A few days ago, I posted some thoughts on American military education, as exemplified by our army academy at West Point. It’s a topic that’s worth some attention. Out there in the world, we’ve now got troops in about 150 countries— people in all of them should be wondering how American generals think. Meanwhile here at home the military enjoys amazingly high levels of respect. Apparently 70 percent of us think our military officers want what’s best for the country, as opposed to what’s best for themselves; only 32 percent think that about civil servants, and for members of congress the number drops to 12 percent. Enjoying respect like that, it’s no wonder values and ideas spread outward from our officer corps to the rest of society.
So we need to think hard about how good those ideas and values are likely to be, and my post suggested that they’re not so good. The young people going through West Point don’t get experience in thinking hard about any particular thing, because they’re moving too fast, with only brief stops at all kind of knowledge service stations, and no time at all for unstructured reflection. It’s no surprise that once they’re out in the field, they aren’t so hot at understanding complicated societies like Afghanistan. As they get older and become opinion-makers on matters of international politics, like David Petraeus, the effects are even worse.
Before I’d even finished writing up my thoughts, a new example popped into the news that should make us worry even more about what the hell goes on at West Point. It’s the case William Bradford, an assistant professor at West Point whom The Guardian covered a couple of weeks ago. It turned out that Bradford had published an essay calling some American law professors “an Islamist Fifth Column” that the military can legitimately target/kill; the professors’ law schools are fair game too, as long as our soldiers try not to kill any innocent by-standers. Apparently the essay doesn’t name names, but it does supply an estimate of how many fifth-columnists need to be dealt with– about forty nation-wide.
One thing you can say for West Point, they moved fast to end the Bradford scandal– he resigned almost immediately after the Guardian story broke; the academy also explained that he’d written up these opinions before joining its faculty, so the army couldn’t be held resposible for them. In other words, the military’s excuse is that the article was all written up before they hired the guy– meaning, they could have reviewed it, asked some questions, looked at some other candidates.
For all I know that’s what actually happened, and we should take Bradford as expressing out loud what the rest of the military is thinking silently– maybe we should be really scared, rather than just appalled. But my money’s on this being just another example of the speed-obsessed superficiality that my last post described. This is the kind of thing that happens in an organization that doesn’t give its members any unstructured time.
“They also serve who only stand… and think.”