Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lessons in shoddy journalism, courtesy of Ann Althouse

Wow. Being a native Texan, nice to see the indulgence in stereotypes so thoroughly deconstructed. Alternate title: Lessons in 'epistemic closure'? Ann Althouse added to blog roll.

NoKo act of War

Lil' Kim ordered the torpedo attack on the South Korean navy? Yes, according to this NYT account of U.S. intel:

A new American intelligence analysis of a deadly torpedo attack on a South Korean warship concludes that Kim Jong-il, the ailing leader of North Korea, must have authorized the torpedo assault, according to senior American officials who cautioned that the assessment was based on their sense of the political dynamics there rather than hard evidence.

The officials said they were increasingly convinced that Mr. Kim ordered the sinking of the ship, the Cheonan, to help secure the succession of his youngest son.

“We can’t say it is established fact,” said one senior American official who was involved in the highly classified assessment, based on information collected by many of the country’s 16 intelligence agencies. “But there is very little doubt, based on what we know about the current state of the North Korean leadership and the military.”

We have to ask: Is this the way to solve your 'roneriness' issues? (Language warning at beginning of clip)

Seriously, North Korea is well within its rights to retaliate. Question: How exactly? What would be proportional and most effective?

Wow astronomy pic of the day

The international space station, and space Shuttle Atlantis against the disk of the sun. How awesome is that? (Click the pic for the full sized image.)

It is commissioning week at USNA, so time for another round of the internet meme that will not die: Are the service academies really necessary?

That question has in recent years become something of an inter tubes/media meme, probably owing much of its half life to an opinion piece by Tom (the Contrarian) Ricks.

Ricks' piece was aimed at West Point, and made the following complaints and suggestions:

Not enough Ph.D.s teaching at the institution.

The service academies are comparable to Community Colleges in quality of education.

Close the War Colleges. They too are "second rate".

In place of these shuttered institutions, offer a two year military education consequent to a four year degree from civilian institutions.

Well, obviously, this drive-by commentary set off a firestorm. Some of the most interesting commentary comes from those that are in a much better position to make informed judgments as to the efficacy of the service academies in producing young officers for the U.S. Armed services. That is; some of the commentary comes from those that have either graduated from the institutions, or teach at the institutions.

Now, obviously, any negative opinion piece from such a person will carry more weight than does a drive by opinion piece by an outsider, even one who is apparently somewhat well connected and informed.

Case in point is an English professor, Bruce Fleming, from the Naval Academy who has been in the news of late due to his argument that the academy's admissions standards have been lowered in the interests of the goal of ethnic diversity. His latest broadside appeared in the NYT May 20. Excerpts:

Discussing a recent honor violation by a now departed football player, who had been retained after testing positive for cannabis:

The incident brings to light an unpleasant truth: the Naval Academy, where I have been a professor for 23 years, has lost its way. The same is true of the other service academies. They are a net loss to the taxpayers who finance them, as well as a huge disappointment to their students, who come expecting reality to match reputation. They need to be fixed or abolished.

The service academies are holdovers from the 19th century, when they were virtually the only avenue for producing an officer corps for the nation’s military and when such top-down institutions were taken for granted. But the world has changed, which the academies don’t seem to have noticed, or to have drawn any conclusions from.

With the rise after World War II of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at universities around the country, the academies now produce 20 percent or less of the officers in each service, at an average cost to taxpayers of nearly half a million dollars per student, more than four times what an R.O.T.C.-trained officer costs.

Well, you have to give him credit. Self interest doesn't seem to be affecting his judgment. If Annapolis is shuttered, there goes his job. On the other hand, I'm sure his 23 years and tenure has no doubt earned him a comfortable parachute. But, putting that aside, what are we to make of his claims?

Roundabout 20% of the officer corps are academy grads, a number less than has been the case before. Further questions that need to be answered before you can draw the conclusion Fleming draws:

1. Of those 20%, what is the retention rate beyond the 5 required years of post graduate service?

2. How does that rate compare to the rate of retention for non academy grads in the officer corps?

3. What is the ratio of retention in the two populations?

4. Of the officers at Flag level, what proportion comes from the service academies?

5. Looking at civilian sector leadership (public and private), what proportion of such folk come from the service academies?

I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, but, they need to be answered by anyone that wants to make warranted judgments one way or the other on the question of the quality of leadership preparation that goes on at the service academies, as compared to other institutions.

