A reaction to Bruce Fleming’s latest call for dissolution.
I’m Bruce Fleming’s worst nightmare. Fleming has been an English professor at the United States Naval Academy since 1987, an institution that I entered in the summer of 2003. I never had Fleming as a professor, but I have been privy to his writing about the Academy from the very beginning, when in the spring before I joined, Fleming coined the term “Set-Asides” in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Washington Post about the absurdities of the affirmative action policy in the admissions process for USNA. His definition for Set-Asides evolved to include athletes, children of graduates—“legacies”—and those students who spent a year before entering the academy bolstering their academic merit at either the Naval Academy Preparatory School or at a civilian boarding school as part of the Naval Academy Foundation program. From Fleming’s view, they are students who were accepted through the backdoor, students who do not uphold the standards that the Academy proclaims to hold dear.
I am a Set-Aside. I’m practically every version of a Set-Aside that there can be: I went to The Northfield Mount Hermon school for a post-graduate year, my grandfather was class of ’54, my father class of ’77, my brother class of ’02, and though I wasn’t recruited to run cross country and track, and spent most of my time on the team either injured or not on the roster, and quit in the spring of my junior year, I was an athlete, too.
Hear me roar.
Fleming has continued ringing this bell over the years, and his message has evolved from criticizing the admissions policy of the Naval Academy, to questioning the existence of the Naval Academy, and of service academies in general. He wrote a regular column for military.com while I was a midshipman (link for his column page is still good, but the links for the actual articles are not), and has continued to write pieces in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and, for his last two articles, on Salon.com. His latest article, titled, “Let’s get rid of Annapolis,” published on March 7, is a variation of the title of his article the previous year, “Let’s abolish West Point,” and both have pretty much the same point: that military service academies don’t admit or graduate the “best and the brightest,” that the cost of educating a midshipman isn’t worth their benefit in the fleet, that Annapolis, and all service academies should prove their worth or cease to exist. The most recent article challenges the notion that leadership can be taught, and if it could be that the service academies are failing at that mission.
Is Fleming right? He makes some valid arguments, though perpetually wrapped in rather annoying packages. And he undermines the nuance of his arguments by using them to make the impractical and click-bait case that the service academies should be abolished. Rather than dismiss Fleming outright on the basis of several issues with which I disagree, and make ad hominem attacks about his character, it’s worth look at his arguments through the lens of own experience as a midshipmen.
I may have received preference in being admitted to the Naval Academy, but once admitted, it was up to me to prove my self-worth. It wasn’t easy. I had difficulty adhering to the institution’s military standard and to the personal standards of the upperclassmen who picked me out as one of their “projects.” I didn’t excel, but I persevered. I’m sure a lot of my classmates would say the same thing about their Plebe year experience. Towards the end of my plebe year, feeling pressured by the expectations of the administration, I chose to major in Mechanical Engineering, not one of the humanities as I desired, a desire I barely recognized myself. I would do my best to please the academy, to prove my worth to them, and by that process, prove my worth to myself.
The official website of the Naval Academy has the phrase “Leaders to Serve the Nation” on the front page, which Fleming only points out to undermine the idea that the Academy would know what to do with leaders if they actually had them. He isn’t even sure if USNA knows what a leader is:
My best guesstimate as to what USNA thinks a ‘leader’ is, is a charismatic person with no actual skills except the ability to sway people to his/her will. Those of course, can do evil as well as good: Iran and North Korea have “leaders” too.
He’s right and he’s wrong . All midshipmen take required leadership courses, are put in positions of leadership, even as Plebes, and have required leadership training in the summer. But he’s right in the sense that nobody specifically defines any required nature of your particular brand of leadership, because those leadership traits are specific to the traits and personality of the individual. I at first adhered slavishly to what I thought the Academy wanted out of me rather than what I wanted out of the Academy, and I continued to fail until I realized the issues with this approach.
Despite the obvious differences of the American military compared to that of Iran and North Korea—we have better uniforms—the real strength of the American military derives from the individual pushback to the conformity that is inherent in military culture. The American military is a collective of individuals who all have their own passions, interests, and goals in life and it’s this sense of individualism that provides at least a semblance of nuance and humanity to a system that has the potential to crush one’s spirit.
I chose to let the system define who I was, to excel by taking cover. But rather than succeed, I was mediocre at best. My classmates who exceled the most at the Academy were ones who pushed back against the rules that were meant to be broken and the system that enforced these rules. There are “moral rules” and “Academy rules.” There is no excuse for breaking a moral rule, such as violating the honor concept, by cheating on a test, or for a DUI. These would and should get a Midshipman expelled from the Academy.
