Responses to West Point grads

Guest blogger Tim Kane addresses arguments from readers of the West Point survey.

Emmanuel Dunand / AP / File
Britain's Prince Harry, right, speaks with US military cadets during a visit to the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY on June 25.

I've received some good feedback on the Atlantic essay in the last 24 hours, both pro and con. First off, let me say that is very humbling and daunting to be representing the 250 West Point graduates who were willing to anonymously complete the survey. And I should leaven my comments by noting that each of the 250 disagrees with the consensus in some fashion. Still, the comments they made are a bit hard to digest, eye-watering honestly, because these are young men and women who love their country. There is some deep frustration and passion that the bureaucracy is hurting THEIR Army.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand all the nuts and bolts of how the Army works, which made me tread very carefully in constructing the survey and the Atlantic article. That said, the evidence I found is compelling. While I want to make the case for reform humbly, I also recognize that the DSQs (Defenders of the Status Quo) have powerful counter-arguments that are ancient, not to mention that time is on their side. This tide will crest and go away.

We can anticipate three types or counter-reform arguments:

  1. Resentment Bias. The reformers are sour grapes (resentful they didn't get promoted).
  2. Methodology Bias. The data and methodology of the survey study is flawed.
  3. Elitism. The reformers are elites (i.e. West Point officers, not ROTC, OTS, enlistees, etc).

A fourth argument would be that the reformers are ignorant -- that is, not Army officers. Well, that doesn't apply here, especially given the survey sample. If I may take a moment to establish my bona fides, my dad retired as a Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) from the Air National Guard. My first assignment as a HUMINT officer was at the Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul, Korea.

The DSQs need to square themselves with the fact that the respondents to my survey were recruited in a blind, unbiased fashion. More importantly, the respondent pool is 1/3 active duty. Repeat, the respondent pool is 1/3 active duty. Throughout the report, I repeatedly show that the active duty officers saw the flaws and wanted the reforms in nearly identical proportions to the veteran group.

As for the final argument that West Pointers are elitists, it is a dishonest dodge. Set aside the fact that (1) this dodges the existence of ANY contrary evidence from non-Academy officers or enlistees. Indeed, I'll submit that our military's excellent ROTC and OTS officers have even stronger pro-reform feelings than others. But set that aside, and set aside (2) that I would love to survey more officers, but have not found a way to do it in an unbiased way. Let's do that together, Army. For now, let me just point out that I did not ask if the best WP officers are leaving early, I asked if the "best" are leaving. Do critics really think that entrepreneurship is an elitist argument? Chuck Yeagar had no college degree, but he flew fighters pretty darn well. Mahan wasn't much of a skipper, but the Navy gave him space to revolutionize strategy. Ultimately, the elitsits are the ones opposing reforms. Elites and clubs prefer a strong hierarchy where performance is only evaluated from the top down. That structure is exactly what should be changed!

As a final note, I regret not mentioning the Coast Guard in the Atlantic essay. Here's an email I received late last night:

Dr. Kane -

I very much enjoyed your piece in the Atlantic. In fact, it is fast making the circles amongst the officer corps in the Coast Guard. It was probably an oversight (you listed 4 branches) but I'd like to point out that we too are a branch of the Armed Forces, in fact, we face many of the same problems highlighted in your article. Our system in nearly identical to the US Navy and is similar to the advancement systems in the other 4 branches as well.

I love my country (and my Coast Guard) but your article reflects why I am a reserve officer now, instead of staying on active duty. I do not enjoy admitting that I feel more valued and respected in my civilian occupation then I do (or did) in the Coast Guard. That being said, I am still young enough to hope (and see) change, and that is why I continue to serve.

Yes, it was an oversight and I should know better. While the article and essay focus primarily on the Army, the need for change is purple. Thanks again for all comments.

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