If the numbers come down in favor of the contention that the academies produce folks that tend to stick it out, and attain prominence, as compared to officers that come from other backgrounds, then a case can be made that it is a good investment to keep the doors open.

Fleming also contends that the academies produce cynical graduates that quickly tire of being 'girded roundabout' by seemingly pointless rules and overly punctilious superiors inconsistently enforcing those pointless rules. They see the academies as rather large incarnations of the U.S.S. Reluctant, and themselves as playing out the novel / film Mister Roberts, (writ large of course). Idealistic youth are shot down by the pedestrian realities behind the granite walls. That's the story he'd have you believe.

Well, I've been at USNA for only 4 years, a comparative eye blink of time as compared to Dr. Fleming's near quarter century, but I think this portrait begs for two responses; responses I make fully granting that my experience is less than his:

1. It's simplistic, to the point of caricature. Some amount of cynicism is the natural byproduct of any institutional setting, and certainly educational institutions. I've had some experience of educational institutions at the middle/high school level, and a good amount of experience of civilian institutions of higher learning, having played the role of academic migrant time various institutions in the great state of Michigan before moving to Maryland. It is a truism to say that cynicism is not only normal in the student population, but crops up even amongst faculty. To pretend otherwise would be as simplistic as would be the contention, one apparently offered by Mr. Fleming, that such cynicism is fatal to the persons graduated, and the institutions served by those graduates (our nation and the armed services thereof).

Sure, I grant that excessive cynicism is a killer. Sure, I grant the mids exhibit cynicism, but, and this is crucial, the cynicism doesn't approach fatal levels, at least not in my experience. In my role at the academy, I interact with mids on a daily basis, teaching, and also coaching the mighty ethics warriors, a debate team of sorts. Additionally, I have the pleasure of taking part in a recruitment process for an annual trip to Poland, sponsored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and the New York Holocaust Museum. The applicants must be second and third year students.

I've interacted with these applicants each of the four years I have been at the academy. My ethics team is a combination of first through fourth year mids, and from year to year involves 10 to 15 regular members, whose numbers change from year to year as people graduate. As well, there are always a number of others who irregularly participate. I can assure you (and yes I know there are around 4000 mids, and you can throw back in my face that my sample is not representative) that the level of idealism in these mids, the sense of purpose, mission, love of country, and service is undiminished, even in those cases where they are cynical about aspects of academy life. And, shocker though it may be, it is true. Cynicism does exist at the academy! I fully grant that most mids do become somewhat cynical about aspects of academy life.

But, to reiterate the main point here; it's level is not anywhere near debilitating. If it were, we would see a higher rate of dropout, and a higher rate of departures after the 5 year post graduation stint. (And yes, I know there will be some number of mids that stay because Uncle Sammy is paying the freight for their education.)

2. Big Navy, and the Marine Corps are also large institutions. So, guess what? They too will naturally produce some level of cynicism. They too will be governed by some amount of apparently pointless regulations and inane standard operating procedures (acquisitions anyone?). They too will have their fair share of overly punctilious superiors, and inconsistency. So, should we pronounce, with great stentorian consequence, upon the doom of our armed forces as viable institutions? No. Actually, Ricks and others rightly point to these institutions as being bastions of American idealism. This, despite the undeniable fact that by their very nature as hierarchical institutions they generate cynicism, just as surely as running engines generate heat.

I might also add a powerful and related point driven home by Rick's fine book Making the Corps, (and other books by folks that have written about their experiences in the Marine Corps and other branches of service); that these institutions provide a second chance for people that have initially travelled well down the wrong road; self confessed punks, criminals, ne'er do wells. Lives, people, often change in deep ways while serving. Yes, not all of them do, and there may be some that hope to use the military for a paycheck, but, we recognize this will always be the case, and we don't rend garments and gnash teeth over this fact.

Well, analogs are obviously to be found in the academies and their practices; the justifications used for changes to recruitment policies, entrance standards, and yes, second chances for those that break the honor codes.

