benefits to those they wish to give them to, with no questions possible and no justification necessary.

Currently the Deciders, whoever they are, give this huge benefit to many children of senior officers, the children of current administrators, and a raft of other special projects they deem worthy, such as Division I (‘Big School’) college athletics so Navy football can play the University of Notre Dame’s team. Why shouldn’t Navy play Division I football if Notre Dame does? Because it’s government money to produce officers, not an alumni-funded university. West Berlin here pays for East Berlin to continue with its PR blitz.

To justify their vast expenditure and to keep their niche, the East Berlin-like academies emphasize their differences with their equivalent of West Berlin—the world of civilian education that is their competitor on the other side of the Wall. We do X, Y and Z (ranging from having students memorize reams of useless information to taking courses they will never use, to marching up and down with a rifle to punish them for what their officer believes to be an infraction—though of course we will not throw them off this government dole even for major infractions because we claim that they are the “best and the brightest”). So too the East Berlin regime and its apologists saw positives in the drab, no-advertising decaying East—freed from the dreaded scourge of consumer choice. The East was pure: so too the Naval Academy tells its denizens over and over that they are “held to a higher standard”—effectively, morally purer than the decadent world outside the Wall.

Last but far from least, as the constant lies of the East Berlin hype apparatus meant that all its citizens were cynical non-believers, so too the students at the service academies—I know by talking to them—are complete disbelievers in the hype that spews from the academy’s Public Affairs Office. They want to believe they are the “best and the brightest,” but few believe that the spirit-crushing combination of monotony and unpredictability over little things, the constant assurances that they have “killed a whole platoon of Marines” at the slightest infraction, makes them better leaders. They don’t know what would, but they know it’s not this.

What we learned from the fall of the Wall is that social engineering to produce a perfect society does not work and always goes horribly wrong—perverted to the benefit of the upper echelon few, and resulting in dispirited, under-producing passivity. The louder the service academies trumpet their benefits—and fail to produce any data that would prove their assertions—the more likely it is that they too will one day simply implode. Like East Berlin in the 1980s, the service academies exist in a world that has slipped from their control.

Lance Betros: Carved from Granite. West Point Since 1902
Texas A&M University Press, College Station 2012.
ISBN: 9781603447713
Hardcover, 544 pages, US$ 40.00.

Bruce Fleming is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, having previously held teaching positions at Vanderbilt University, the University of Freiburg, and the National University of Rwanda. His most recent books are Running is Life: Transcending the Crisis of Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America 2010) and Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Fairfax, Virginia: Potomac Books). In addition to his scholarly work, he has contributed opinion pieces to the New York Times, Wahington Post, Baltimore Sun, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

(c) 2013 The Berlin Review of Books.