Lecturing Professionalism While Practicing Bureaucracy

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Maj. Fernando Lujan argues that West Point lectures cadets on professionalism but practices bureaucracy:

Consider this: From day one at the academy every possible situation that a cadet could conceivably encounter is accounted for by strict regulations. Not sure how many inches should be between your coat hangers, whether you can hold your girlfriend’s hand on campus, or how your socks should be marked? Consult the regulations. Moreover, all activity is subjected to the cadet performance system, which essentially assigns a grade to every measurable event in a cadet’s life (think shoe shines, pushups and pop quizzes) then ruthlessly ranks the entire class from first to last. Cadets at the top of the list get the jobs and postings they want after graduation. Those near the bottom end up driving trucks at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The result is two-fold: First, cadets have very little experience adapting to unfamiliar environments. After all, what happens when the regulations don’t describe what’s going on around you? Second, cadets devote zero attention to activities that “don’t count.” If it’s not on the syllabus, and it’s not for a grade, the cadets aren’t learning it. Ask a cadet to spend a few minutes writing up a list of the skills, traits, and knowledge that he wishes he’d have when he finally takes over his first platoon in combat. Then compare this to his four-year curriculum and summer training plans. There will be surprisingly little overlap between the two lists, and the cadet has neither the time nor the incentive to learn what’s missing. In the end, we graduate far too many cadets that are more bureaucrat than professional, lacking the expert knowledge of their trade and the flexibility to be effective in the complex environments they’ll soon encounter.

Unfortunately, wars — particularly the types of wars we’re currently involved in — are very unforgiving of bureaucrats.

(Hat tip to Cameron Schaefer.)


  1. Luther says:

    One among many reasons why NCO’s are the absolute heart of our military forces. One not emulated in any serious sense by any other, IMHO.

    I’d like to hear Tocqueville’s take on this phenomena. It’s a fine line on the line, democracy and autocracy.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Your point about NCOs reminds me of de Atkine’s piece on Why Arabs Lose Wars — and James Dunnigan’s follow-up on Why Iraqis Still Fight Like Arabs.

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