I am not saying that such practices do not have an effect on perceptions inside and outside the academy, it is obvious that they do. However, it helps to keep in mind that these practices are in line with that laudable tradition of, dare I say, social responsibility that the U.S. military has always embodied, even back to the days of the Buffalo Soldiers, WWII racial integration, 70s gender integration, and the present impending integration of homosexuals. That has always been an aspect of the American military, and of the academies, which themselves reflect the values of the armed services. Now, having said this, it is obvious that there is room for discussion as to the best way to carry forward these laudable values. There is a tricky balancing act that must be undertaken. The military is not a social work organization, it's business is to fight and win wars. Also,one does not want to jettison all standards at the service academies, or render them useless jokes. All of that cannot be gainsaid. However, it seems that Fleming believes we are very near or have already arrived at a point of no return. Is that a bit overheated?

Getting back to the cynicism beef: Let me provoke: Is the existence of cynicism really all that bad? Keeping in mind the armed services as they actually are in the real world, we know they are not idealized perfect Platonic creatures. Alas, they are like other institutions, public and private. Like I have said before, cynicism is generated by institutional life just as surely as heat is generated by running engines. You cannot avoid it.

Well, granted that this is the case one can ask: How better to prepare for that real world than to have already lived in a similar environment for four year? Cynicism is something that can drive positive change, for it is borne of a recognition of shortcomings. It is only dangerous or fatal when it is accompanied by a sense of hopelessness. How many of the people Tom Ricks relies upon would voice such hopelessness as regards the service academies? A majority? How about graduates? A majority? And does Mr. Fleming think the academies are hopeless? Does he think the institutions are more rather than less likely to fail in their missions? If more likely, then one must ask, why continue to associate yourself with what you consider to be a fatally flawed institution? Wouldn't the moral course of action be to leave? I know I would (and in fact did about 10 years ago, leave an institution, at considerable financial risk, for precisely that reason).

This brings me to a third point, at which point I must beg indulgence for engaging in a bit of philosopher's geektitude. Notice I mentioned the venerable Plato above. I also pointed out that cynicism is borne of an ability to recognize shortcomings. This is a very Platonic point. He has a very charming example he often used to point out that we have a capability to, as it were, wield and make use of ideas of perfections, for the purposes of recognizing and hopefully dealing with imperfections in the world of experience:

I draw a triangle on the board, ask "is this a triangle?" and receive puzzled looks. "Of course it's a triangle," is the inevitable response. "But, is it REALLY a triangle?" I ask, "What is a triangle? Give me a verbal definition." "It's a three sided closed planer figure composed of straight lines, including 180 degrees in its interior angles." "OK, then that thing I drew ain't a triangle. The blackboard is not perfectly flat, the lines are not perfectly straight, and the interior angles are not exactly equal to 180 degrees.

Knowing this, we can attempt to improve our product, perhaps drawing a triangle on a carefully engineered piece of titanium, using a laser etching device. It still won't be "perfect" but a damn sight better for some purposes than would have been the chalkboard creature.

Something similar can be said about institutions. We are able to recognize their imperfections and yes, this will generate cynicism, but such recognitions, and even the cynicism itself is generative of change, positive change, just so long as hopelessness has not set in. Has hopelessness set in at our service academies? Once again, my experience tell me the answer is 'no'.

What is more, in the Naval Academy, there is a very strong tradition of exhortation to moral excellence, honesty, integrity, ideals taken very seriously, and as more than one mid on more than one occasion has put it, "pounded" into their heads from day one Plebe Summer. Yes, this exhortation may heighten the sort of sensitivity to inconsistency that gives rise to cynicism, but I believe it also has a pronounced effect on the day-to-day thinking of a majority of the mids.

They do take these values seriously, even as they recognize their own shortcomings, those of other midshipmen and the faculty and staff. In general, I would say that this does not diminish the fact that they do take these values seriously, and think about them, have them in the forefront of their minds much more so than would people that did not go through four years of such rigorous exhortation to ethical thinking and exemplary character.

Not only do all midshipmen go through a rigorous 4 year cycle of classes intended to drive home the importance of ethical thought, and ethical leadership, classes that explicitly take up and rationally discuss cynicism, among other germane topics (just war theory, international law, military justice, principles of servant leadership, followership, constitutional principles, and etc..) but the very nature of the institution they live in for four years puts them in a good position to understand the position of the enlisted people they will eventually work with. In many ways the academy does two things at the same time. It prepares for leadership at various ranks, in various ways intellectual, moral and emotional, but it also drives home how it is to be a lower level "cog" in a big quite hierarchical command-structured institution, and teaches one how to deal with that reality, and the cynicism that naturally results.

