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I recently got an email from a young man who quit the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School because, among other things, he was turned off by a West Point cadet who was there as a leader on summer training. The cadet said almost all non-West Point officers were “pieces of shit.” Non-West Point officers are mostly those from Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC—civilian college army officer training) and Officer Candidate School (OCS—school where current Army enlisted men go to became officers—often called “90-day wonders”).
When I was in the Army, and maybe still, there was another source of commission called “battlefield commission.” In spite of its dramatic name, it just meant that if we had a sergeant we liked in a combat zone, we could promote him to second lieutenant just by filing some paperwork. We did that with a guy in my platoon in Vietnam. Battlefield commissions are more or less a reflection of a shortage of officers or a perceived shortage of officers. That is, it was not the combat heroism of the soldier that got him to be an officer, rather it was he was sharper than most enlisted men and the Army was hurting for officers or thought it was. The guy to whom we gave a battlefield commission was never in combat.
I also saw men and women who entered the Army as captains because they were lawyers, doctors, or dentists. Militarily, those people were jokes. They generally would agree with that. They were just officers because of status and pay issues.
Here I want to discuss briefly the difference between U.S. Military Academy (USMA a.k.a. West Point), ROTC, and OCS officers. I am leaving out battlefield and professionals.
Outsiders tend to think West Pointers must be the best officers and ROTC officers are at least smarter than OCS, who are generally not college grads.
It’s a bit more complex than that.
When I was in—’64 to ’68 as a West Point cadet and ’68 to ’72 as an officer—USMA cadets were smarter as a group than ROTC as a group and ROTC as a group were smarter than OCS as a group. Nowadays, it appears that USMA and ROTC are similar in terms of IQ and that both groups are probably still smarter than OCS as a group.
Am I saying the dumbest West Pointer was smarter than the smartest ROTC guy in the 60s and 70s? No. Only that the bell curves of each group would mostly overlap but be slightly offset to the West Point side. The bell curves of ROTC versus OCS back then would also be slightly offset to the ROTC side. A lot of OCS officers then were college graduate draftees.
If you want to know the intelligence of an individual West Pointer, ROTC officer or OCS officer, you have to check his test scores. Source of commission alone does not give you the answer. Group-wide, however, source of commission does differentiate between college (West Point and ROTC) and non-college (OCS generally) sources.
To the extent that duration of training matters, West Pointers are by far the best because the number of hours of training each source of commission gets goes something like this:
|West Point||waking hours four summers and academic years: about 17 hours a day x 300 days per year (cadets are on leave about 65 days a year) x 4 years = 20,400 hours (Many West Point cadets and graduates were also in the Army before they came to West Point.)|
|ROTC||waking hours 17 hours a day x 50 days summer camps = 850 plus 3 hours a week x 4 weeks a month x 9 months in academic year x 4 years = 432 hours during academic years for a total of 850 + 432 = 1,282 hours|
|OCS||waking hours 17 hours a day x 90 days = 1,530 hours (OCS grads typically also have additional time in the Army if not officer school that gives them knowledge amount the Army.) A Vietnam-era OCS officer said he went through a total of 51 weeks of training counting enlisted basic and AIT and OCS and officer training schools. I was only counting pre-commissioning time. We West Pointers had another year of training after graduation. That actually increases the discrepancy between OCS and West Point.)|
I ask those more familiar with ROTC and OCS to correct my rough calculations here, but my point is still valid: West Pointers get about a ten times more officer training than ROTC or OCS. Some may think I should not count class time at West Point if I do not count it for ROTC. I count it because we were in uniform, the instructor was an Army officer when I was there, and the classes were conducted in a very military style. One could also argue that most of civilian college life is such an antithesis of military service that I should deduct non-ROTC class time for ROTC guys.
Also, West Point training is continuous 24/7 for four years except for cadet leave 30 days in summer (when I was there), Christmas vacation, and so on. Continuous training is more effective than the intermittent ROTC training where you totally forget about the Army for days, weeks and months at a time. OCS is also continuous but about like graduating from West Point after your first three months there.
As you can see at my article, “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point?” I do not believe the West Point training is very effective. The theory behind it does not make sense: that being a neat freak for four years in your grooming, clothing, and room makes you a better military leader in combat. Nor does the empirical evidence indicate that West Point graduates are better officers in the long run than ROTC or OCS officers. For example, we have not won a war since World War II. Although West Point and Annapolis graduates held many prominent positions in that war, and we won, West Pointers were probably a smaller percentage of the U.S. military then than ever. There were 12 million men in uniform, 10% of the total population of the U.S,. most of them draftees. And U.S. industrial capacity was probably the decisive factor in the war. West Pointers had little or nothing to do with that.
