On the Naval Academy, Military Spiritualism and ROTC

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As I’ve discussed before in these pages, my career in the Marine Corps was anything but typical. I am a former enlisted sailor who earned my commission midway through graduate school by taking time off for Officer Candidate School (OCS). I then served as a naval officer instructor for the Naval ROTC unit at the University of California at Berkeley and taught English at the US Naval Academy. Knowing that I had obtained my doctorate and had teaching experience at the college level before these two assignments, some people find it curious that I say that my time in Berkeley was much more rewarding and enjoyable than my time in Annapolis. .

I found the Naval Academy to be a house bitterly divided between a predominantly civilian faculty and a military command. The students of the academy – both male and female – are called aspirants. And they find themselves very early caught between “The Yard” and “The Hall”. The first is the academic/classroom side of the academy. The latter is Bancroft Hall, the huge dormitory where all the mediums live. It is there that they are regimented, monitored and constantly evaluated. They soon learn that their first priority must be to stay in the good graces of their corporate executives and the upper class men and women above them. And, of course, they must also pass their courses.

Here and elsewhere, I have written extensively about the friction between civilian faculty and USNA military command. (Readers may recall my columns on USNA Professor Bruce Fleming: “The Unexplained Exit of a Naval Academy Critic,” September 23, 2018; “Annapolis University Turmoil,” September 22, 2018; September 2019.) I blame Jim Webb for much of the friction I witnessed. His ghost haunts Sampson Hall, home of the USNA’s English and History departments. That’s quite a feat, considering Webb isn’t dead yet. The haunting began in 1979 when Webb was imposed on the English department. The command believed that a USNA graduate who had become a highly decorated Marine and bestselling author would be the very model of a modern academy faculty member. A soldier poet, in other words. The English faculty disagreed. They used to run their department on the model of a civilian university and do their own recruiting. They assessed candidates based on scholarly promises, not military role model or even affinity for the military. The bitterness was compounded when Webb, after one semester, broke what was to be an 18-month contract to “pursue other opportunities”.

One would think that Webb was uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between academic and military cultures at the USNA. Instead, he expanded it.

Webb’s legacy aside, the core purpose of all of our Federal Service Academies is problematic. They are military monasteries. They cloister and shape their cadets and aspirants outside the influences of our permissive and complacent society. This is why individual freedom is restricted in all academies, especially during the first year. A visiting Marine general, himself a USNA graduate, summed up the rationale and strategy thus: “We must capture them while they are still young and impressionable.”

The academies seek to develop a strong emotional attachment and a sense of personal identification with their respective departments. They hope to train officers who not only view the military as a profession, but who embrace it as an all-encompassing way of life – the same way people form strong emotional bonds with the religions they were raised in. The problem with this is that true believers – in the religious or military sense – tend to take pride in their commitment and close their minds to other viewpoints.

That’s not to say that all academy graduates become narrow-minded military spiritualists. But many do. And as Vietnam should have taught us, the military needs officers with a spirit of intellectual independence and whose frame of reference transcends the institutions they serve. And the safest way to do this, in my experience, is through ROTC or OCS. Service academies exist to indoctrinate more than to educate. Reserve officer training programs enable their members to keep an open mind to other viewpoints and make a well-considered decision to pursue a commission. Certainly, we need military professionals who, as we say today, are all in the game. But we also need the lifting influence of citizen soldiers. America is Athens, not Sparta.

Postscript No. 1: Professor Bruce Fleming remains suspended from teaching but continues to collect his salary from the USNA.

Postscript No. 2: We have to hand it over to Putin. Sweden and Finland now want to join NATO, and current NATO member countries are strengthening their defenses. Putin makes NATO great again – MNGA! Maybe we can get hats made.

Contact Ed Palm at [email protected]

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