And then there were rules meant to be broken, and many classmates understood something that I couldn’t at the time. The classmates who listened to music while Plebes, or freshmen, who wore civilian clothes while on liberty, even though they didn’t rate it, or who “jumped the wall” instead of going through one of the manned and numbered gates on the Yard, they understood that their sense of self was more important than the rules and the institution enforcing them. If they were caught, they were punished swiftly and severely: with Restriction that confined them to yard, multiple uniform inspections a day, and the marching of tours in the morning, which are conducted by holding a rifle while marching slowly in the circle. The punishment was worth the crime of maintaining their own humanity.
The Academy even recognized this need for mischief, and created outlets where Midshipmen were allowed to misbehave without fear of retribution. Before home football games, it was an unwritten rule that the Plebes in each company were both allowed and expected sneak off the Yard on a Friday night to the football stadium and put up a banner with their company logo. Plebes weren’t allowed liberty until Saturday morning, and, normally would get “maxed out” for restriction for engaging in such an acts, but the guards not only turned a blind eye to these spirit missions, they were instructed to let the Midshipmen out and back in. These spirit missions would intensify in the week leading to the annual football game against the United States Military Academy, West Point. During “Army Week,” Plebes were given free range to target those upper class who had given them the most trouble since Induction Day, each weekday after classes, and especially after TAPS, the hallways of each company area becoming war zone of shaving cream, spoiled milk, and upper classes bunks being ceremoniously flung out windows and onto the ground below.
I didn’t participate in any of it. Not in the rules that were meant to be broken. Not in the rules that were allowed to be broken. I withdrew into myself in an attempt to make it through, alone, an institution that is designed to make it so you depend on others to succeed. My life and schedule revolved around running and homework. This is the nature of conformity. That’s not to say that everyone at the Naval Academy has march to the beat of the same drum, but all are there for one common purpose—to graduate and serve as an officer in the military—and this draws and creates a certain culture that it is wise in some ways to absorb and accept as your own if you want to thrive, or even just to survive.
Per capita, a lot of this culture is white, and male. I was and am white and male, but I still didn’t feel like I fit in. But this wasn’t because I wasn’t masculine enough. It certainly wasn’t because I wasn’t white enough. It was due to lacking the sense of self that I saw in my classmates. The confidence. The ambition. While some would call my classmates’ affinity for teamwork and buy-in to cultural norms a certain kind of conformity, really, they were engaged where I was disinterested.
So, to respond to Mr. Fleming’s particular thesis, the service academies do not inherently create better leaders than any of the other paths to commissioning. It’s one path to the ultimate goal of becoming an officer. It’s up to the individual to stake out the appropriate path for his or herself, and make the most of that path. Fleming has argued that the amount of money that the military spends on each midshipman outweighs the benefit, and others will conversely argue that it costs a lot of money to educate any student, civilian or otherwise. Fleming has argued against the particulars of academy culture or of the military in general. He has argued against the admission policy, who let in Set-Aside students, students who are substandard, of which I was one. I wasn’t the best. I wasn’t the brightest. Few people are. Few midshipmen are. But, knowing what I knew at the time, I did my best. I made it through. I graduated flight school. I served my time and I did my duty.
It was the very end of my time in the Academy’s version of Boot Camp—Plebe Summer—when I missed the very first official cross country practice, in which I took part during the allotted sports period throughout the summer. At the start of the second practice, I walked to the doors of the field house as the coach, Al Cantello, leered at me. As I approached, he yelled my name. “Raunig!” he said, and proceeded to yell at me for missing the first practice. I acquiesced. I tried to nicely explain that I had obligations during that first practice, as ordered by my upperclass, that there was nothing I could do. Cantello didn’t buy it for a second.
“If you have practice, you better be willing to push your own MOTHER out of the way to get there,” he said, and as he did, he took two strong steps towards me shoved me with his arm, nearly causing me to fall. Cantello was older at that time, in his 70’s, but still possessed the strength he acquired in his training to throw the javelin at the Rome Olympics. I was shaken and didn’t know what to say. I walked through the doors of the field house to the locker room, changed into my running clothes, and went to practice.
I learned a lesson that day that, one that took me years to process, in part possibly because I’m a Set-Aside. It’s the lesson of the Naval Academy, one that Fleming, the consummate outsider, will never understand. It wasn’t that Cantello was right. And it wasn’t that I was wrong. It’s that when he pushed me, I should have pushed back.