Instead of better officers, the academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they’ve entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application. These rules are applied inconsistently by the administration, and tend to change when a new superintendent is appointed every few years. The students quickly see through assurances that “people die if you do X” (like, “leave mold on your shower curtain,” a favorite claim of one recent administrator). We’re a military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference.
In my experience, the students who find this most demoralizing are those who have already served as Marines and sailors (usually more than 5 percent of each incoming class), who know how the fleet works and realize that what we do on the military-training side of things is largely make-work. Academics, too, are compromised by the huge time commitment these exercises require. Yes, we still produce some Rhodes, Marshall and Truman Scholars. But mediocrity is the norm.
Meanwhile, the academy’s former pursuit of excellence seems to have been pushed aside by the all-consuming desire to beat Notre Dame at football (as Navy did last year). To keep our teams in the top divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we fill officer-candidate slots with students who have been recruited primarily for their skills at big-time sports. That means we reject candidates with much higher predictors of military success (and, yes, athletic skills that are more pertinent to military service) in favor of players who, according to many midshipmen who speak candidly to me, often have little commitment to the military itself.