Streetwise Professor

August 27, 2023

The Service Academies: Either Toughen Them Back Up or Close Them Down

Filed under: Military — cpirrong @ 5:15 pm

As someone who experienced Plebe Summer and Plebe Year at the Naval Academy, and the close relative of someone who did 18 years earlier when both were much tougher, I can say with confidence that those currently in charge of evaluating it, and the programs of the other service academies, are clueless idiots. Why? Consider this:

“The training environment and overall climate at the academies are undermining their ability to prevent harmful behavior,” Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, said Thursday. “Unless some of these more structural and foundational issues are addressed within the training environment, these problems are going to persist.”

What are the “structural and foundational issues”? This:

Each of the service academies uses some form of a “Fourth Class System” where second- or third-year cadets or midshipmen are the primary trainers for incoming freshmen, sometimes referred to as “new cadets” or plebes. But the Pentagon researchers said the older students don’t have the maturity or experience to act as suitable mentors.

And this:

“The peer leadership structure is actually creating unhealthy power dynamics that lead to hazing that further exacerbates this risk,” said Andra Tharp, senior prevention adviser for the Defense Department’s Office of Force Resiliency.

The active-duty military officers assigned to the individual cadet or midshipmen units were often seen more as disciplinarians than mentors, the Pentagon researchers said.

“They didn’t know when or how to prioritize a cadet or midshipman’s well-being over discipline,” Ms. Tharp said

Talk about people unclear on the concept. The system at the academies has nothing to do with “mentorship.” It is about training officers and leaders. The system is set up for learning-by-doing. When you are a plebe, you are learning to take orders, to observe military discipline, and to structure your life in a military environment that is completely alien to the environment in which you grew up. You are also learning to lead by watching others–and in many cases, learning from their mistakes.

And the “hazing”–which is a shadow now of what it was 46 years ago which was already a shadow of what it had been in my uncle’s day–also has a purpose. Several purposes. It helps identify who really wants to be there. It melts the snowflakes who can’t hack it. It provides a jarring separation from your civilian life–which is essential. It tests and develops your ability to think and act under pressure. It reveals and develops your toughness–especially mental toughness.

When you enter the 3rd class (a “Youngster” at Navy, sophomore in the civilian world) you get very modest leadership responsibilities over some plebes. 2d Class, a little more leadership responsibility. 1st Class, a lot more; and among the 1st Class mids/cadets, there is a hierarchy with ranks, with those holding higher ranks having more leadership responsibility. The 1st Class Mids assigned to Plebe Summer duty have a lot of responsibility and influence.

But it is very much learning by doing. And yes, there are good leaders and bad. There are assholes and sadists. There are also some very good ones. And they get to learn and practice leadership before being thrown into active duty where they will have much greater responsibilities. Some learn from their mistakes and get better. Some don’t.

As an extreme example of bad leaders–and bad humans with rank and responsibility–my bête noire in my 2 years at Navy was a guy named Scott Pickles. Yes–real name. He was always trying to bust my balls. I emphasize “trying” because I was repeatedly able to evade his traps, like the time he thought he had caught me red handed wearing civvies in Annapolis, and I pointed him to the reg saying that those with a leave address inside the 7 mile limit (measured from the Chapel Dome) could wear civvies, and telling him to look at my leave chit–which indicated a leave address at St. John’s College across the street from the Academy (where a high school friend attended and in whose room I crashed).

But he evidently had some complex about me, and a few of my buddies, and was always trying to screw with us. (I have theories why.) He was a failure as a leader, and the system at Navy gave him an opportunity to learn and overcome, but he didn’t.

His failure wasn’t due to the system. It was him. His personality. I always thought he was a werido and indeed a sicko, and years later I thought it was a tragedy that my roommate didn’t carry through on his threat to throw Pickles out our 4th story window when the latter threw a tantrum when inspecting our room. Why a tragedy? Because he killed his wife and 3 kids in their sleep after failing as a lawyer. (His outrageous and disgusting acts are why I do not hesitate calling him out by name.)

So yeah. A sicko. If the system failed, it was for not recognizing that he was a sicko.