I dare say that there is some level of experience with hierarchical structures by ROTC students that do not attend service institutions, but it is not of as intense and thoroughgoing a level as is that of the typical mid or cadet.

This is where the value lies, I believe, in having graduates of Annapolis, West Point, Colorado Springs, Kings Point and New London.

Having said all this, I can also quibble with Rick's contention that the level of education offered at the service academies is comparable to that of a community college, while also agreeing with him about an aspect of academic reality that leads him to say this:

1. There is some amount of Ivy League snobbery in what he says, that I frankly find distasteful. (Caveat: my degrees are from state colleges, one earned in Tx. the other two in Mi. So I may very well be biased. I fully admit Ivy league elitism gets my dander up). Some of the best instructors I had were folks in the community colleges I attended as a student in the early 80s. Far and away the best mathematics instructor I have ever had was a part timer at a small out of the way CC in Texas. In general, dedicated and smart teachers are not the exclusive province of the Ivied halls of Princeton Yale and Harvard, (along with a smattering of other universities that are allowed on the hallowed list).

Get out a bit more.

Now, a point of agreement: The faculty at USNA is half civilian and half military. Yes, the military folks cycle through, while the civilians stay for longer periods of time. Additionally, the military folks are not always expert in their fields. So, when they are brought up to speed, it would be a good idea to retain them. But, what happens? They move to their next duty station after two years or so. So, justifiable complaints are made that the instructors are not of the same calibre as folks that have been at it for many more years.

This is easily remedied. The service cultures must adjust, and put a premium of prestige on academic service. Ricks likes to point to Petraeus as a case in point. That point is well taken. I would suggest that increase in prestige be attached to the academies as duty stations, and I would suggest that it be made possible to serve extended periods of time at those stations, a premium being placed upon folks with field experience. There is a real need for Colonel level combat experienced people, and it would be a good idea to incentivize them to do extended stints at the service academies. Spot on points made by Ricks.

Now, I'm realizing, as I go on and on with this post, that I was spurred into writing it by a very fine post by a very fine blogger who is a very fine graduate of West Point, Lieutenant Rajiv Srinivasan. His is a better argument to read than mine, I strongly suspect, for even though I am perhaps better positioned than outsiders to judge the quality of our young men and women at USNA, when it comes down to it, I believe I am simply not in a position to make an informed judgment as to the value of the service academy experience as preparation for leadership. He, on the other hand, is a person very much in position to render such judgments. A hell of a writer, and a graduate, with combat experience, and driven by the values of the institution from which he graduated and the institution for which he now serves, the U.S. Army. I leave you with his final say. I initially thought to excerpt, but, the entirety of the linked post is just below.

Bruce Fleming recently published an OpEd piece in the New York Times which provoked a rather emotional response from me as he referred to the Service Academies as “mediocre”. He cited a football star receiving preferential treatment for drug use at Navy. He complains that we only produce 20% of our respective officer corps, and are obsolete compared to ROTC and OCS programs. He insists that Academy officers are burnt-out leaders, incapable of maximizing tax-payer investment. Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that the Academies do waste extravagant amounts of time and money for senseless efforts; they need work. But to pin the word mediocre upon these institutions, and thus its graduates who’ve done so much for our country, is absolutely ludicrous.

First, allow me to be the first in Fleming’s supposed vast Academy exposure to argue that YES, an Academy graduate is indeed different than an ROTC or OCS counterpart: not better, but different, and importantly so. I can only speak as a West Pointer, but I believe my perceptions are akin to those from other academies. Every waking moment of my life at West Point was dedicated to serving something greater than myself. Sometimes we serve orders from a higher rank; other times we endure sacrifices to serve the comrades on our left and right. But at all times, we are training and learning to better serve our nation. ROTC programs at civilian universities are simply unable to produce the same intensity in the cadets’ day to day lives.

Most undergraduate students strive for good grades in order to boost their GPAs. Cadets study so they have the answers when lives and equipment are on the line. Most university professors are genius PhDs. West Point Instructors are role models who have already inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle; they have a vested interest in developing the cadets who will one day serve as their Lieutenants when the instructors take battalion and brigade command. Most college students avoid cheating out of fear of getting caught. Cadets do not cheat out of loyalty to a Code and the realization that honor is a virtue that can save American lives and dollars.

