WPPA vs. ROTC

June 13, 2009

A while back, Tom Ricks stirred up a hornet’s nest of protest by suggesting that the service academies (i.e. West Point, Annapolis, and whatever the call that Pentacostal community college where they make fly-boys) ought to be closed down and their funding redirected to ROTC programs at elite universities.

Ricks, no stranger to controversy, really went out on a limb here, offending a sizable percentage of the officers who provide the bulk of his interview subjects.  For that, I tip my cap.  I’m sure he thought through the ramifications and still went ahead and posted his idea.  That takes a courage of convictions not often seen in policy-making circles.*

*Yes, I know Ricks is not technically a “policy-maker” but it’s hard to find a FOB in Iraq or Afghanistan that doesn’t have at least one well-thumbed copy of Fiasco or The Gamble kicking around.  He’s probably one of the most widely read contemporary authors on US defense policy.

The response, both positive and negative was overwhelming, and Ricks has been posting much of the commentary on his Foreign Policy blog.  Needless to say, tempers (especially in the comments section) are running high.

I won’t rehash the whole argument or the ensuing debate here, but the latest installment is particularly interesting.  Ricks posted a submission from a reader (presumably a proud member of the WPPA) which showed that most of the current senior leadership in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan are West Pointers.  The list:

…..with GEN McKiernan’s dismissal and the appointments of LTGs McChrystal & Rodriguez to command positions in Afghanistan, every 3- and 4-star general officer exclusively directing the ongoing wars will soon be a West Point graduate:

“War Czar” LTG Doug Lute ’75
 
USCENTCOM CG GEN David Petraeus ’74
 
MNF-I CG GEN Ray Odierno ’76
MNC-I CG LTG Charles Jacoby ’78 (who recently replaced LTG Lloyd Austin, ’75)
MNSTC-I CG LTG Frank Helmick ’76
 
ISAF/USF-A-designate LTG Stan McChrystal ’76
New Operational Commander (MNC-I equivalent) LTG David Rodriguez ’76
 
Additionally, the new ambassador to Afghanistan is Karl Eikenberry is USMA ’73.

Ricks also reproduces anther list, from a different officer, which shows that many of the people associated with recent failures in the GWOT came from sources other than West Point:

GEN Tommy Franks, OCS (CENTCOM)

GEN John Abizaid, USMA ’73 (CENTCOM)

GEN George Casey, ROTC (MNF-I)

GEN Dan K. McNiell, OCS (ISAF)

GEN David McKiernan, ROTC (ISAF)

LTG Ricardo Sanchez, ROTC (CJTF-7/MNC-I)

What Ricks (and his contributors) fail to realize is that there are several problems with drawing conclusions from this data.  First, all of these officers have at least twenty years of active duty in their respective services.  To say that their performances are the result of the formative process they went through in college is patently ridiculous.  Much more likely is that their abilities and traits, especially as senior commanders, were formed over years of command at varying levels, as well as prolonged exposure to the military culture within which they live.

Second, the author is guilty of cherry-picking to select only those officers which support his argument.  Now I’m not one to defend Tommy Franks (and I even read his awful book), and I’m not a big fan of George Casey either.  However, David McKiernan, despite his recent replacement in Afghanistan, is a fine and well-respected officer at whose feet one would be hard pressed to lay any amount of blame for our current difficulties.  In fact, if one were looking for a reason we are not succeeding in Afghanistan under McKiernan’s watch, perhaps one could look at the way the entire mission was under resourced by the Pentagon and CENTCOM.   And who was it that runs CENTCOM?  Oh, right, Petraeus, Class of ’74.

And at what point did Ray Odierno get “rehabilitated?”  When he first got to Iraq, he was guilty of running his division in a way which has since been criticized by nearly everyone, including Ricks himself.  The fact that Odierno finally began to understand what we were up against, and became a disciple of Petraeus is to his credit, but I doubt it’s the result of four years in the Long Gray Line way back when.  Flexible thinking is not exactly something they drill into you at the Point.

True, Stan McChrystal (and his hand-picked deputy Rodriguez) are both West Pointers, and McChrystal’s track record in Iraq and with JSOC is impressive (if slightly controversial).  But it remains to be seen if their new approach will bring much-needed change to the operations in Afghanistan.  And a career snake-eater like McC is hardly the prototypical West Point graduate.

Third, the might be a selection bias inherent in these lists.  A military career, especially one with a high operational tempo, is a difficult and arduous job.  There are many opportunities to depart for greener pastures, and a number of otherwise good field-grade officers leave for reasons unrelated to their performance.  One of the most common is being passed over for promotion, which can happen in a frighteningly arbitrary way.  It is at least possible that some of the officers who survive to the 3 and 4-star level do so because they are folded within the pshielding embrace of the West Point Protective Association.  When push comes to shove, it’s not unheard of for the ring-knockers to stick together at promotion boards.  This is not to suggest that Petraeus, McChrystal, et. al. got to where they are because they were given promotions they didn’t earn; only that other highly qualified officers were never given that chance because they did not wear the West Pont ring.

Note that none of the above means I agree with Ricks’ suggestion to close down the academies.  Although they may no longer be the bastions of academic rigor they once were, and they may no longer be the most cost-efficient means of turning out junior officers, the service academies still serve a vital purpose by producing a steady stream of professional, career-oriented officers whose sole focus is on the execution of their duties.  Well-rounded, entertaining guys to have at a coctail party?  Probably not.  But there’s not a lot of cocktail parties in Afghanistan.

Plus, the Army-Navy game is fun, if only for the opportunity to watch some laughably bad football.