So yes we had orders of magnitude as many hours of military instruction as our ROTC peers, but that does not mean we were a ten times better prepared. West Point is about weekly haircuts and lining your belt buckle up with your pants seam and much other silliness that has virtually nothing to do with combat. They also go way beyond the point of diminishing returns. Four years of making sure your toothbrush points to the left in your locker!?
Is West Point more selective than ROTC and OCS. It was when I was there but I do not believe it is any more. Again, the Vietnam war dealt a severe blow to the prestige of the U.S. military and the percentage of U.S. college students willing to subject themselves to a Spartan lifestyle shrunk and the attractiveness of civilian college life increased dramatically since I went to West Point. For example, there was a legal doctrine back then called in loco parentis. It said that the college was acting in place of the parents. Dorms were all one-sex with guards to prevent opposite sex from going anywhere but the lobby. Girls had dorm curfews and men often did as well. In other words, the regimentation of West Point was not so different from the regimentation of civilian colleges in the 1960s. Also, there were many all-male and all-female schools then; almost none now. The new legal doctrine more or less says that college students are adult and can do whatever adults can. That doesn’t mean students can drink alcohol under age or consent to sex below the age of consent or use illegal drugs, but the college is now rarely held responsible if students do violate those laws. West Point regimentation is less than it was in the 1960s, but civilian college regimentation almost disappeared entirely in the same period so the differential between West Point and civilian colleges got bigger.
ROTC and USMA are more selective than OCS as far as I know.
One of the advantages of OCS officers is they typically were U.S. Army enlisted men before becoming officers. That means they know what it’s like to be an enlisted man. When you become an officer, enlisted men are your subordinates. Having previously been one of them helps you understand them and their motivations and needs better. And it helps you establish rapport with them. Many a war movie has depicted West Point and ROTC officers as snooty college boys who are from another planet compared to regular GIs and do not understand their subordinates. There is a great deal of truth to that.
With regard to garrison Army mores, USMA cadets and graduates are miles ahead of ROTC cadets and officers. ROTC lieutenants and even captains wear their collar brass (rank badge) on the wrong collar. (The rule is rank right.) We used to also wear branch insignia—infantry, armor, whatever— on the left collar but I understand they still have branches but do not display them on uniforms. ROTC guys put their helmets on backwards—easier when I was in and the front and back were little different—even with today’s Kevlar helmets that have a German Army shape. ROTC officers put their magazines into their rifles backwards—so the bullets are pointing at their own shoulders. (Magazines are skinnier on the front edge because a bullet has a point on the front and a flange on the back end.)
A classmates say he recalls no ROTC captain wearing his brass wrong. I do. Guy with reddish-blond hair wearing khakis at one of my early assignments. I mentioned that to a number of my friends at the time. I do not recall another specific incident but I remember not being much surprised by it at the time. I solicit other remembrances from other readers. Did you ever see an ROTC captain wear his collar brass on the wrong side and/or at an incorrect angle? Were you an ROTC captain who made that mistake yourself? When I was in the Army, it should be noted, about 98% of officers were promoted to captain on the second anniversary of being commissioned as second lieutenants so being a captain did not mean you had lots of experience being an Army officer.
When I was in Signal Corps Officers Basic course for months after graduation from West Point, they organized my SOBC class into two platoons, one of me and my other West Point classmates and the other of ROTC guys. The ROTC guys hated us because we often laughed out loud at them. For example, both platoons would form up in the morning in formation. Each would take the report: “First squad all present or accounted for, sir!” “Second squad all present or accounted for, sir!” and so on. Then our platoon leader West Point classmate would bark, “Rest!” and we would relax, chat, and crew around waiting for the SOBC cadre officer to to arrive and take over. The command “rest,” which somehow has avoided being in a war movie, means relax but keep at least one of your feet in the place it needs to be to quickly come to attention and still be aligned in a perfect rectangular formation. You see guys talking, crossing one ankle over the other, stretching from one toe like a first baseman catching an off-target throw but still getting the out to tap another guy to get his attention. It must have looked chaotic to the ROTC guys but when the officer appeared, one of our guys would bark, “Attention!” and we would instantly go from chaos to a perfect formation. We did it a thousand times during our four years at West Point.