And that’s the flaw I see in the system. Once you get past 3rd class year, if you keep up your grades and don’t get demerits, they turn you loose on the fleet (or the Army or AF) even if you’ve proved to be a bad human being with toxic leadership traits. Conditioning commissioning on a realistic appraisal of leadership performance, rather than rubber stamping a Scott Pickles with a 2.5 GPA, would turn the alleged liabilities of the system into an asset. You can’t pass “Wires”–you’re gone. The same should hold for demonstrated unfitness for leadership–which the system gives every opportunity to demonstrate.

That would turn the alleged flaws identified by the Pentagon minders into a real strength.

I would also say that being exposed to bad leaders at an academy is valuable training in itself. You will come across bad leaders as an officer. Knowing how to identify them and deal with them is a skill in itself.

And yes, company officers (the commissioned officers referred to in the last quoted paragraph) are in charge of discipline. You can’t realistically “mentor” 100+ mids/cadets, let alone be their therapist and ensure their “well-being.” And again, in the force, your superiors are not going to be your caretaker either: you have to learn a lot of self-reliance, and it’s far better to do that at an academy than when you have a billet that could require sending people to die. Further, the commissioned officers are not supposed to pre-empt the learning-by-doing leadership system.

The very fact that the Pentagon has an Office of Force Resiliency fretting about plebes getting yelled at tells you a lot about today’s US military.

The ostensible reason for these criticisms of the academies is “a ‘disturbing and unacceptable’ recent rise in reported sexual attacks and sexual harassment at the nation’s leading service academies.” The Pentagon fretters claim that this is due to the nature of the training system.

I will definitely not minimize the severity of sexual assault. But I have to say that this assertion of a causal link is almost wholly unsubstantiated, at least based on this article. Women have been at the academies since 1976-7. If anything, the environment was more “toxic” (by the fretters’ definition) then than now–as I can personally attest. So how could the system cause a “recent rise” in such (reported) incidents? When a background condition remains the same or gets better, it is not plausible to attribute changes in other variables to it.

I therefore think that the fretters have totally misdiagnosed the problem, and hence are recommending a quack cure.

I am also curious about how recent is recent. Like, did it coincide with COVID, when life at the academies was much more restrictive, mids/cadets were in much more constant contact than before, normal stress relieving activities–and fun activities–were almost eliminated, and life in general (for everyone, not just academy students) was highly stressful?

Also, what is the control group here? I recollect that there are also claims of increasing rates of reported sexual assault and harassment at civilian colleges and universities, which could reflect a higher incidence, or a greater willingness to report, or both. Are the academies outliers relative to these? Or is this reflective of broader social trends, unrelated to venerable academy training regimens?

Look. I obviously didn’t find a career as a naval officer attractive–I punched out of the Academy after my 3rd class year, despite the attempt of the Superintendent (a 3 star admiral and Medal of Honor winner, William P. Lawrence) to talk me out of it. I put up with the Mickey Mouse, but I understood the point. I learned from it. The Office of Force Resiliency, not so much.

I actually think the choice is binary. Either retain the existing system (and even revert to the way it was years ago, rather than softening it more than it has been softened already), or closing the academies altogether. I think a strong case can be made for the latter option. That case is all the stronger if the fretters get their way. The system they envisage is basically ROTC with uniforms 24/7, at a vastly higher cost. What’s the point of that?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. One can manage upwards, but leadership is always downwards and it’s about getting the mission done with managed empathy. If a service academy can’t get that single point across, then maybe you are right.

    During my time in the army, as an enlisted man, I saw a few excellent leaders and I saw a lot more awful leadership. For the officers there wasn’t a common theme. The best leader I served with was a ROTC alum, likewise the worst was also ROTC. I only remember serving with one West Point grad, my battalion commander with whom I had zero direct interaction. He seemed squared away from a distance. I did work with VMI grad, a second lieutenant, he held promise.

    After I got out, I went back to school. I flirted with ROTC, a sergeant, an ex-Ranger, made me remember what I liked bet about the Army. His boss, a Lieutenant Colonel, I never asked were he went to school, then proceeded to remind me what I could not tolerate about it.

    Later in life, I have had encounters with a few former service academy graduates, usually during a hiring process. Perhaps the it was a self-selected-out-group, but there was nothing special about any of them.

