Ricks: Close the Service Academies

Tom Ricks has a provocative column suggesting that we don’t need the service academies for military officers:

After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I’ve concluded that graduates of the service academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I’ve been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

This is no knock on the academies’ graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they’re getting community-college educations. Although West Point’s history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point’s faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school? Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers — three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way — they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects.

This is an issue I’ve never thought about before. But the point that it makes more sense for the military elites of tomorrow to be educated alongside the other kinds of elites of tomorrow seems right to me. The question becomes whether or not it’s genuinely the case that the service academy graduates don’t perform better as officers. Ricks’ anecdotal impression is powerful, but you wouldn’t actually want to abolish these schools without first undertaking a more serious look at performance. But that seems like an exercise that would be worth undertaking.