Two of the other Lieutenants in my Company are ROTC graduates, the remaining two are OCS. Do they understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. I put my lives in their hands each day. But I feel my Academy experiences afforded me greater insight into the strategic reasoning behind the missions we execute. We’re groomed by the higher echelons of the institution to carry out its orders of critical importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t ROTC and OCS Lieutenants who do not embrace such a broad vantage point, but I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize ethical values, a global perspective, and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.

True, Academy graduates only comprise 20% of each service’s newly commissioned officer class. That being said, Academy graduates also make up over 50% of our military’s Flag Officer corps, meaning the Generals and Admirals charged with our nation’s defense; certainly not titles assigned to the mediocre. Is this high Academy concentration at the Flag level due to favoritism and networking? Sure, perhaps in some part. No institution in the world is a complete meritocracy. But I’d argue that it’s largely because of the culture in which Academy graduates are raised as committed leaders with a global exposure, dedicated to a lifetime of service to the country.

Secondly, Mr. Fleming believes that the Academy admissions process unfairly values athletics, rather than an “accomplished cellist or people from religious minorities.” For starters, I was both an accomplished violinist in High School and a Hindu-Vegetarian upon applying to West Point. I feel these factors contributed to my application, not hindered it, and I know plenty of graduates who fit either mold as well. Furthermore, athletics is highly regarded in our profession as a conduit to solid leadership under physical duress; something I believe most officers would argue should outweigh academic prowess in a military academy’s admissions process.

Mr. Fleming further grumbles of lowered academic admissions standards in the interests of affirmative action. As one who has served as a minority at war, I will assert that race and religion are huge issues in today’s military. I will speak from first-hand experience as the only minority platoon leader in my deployed Company: race and religion matter, and the army needs leaders who understand ethnic social tension. I am not ashamed of my Academy for attempting to produce an officer corps that is ethnically representative of the soldiers and NCOs it leads. The Academies do not admit cadets because of ethnicity, but a candidate’s ability to understand ethnicity and the unique role it plays in grueling military social dynamics.

Finally, Fleming does bring up the valid point that Academy graduates aren’t maximizing return in military service of the nation’s half-million dollar investment. Around 50% of West Point graduates leave the Army after their minimum five year commitment, I’m sure the other Academies’ statistics are comparable. I understand why this appears as a drastic waste of tax-payer money, but remember that Academy graduates still make phenomenal contributions to the country out of uniform. At every Academy event I attend, I meet hundreds of lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, marketing gurus, academics, writers, engineers, and policy makers. Now, Fleming may be angered by Academy graduates’ civilian pursuits; I am reassured by them.

I am thrilled that there are members of the Long Gray Line, former combat platoon leaders like myself, among the financial elites of our American society. It shows me that, among the cohort of Americans profiting most from my soldiers’ sacrifices, there are several who have been in our shoes. There are those who can speak on our behalf when our nation’s power brokers forget the daily blessings they enjoy as citizens of the United States. I am relieved that there are graduates who reassign the military values of service, honor, and loyalty to the mediocre ethical stylings of both Wall Street and Main Street. Perhaps if the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Sterns had a little “service immersion” in their youth, I’d imagine our country would be a lot stronger than it is today. Whether in a Command Post or a Board Room, good leadership transcends its landscape. I’m proud of the Academy graduates who bring weathered leadership where it is most needed.

It seems Mr. Fleming’s criteria for mediocrity rests heavily on Academic metrics. But I assure my audience that there is very little that is academic about combat leadership. It is about heart. It is about fortitude, honor, and courage. Now, you may call a West Point or Naval Academy graduate mediocre…but try visiting any other college in America and collect a thousand 23 year old kids ready to lead just as many lives into hostile fire. I doubt you’ll be successful. To produce a thousand officers with the grit and spirit of warriors and the intellectual curiosity of academics, we need a venue of tremendous investment and concentration: this is why you need the service academies.

I wonder if Mr. Fleming would have been ready for such a calling at age 23. Even if not, I surely wouldn’t have the arrogance to call him mediocre.

I find it ironic that Mr. Fleming is about to publish a book entitled “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” considering his most recent opinion piece does nothing more than widen it. But I can somehow understand why he would write an article antithetical to the best interests of reconciling civil-military differences so vital to our national security. After all, the bigger wave he makes with such an OpEd piece, the more attention his new book will receive and hopefully the more books he’ll sell. Well, I know I’ll probably buy one now. Congrats Mr. Fleming…Mission Accomplished.