    Comment by Dave — August 27, 2023 @ 8:41 pm

  2. “if you keep up your grades and don’t get demerits, they turn you loose on the fleet … even if you’ve proved to be a bad human being with toxic leadership traits.”

    I had a friend who taught at a college of Veterinary Medicine. He told me what they did about students who passed all their exams but whom the lecturers didn’t trust to be a vet. They’d fail them on the Big Animal practical exam. This didn’t end their academic careers – they could go on to graduate in Biological Sciences. But it did keep them out of the profession.

    It’s interesting that the USN officer corps doesn’t evince a similar loyalty to its profession.

    As for “hazing” I hate it. There was a stupid first-morning ritual for newcomers to my secondary school. I decided to take no part and found an out-of-the-way corner to stand in where I was safe on two sides. Eventually two of the older boys found me. I told them that if they came a step closer I’d kick their knees so that, maybe, they could never play football again.

    Neither was much bigger than me. The odds were only two to one. The one was angry and determined. They went off to find easier prey.

    I can think of only two other attempts to bully me at secondary school. I settled each with a single blow. Indeed I settled an attempt to bully another boy with a punch too.
    Thank God that some bullies are cowards and thank God I didn’t run across one who wasn’t.

    At university I did once see some males “ragging” a girl: to my shame I didn’t realise that it was descending into outright bullying in time to put a stop to it. You can’t win ’em all.
    My shame was quite real: to this day I can remember her name.

    Comment by dearieme — August 28, 2023 @ 7:28 am

  3. Rum, sodomy and the lash.
    Worked a treat when Britannia ruled the waves.
    Ehue fugaces, autres temps, autres moeurs, etc.

    Comment by philip — August 28, 2023 @ 6:13 pm

  4. If you want to see the training of an officer in the Golden Age of the Royal Navy you could do worse than read this biography of Pellew. How many softies of the modern age could have coped?

    Comment by dearieme — August 30, 2023 @ 9:31 am

  5. If you meet a USAFA class of 79 member, I believe their class ring is enshrined with the letters LCWB. It supposedly stands for “leadership, courage, blah blah blah but really it’s “Last Class With Balls”

    As a survivor of BCT at Air Force, I concur 100%. I learned early on that the place wasn’t for me. I was exposed to great leadership in BCT (my squadron and element upperclassman were truly great leaders. Truly inspiring and I am sure they made top rate officers). I was also exposed to poor leadership. Cadet Captain Michael Keltz was sort of my Pickles- He was on my like stink on you know what and he smelled of Old Spice. Except, I do believe he turned out to be a good leader, albeit having a very different style. He didn’t take the Schofield quote to heart! At the end of it all though, he came to me and told me “you are tough enough and I want you to fly in my squadron”.
    Ironically, most of the upperclass female cadets I came in contact with were total bitches and I think it is because of the rough treatment they received when they enrolled. Out of all of them, I can think of one that seemed like a good leader. By the way, the comment he made that got him canned was pretty funny.

    We had one really tough upperclassman who worked with us on drill, don’t recall his name. He was constantly in our faces screaming and yelling. One day, someone broke down and said, “Gee whiz, why are you such an asshole?” not in those words of course. He stopped. He was silent. He looked at us and said, “The reason I am being so tough is when you are flying in formation and your formation leaders says, Break right! and you break left, what happens?” We looked at each other in silence. “Everyone dies.”, he said. My flight won the drill competition for Four degrees. We were impeccable. It was that vision into why we were doing what we were doing that gave us purpose. In that moment, he could have continued to be a dick but he took a look at himself, and he changed on the spot.

    The academies have been watered down–>they are going woke and that is bad. Some of the watering down is that kids are softer than they used to be. The kids that go there are special kids, as long as they aren’t getting in because of “wokeness”. It’s important to note, service academies aren’t like civilian college. They are training you for something very different.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — September 1, 2023 @ 7:49 am

  6. “when you are flying in formation and your formation leaders says, Break right! and you break left, what happens?” This justification for bone-headed officer training is feeble. If you find someone who doesn’t instinctively know right from left you don’t shout at him, you get rid of him. If that were to mean you had to get rid of more females than males, so be it.

