Article commenting on the departure rate of US Army officers.
|ONE THIRD IN GREEN
On October 7th, 2006, about 400 members of the United States Military Academy class of 1996 formed up with other graduates at the Homecoming Review. As the regiments of the Corps of Cadets passed by their forebears in the Long Gray Line, the numbers in gray and black starkly contrasted with the numbers in green. Only a very small number, about one third, of the graduates of the class of 1996 remained in uniform, the remainder of their classmates preferring to lay down their weapons and don the suits of the corporate world. West Point is certainly best known for its development of military leaders, and the sight of the Corps of Cadets drawn up between the statues of Eisenhower and MacArthur seems to reinforce the notion of the sons and daughters of America defending their country’s freedom. Why then are so many choosing to forsake the storied occupation of their forebears and leave the leadership of the Army to others?
Any current member of the US Military will tell you that the environment and characteristics of warfare are changing every day. Gone are the large scale divisional battles of the World Wars and the mammoth face-offs of the Cold War. Today’s world is full of petty little squabbles that have been the death traps of conventional forces. Names such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq have illustrated that the former ideas of mass battle and heroic acts of bravery are gone along with their machines and strategies. There have been no Pershings and Eisenhowers in the recent past, nor do there seem to be any on the horizon. The Global War on Terror could best be described with a moniker attached to the Korean War – a “police action.” Today’s soldiers are more involved with fighting an unidentifiable terrorist-like enemy, protecting polling places, and filling many of the roles of a traditional government rather than warfighting. The opportunities for bravery, advancement, and leadership are limited against armed farmers, unless someone can figure out how to defeat them.
For many, involvement in an Army fighting this type of war is unattractive. Certainly the casualties are lower than those experienced in America’s past, which cannot be a reason why many USMA graduates leave after their five-year commitment. Nor does it seem to be an inability to answer the very elemental questions “Why am I fighting?” or “Am I doing the right thing?” Leaders of soldiers will say, with notable exceptions, that fighting terrorism is a necessity, and that striking tents and pulling up stakes would be the wrong answer. Although many have reservations about the reasons and justifications for war in Iraq, few will say that fleeing the Middle East is the solution for peace and stability in that region.
No, the answer seems to be much more selfish. For many, war is no longer a lucrative profession. Certainly dollars are not the reason why many sign up to join the military, and the pay of a second lieutenant is hardly that of a fresh graduate student on Wall Street. In the past, the respect to be gained from fighting in a war far outweighed the monetary benefits to be gained by staying at home. Reputations were won and lost according to who volunteered to fight and who didn’t. The white feather campaigns in Britain during WWI and other measures in later wars encouraged men to fight in a crusade, for lack of a better term, that added much more to respect, reputation, and experience than money ever could.
Vietnam changed all that. Early on one could find those eager to fight in “our war,” emulating the success of fathers and grandfathers in the World Wars. But as the war dragged on and unpopularity increased, the respect to be won from war vanished. Mutual respect was to be had between those who had served and could relate with other veterans, but increasingly to many, the PERCEPTION was that soldiers were the tool that waged an unpopular, unjustified, and evil war. There was no respect in that. That perception might not have been the total reality, but by the early 1970’s, the numbers willing to go to Vietnam were greatly diminished. The same is beginning to happen today. The United States Military Academy was the most competitive school in the country to enter for the class of 2007 – the first class to apply since the terrorist attacks on September 11. Since that time, and as the wars in the Middle East are becoming more unpopular, applications are down.
As the respect and reputation to be gained from fighting a war goes away, gaining that which is more tangible becomes more and more attractive. If there is no disrespect to be had from not serving in the military, what is preventing people from becoming successful businessmen and women? Very little, except the five year active duty requirement incurred by graduating from West Point. Add to that equation the fact that there is an increasing lack of talent in the corporate world, and the reputation West Point holds outside of the Army means that many businesses are eager to acquire former cadets. West Point has been compared to the best of the Ivy League, and the academic rigors that cadets endure during the tenure at USMA mean that they are well equipped to serve not only the needs of the Army, but also the needs of the corporations around the world, who pay much better than the Army does. Families are much happier with corporate hours and pay than Army deployments and allowances.
West Point prides itself on being the premier leadership institution in America. Some criticize this view, especially those well entrenched in the Army, by saying that were that true, the Army would retain graduates at a much higher rate than they currently do. On the contrary, it seems that West Point does such an exceptional job of inculcating leadership, discipline, and versatility that almost any business in the country is clamoring for its graduates. Such is not the case with ROTC and OCS graduates unless they graduated from a greatly revered academic institution. The retention rate of ROTC and OCS graduates is much higher than their West Point counterparts. Army leaders clamor why and have begun to offer incentive programs to retain graduates longer, but its success is still to be seen.
Another reason for poor graduate retention is only known to those inside the institution and can best be described as “the West Point Experience.” Many young men and women came to West Point because they wanted to become leaders, but for many, that leadership seems to take the form of putting up with many daily annoyances and participating in a lot of mandatory training. It has been the confessed goal of many in the Academy leadership to make West Point “more like the Army,” but to some that seems to be an oxymoron. West Point is not like the Army – it may be a military academy, but it is not organized like the Army nor do cadets treat others, nor are they treated, like soldiers in the Army. West Point is a bastion of future officers, and many times it seems that “being more like the Army” consists of not being treated like a future officer at all. Most importantly, West Point is a dedicated academic institution, and while the Army may be a learning institution, an academic one it is not. Attempts to make West Point more like the Army detract from its academic focus, and many cadets find themselves standing in a line for Saturday training rather than writing papers. An argument has been made that cadets wouldn’t study on Saturdays if they had the chance, but anything can be made mandatory at West Point if the leadership wants it to be. The West Point Experience seems to leave a bad taste in the mouths of many cadets, which is something they take with them to the Army. Some graduates stand out in Army careers, and some seem to be surprisingly mediocre.
At that same parade on October 7th, where around thirty percent of the class of 1996 wore uniforms, less than ten percent from the class of 1986 wore theirs. Many stood in ranks as they had as cadets wearing suits and ties while smiling wives and children stood behind. Many had, for fifteen years, lived and worked in the civilian sector and led prosperous lives. Almost all were appreciative of their West Point experience, as were the businesses that hired them. Perhaps USMA needs to graduate cadets with a little less potential. Or talent. Or maybe the Army needs to become much more lucrative as a profession. It might make the football team more successful.