19 April 2009

Thomas Ricks and West Point

It begins...

Thomas Ricks, author of "Fiasco" and "The Gamble" has penned an op-ed in the Washington Post indicating his desire to close the service academies and to close the advanced military studies courses, advocating a preference for ROTC programs for junior officers and civil schooling for senior officers in an attempt to improve public diplomacy in the military.

I'm not going to join the debate on ROTC vs. West Point or the closing of advanced military schooling. What I do want to talk about is my college life--specifically, the interactions I had during those four years that I couldn't have had if I went to West Point.

For the first two years of college, I associated with people in my ROTC program primarily. Then, during my junior year of college, a person by the name of Jacob Morgan started up a web site called "The Wolf Web", and advertised it by painting the URL all over campus. Overnight, the website attracted hundreds, if not thousands of students, who began talking about classes, local events, politics, internet memes, sex (quite a bit), and of course, sometimes about absolutely nothing at all.

This was really one of the prototypes of social networking--It wasn't Web 2.0 as we know it by any means, but it still included a message board, photo gallery, profile section, and a class/professor rating feature.

Even though I went to class with thousands of students from outside the military, I wouldn't have said that I had regular interactions with them until I began to meet with them at Wolf Web functions--functions organized on the Wolf Web designed to allow everyone to meet at a local pizzeria/bar.

Through this service, I began life-long friendships with lawyers, aspiring politicians, bankers, teachers, and all sorts of engineers, many of whom now work in Research Triangle Park in Raleigh. Through the Soap Box forum--one based on politics--I was exposed to ideas I would have never encountered in ROTC, let alone in West Point. I had to debate students who believed that America was engaged in empire-building, that soldiers were brainwashed sheep. I had to prove to them by my example that I was anything but the stereotype that they had. It never ceased to amaze me how many people lived until their early twenties without meeting someone who was in the military. I had to re-think many of the assumptions I had about the US and the military, and the dialectic I enjoyed with other students caused me to refine, and even strengthen my views.

Another experience I had that greatly affected me in college happened shortly after 9-11, when I attended a student symposium about that event. Speaking at that event was a Middle Eastern studies professor, Dr. Akram Khater (I had taken two of his classes, and highly enjoyed them both). Dr. Khater put forward a thoughful argument, and while not condoning the attacks in any way, explained to us what al Qaeda's ideology was, and had to break the shattering news to all of us: that America and Israel were not always the dream team that we liked to think we were.

Entering the minds of those in the Middle East is extremely valuable in understanding the types of conflict we face in that region, and I fear it may not be as good an experience at West Point, especially considering that the many of instructors don't have PhDs, and I don't think West Point has Middle Eastern exchange students that students can interact with.

Should we support greater opportunities for public diplomacy for military officers? Absoultely. Should we go about it by closing the service schools? Eh, you decide...


Boss Mongo said...

Hmm, where to start, frere Starbuck?

Okay, let's see,
-I attended the USMA and was a Middle Eastern Studies major. I did Academy exchanges with Jordanian and Algerian cadets. By the time I left, I was DLPT-qualified in Modern Standard Arabic, as well as in Egyptian dialect.
I had picked the major I did because my impression, gleaned from my academic endeavors and opportunities at the Academy, was that the Soviet Union was contained and would be neutralized as our #1 threat, and that Arab/Islamic terrorism would be the primary threat in the ensuing years (graduated before the first Gulf War).
I'm not the brightest guy on the planet, so the lessons learned at WP must've had some efficacy. Maybe my academic institution proved a little more effective than Harvard, Yale, Brown, Amherst, et al that educated the sophisticates that flocked to the actual "public diplomacy" organs of the US in State and at the Agency.
The job of the Academies (and ROTC) is to build outstanding company grade officers. Quite frankly, while a capability to participate in public diplomacy is an ancillary skill we want in our officers, it is not, nor should it be, our primary mission.
The only reason so much "public diplomacy" is being foisted on the military is because our diplomatic organs of state are either inept or MIA. The model we want to follow is the academic template used to create our current crew of substandard public diplomats? Shyuh.
While I think we need to reform training and education in the US military to meet our current requirements (and to break the stranglehold of the "cookie cutter"), last thing I'm going to do is listen to a bunch of Ivy League gonifs whose own products have been, shall we say, more than a little lacking in performance over the past decade or so.
You're lucky I read this before I really started drinking in earnest this morning.

Starbuck said...

Don't worry, I'm just as scathing towards our State Department (and I use my real name in those articles also). The only problem is not many people write about the the State Department, and usually I have to pay like $5 per article when I link to them.

I have views but I'm not paying $5 per post to express them :)

Anonymous said...

"and I fear it may not be as good an experience at West Point, especially considering that the many of instructors don't have PhDs"

When I look back at all of the idiot who I have dealt with who have PhDs, I just hope that you have had time to realize that is one stupid comment. You might want to visit West Point and get to know the instructors and students. You will find that they have a much higher awareness of world affairs than any group of students from other colleges. Your viewpoint is one-sided and your article was written assuming a lot about something you know little about.