    Comment by dearieme — September 1, 2023 @ 1:33 pm

  7. Eliminate the politician nomination process and select on merit and many problems will self correct. The current process is dei skewed and too complicated for working class parents to navigate

    Comment by G tyler — September 6, 2023 @ 7:07 pm

  8. This well-meaning article suffers from Boomer myopia. Demographic changes lead to cultural changes, and the new demographics do not support excellence. Diversity cannot coexist with merit. Rather than picking merit, the author proposes tearing the formerly great institutions down. What a sad solution the belies the author’s inability to identify the problem. First you must fix the diversity issue, including the inclusion of women, then you can fix the DOPMA problems that may have led the author to leave early.

    As for “sexual assault” in the military, the fact pattern for nearly all cases is as follows: People drink together. Man and woman enter a room together voluntarily. Something happens. Hours to years later, the woman complains. She may have had a boyfriend. She will lie about material facts even where she is a legitimate victim because she feels shame for going into the room. No one can prove what happened. In today’s world, it is never the woman’s fault. SHARP training cannot fix the problem because it does not address the cause–entering the room drunkenly together.

    Comment by Bob Sanders — September 29, 2023 @ 8:03 am

  9. Amen. Can confirm. USNA 95.

    Comment by Steve Carr — September 29, 2023 @ 8:09 am

  10. @dearie me, you underestimate the stress you are under when you are learning to march. you underestimate the radical change that your life receives when you enter Beast Barracks. Many people forget their right from their left….but also remember that these people in the academies are highly intelligent and educated. So, offering a rational reason was the right way and it worked.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — September 29, 2023 @ 10:42 am

  11. You write “The system at the academies has nothing to do with ‘mentorship.’ It is about training officers and leaders.” Not true; of course it’s about mentorship. The academies choose the junior officers overseeing cadet and midshipmen units who are examples of what an officer is supposed to be. The senior cadets and midshipmen are the “disciplinarians,” and the officers are there to make sure they do it correctly, without favor and without abusing their authority. And that is needed because senior cadets and midshipmen, like the study you cite states, do not have the experience or wisdom to have the type of authority over others that the academies give them. These schools have a serious “Lord of the Flies” issue, with children lording over other children. It’s a form of bullying masqueraded as “training,” which is used to justify all sorts of maltreatment.

    One of the lessons I read in “The Air Officers Guide” upon graduation from USAFA was that officers should avoid “bootlicking.” That is exactly what I witnessed as a cadet. (Yes, it happens in large, hierarchical organizations such as in business, too. But the military is supposed to be different…at least that is what I thought). The academies are supposed to train cadets and midshipman to be “Brothers in Arms,” not suck-ups who abuse their position to impress the other cadets, midshipmen and officers above them. That was what I observed at the Academy, albeit it was decades ago. In my 20+ years of military experience “Products” from the academies proved to be no better than those from other commissioning sources. My experience as a serving officer serving in the “real air force” was nothing like being at the academy.

    Comment by Paul DeSisto — September 29, 2023 @ 11:22 am

  12. Dearieme, there’s a thing called ” muscle memory” – which should actually be called nervous system training, but the alliteration makes it easier to use – in which repetition removes much of the brain activity for a physical action from the forebrain, thereby freeing it up to make projections and decisions, and shortens reaction time. Many of the movements involved in eating are the result of *lots* of repetitions, which is why you can read the morning (I almost said paper) news feed while eating your oatmeal. That’s an example of muscle memory. Drill is a form of muscle memory training. Two disparate examples are a tae kwon do match and a DCI performance.
    Back to the original subject – where does hazing cross the line from training to torture? The fact that there is a line says that hazing has a place in the academies.

    Comment by buddhaha — September 29, 2023 @ 12:38 pm

  13. What the brainiacs in DC don’t get is that the Academies are (were) designed to teach leadership over four years. Most people just see the stress put on the 4th classmen. They don’t realize that skills of leadership are specifically added each year. I don’t think they still do it much. Back in the day, the cadets ran the Wing. Today, the senior leaders are more concerned about the political fallout if little Johnny or Sally says someone was mean to them. My Wing marched off the parade ground over 50 years ago, but I guarantee that they had a stronger sense of priorities than the kids do today.

    Comment by Lee P Rodgers — September 29, 2023 @ 10:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress