Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A New Abolitionist Movement – Tom Ricks Calls for the Closing of Our Service Academies and 2LT Rajiv Srinivasan Responds

On April 19, Tom Ricks trotted out an old chestnut of an argument that one can expect to appear whenever budgets are tight. In an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post, entitled "Why We Should Get Rid of West Point", Ricks calls for closing all of our service academies as a cost-cutting measure.

Op-Ed Piece

I found Ricks’ argument to be less than compelling. As an “outsider” – a non-military person who has observed graduates of our nation’s service academies up close in my personal and professional life – I have come to value the use of my tax dollars in continuing the strong tradition of training leaders at West Point, Annapolis, Air Force and Coast Guard Academies. I agree with my friend, Dr. Scott Snook of Harvard Business School. In responding to my inquiry about how he views Ricks’ argument, Dr. Snook, a West Point graduate and father of several West Point graduates and cadets, said: “We need more than one stream for supplying the next generation of officers. The service academies, in parallel with ROTC programs and OCS, provide multiple sources for new officers. This is as it should be.”

2LT Rajiv Srinivasan, a 2008 graduate of West Point, is getting ready to deploy with his unit from Fort Lewis, Washington to Afghanistan. He has responded to Ricks’ argument with the following rebuttal.

Seldom over the course of one’s life does so much effort and commitment culminate in one day of pure accomplishment as a West Pointer’s graduation. The real heroes of the day were my parents and mentors who invested tremendous amounts of patience and mentorship in my development; however, they did so with one mission in mind: to raise a lifetime servant to a nation we so dearly love.

Tom Ricks, while I am sure is an avid supporter of the military and strong patriot, is hugely misguided and ill-informed in his recent article which called for the closing of the three Service Academies. Ricks makes some valid points: ROTC graduates are far more economical to produce, some commanders do prefer ROTC Lieutenants over their West Point counterparts, and West Pointers are often cynical about the military upon graduation. I will even go so far as to agree with Ricks that West Point’s academic curriculum, though rigorous in its breadth of subject matter, is only average in terms depth and difficulty. Yet what Ricks fails to understand are the qualitative attributes that West Point and the other Service Academies develop in their alumni. As a cadet, I maintained close friendships with students at each Ivy League and elite university in the United States, many of whom were ROTC Cadets. While we all met the same basic commissioning requirements and training standards, my experience as a West Point cadet was still largely regarded as more than just a path to officership, but a character building crucible.

Allow me to coin a phrase that embodies the true value of the Academy experience: Service Immersion. 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 Ph.Ds with vast amounts of knowledge. West Point Instructors are role models who have inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle, and 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.

Do ROTC graduates understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. But have they internalized them to the degree that the West Point graduate does over four years of service immersion? I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize these values and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.

I personally do not know whether I will stay in the Army longer than my five year commitment. I do know that the rest of my professional life is dedicated to serving a nation that most of its citizens undervalue. Had I gone to a civilian university, I think my outlook on professional growth would indeed be far different. This notion of Service Immersion develops a sense of loyalty and purpose in the young and energetic cadet which can translate into ethical and long sighted leadership down the road. Who knows, perhaps if the leadership of AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers had a little Service Immersion at an early age, maybe they would have been more aware and considerate of the societal consequences of making such foolish gambles.

I will agree with Mr. Ricks that the Service Academies do have many problems. Solid military training is rare during the school year; countless hours and dollars are wasted on ceremonial parades and football games; and the quality of life (or lack thereof) for most cadets is conducive to cynicism. But rather than ransack these institutions which embody the bedrock principles upon which this nation and our military are founded, I would be far more amenable to a discussion on how to refocus the nation’s Service Academies on creating the kind of leaders who will truly offer their professional and personal lives for the betterment of this nation. I imagine our forefathers would agree, but then again I only have a “community-college” understanding of their intent as Mr. Ricks points out.

I will close my entry with a verse from the Alma Matter that each graduate sings at the end of every football game, Corps Dinner, Graduation Ceremony, and West Point Alumni event around the world. It is a verse nostalgic of all the sacrifices made in the name of service to our nation, and the honor and humility that every graduate aims to uphold. Five years after setting foot at the Academy, it still brings chills to my spine.

And when our work is done, Our course on earth is run,

May it be said “Well done;

Be thou at peace.”

E’er may that line of gray increase from day to day.

Live, serve, and die we pray,

West Point, for thee.

Thank you for your time.

Rajiv Srinivasan


West Point Class of 2008

Thank you, Rajiv – for your thoughts and for your willingness to serve our country.

As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts on this issue.



Anonymous said...

Al thank you for this post. Our service men owe you a debt of gratitude.



Jared said...

“Midshipmen and cadets remain stronger and more aggressive than their male counterparts at civilian schools. They eagerly play sports such as rugby, boxing, karate, lacrosse, and football. They drive fast cars, usually sports cars. They play hard. They drink hard. They are physical, often abusive among each other. They are not trying to prove their manhood: they are celebrating their masculinity. They are competitive, often vulgar, and tough, and every citizen who may someday send a friend or relative into war should rejoice, because combat is competitive, vulgar, and tough, and they will be leading men in combat.”

~Sen. James Webb (former Sec. of the Navy and USNA grad)