You might think the ROTC guys would see us do that and learn from it. Nope. They apparently had never seen it before and refused to admit they did not know what they were doing. So when they should have also given the command “Rest,” they said, “Stand at—pause—at ease!” Then the ROTC guys would snap to a position called parade rest. Notwithstanding the word “rest” in parade rest, it is a rigid position of attention, only with the feet spread shoulder width apart and the hands rigidly in karate chop configuration and crossed over each other behind the back. While we chatted and screwed around, they stood next to us like toy soldiers staring silently straight ahead. The rest period might last five to fifteen minutes.
We laughed at their command then smiled increasingly as we saw they were going to stand there in that uncomfortable position the whole time just because they were too ignorant of military commands to fix it and too stubborn to admit they did not know what they were doing.
The correct command for putting a unit at the position of parade rest is, “Parade—pause—rest!” That command and position are taught, but rarely used, at West Point.
We did various exchange weekends at West Point when we were juniors. I went to Annapolis for a long weekend once. Annapolis guys came and stayed in our room for a long weekend once. We also had ROTC cadets come and stay in our room a couple of times—although I hasten to add that no cadet was EVER allowed to go to an ROTC college for a weekend. I suspect West Point was afraid if we ever did that they would never get the cadet back. How you gonna keep ’em down on the Academy after they’ve seen UCLA?
The ROTC cadets who stayed with us, wearing their ill-fitting uniforms with goofy rank and badges all over them, were like middle-school football players visiting our NFL locker room. They were wide-eyed tourists. I surmise they had to volunteer to spend the weekend with us and that most who did had previously been unsuccessful applicants to West Point. The ones I met all said that.
Recent West Point graduates tell me today’s ROTC cadets are not is as good shape physically as West Pointers right after graduation. That is a predictable product of the overemphasis on physical fitness in the military including West Point that I complained about in an article.
Does all this mean an ROTC officer is not as good a person as a West Point officer? No. Their training was extremely brief compared to ours. Furthermore, they trained at a civilian college campus where there were only a couple of real Army officers and maybe one sergeant. Their upperclassmen knew little more about the military than the freshmen and sophomores. At West Point, every upperclassman knew a ton more about the military details of West Point and the Army than any plebe other than the relatively few prior-service plebes. So we learned most of what we learned at West Point from the cadet upperclassmen. ROTC has no counterpart. We also encountered hundreds of top-notch Army officers, not just two or three average ones, during our time as cadets.
In addition to being more mature and experienced with opposite sex relations and alcohol, ROTC officers are reportedly more adept at same sex social interaction. West Point cadets came of age in an isolated military hot house and interacted almost entirely with fellow cadets and West Point officers for the four years.
So for the purpose of learning about the Army, ROTC is really lame and half assed compared to West Point. Thus putting helmets on backwards and all that are to be expected.
But basically, the ROTC guys seem now to be about as intelligent and capable to me as West Pointers after they have had four or five years to get acclimated and learn the stuff we learned the first couple of months at West Point. After the five-year point, differences between ROTC and West Point officers are subtle and probably not significant. Plus, and this is perhaps more important for the Army’s office politics, the majority of Army officers are ROTC, not West Point. So as connections and who you know and grudges and biases and all that start to matter, the West Pointers are a minority group.
The current Chief of Staff of the Army (top officer in the Army), George Casey, is the son of a West Point graduate, but not himself a West Point graduate. He took ROTC at Georgetown U. The last West Pointer to be Chief of Staff was Eric Shinseki in the early 2000s. The last West Point Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (top officer in the U.S. military all services) was Earle Wheeler who stepped down in 1970—40 years ago. One of my classmates said that was “misleading” because the chairmanship of the joint chiefs rotates among the various services so there have only been five Army guys in that position since and including Wheeler. “Only” five. That would be 80% of the Army chairmen non-West Point. I do not recall saying there were more that 80% non-West Points since the 1960s. Had I been asked to guess what percentage were non-West Point in my post-West Point days I probably would have guessed about 80%. I sort of thought everyone had noticed that the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs are sometimes Army, sometimes Navy, etc. But I am glad to clear that up precisely now for any whom I inadvertently misled into thinking that more than 80% of the chairmen since the 1960s were non-West Pointers.
So ROTC guys may not know how to put their bullets in their rifle as lieutenants and captains, but they sure know how to maneuver for power within the Army after they have been in it for 30 or more years. By the way, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1982 to 1985 was Army General Vessey whose source of commission was battlefield (Battle of Anzio in World War II). He did not graduate from college until age 41.
We were told as cadets that one of our roles as West Point graduates was to be the “leavening” of the U.S. Army officer Corps. That was, that the other officers looked up to us to see how to act so it was good that we were there to provide that service.
One of my classmates said he remembers no mention of leavening. I Googled "West Point"+leavening. It got 2,350 hits, not all pertinent. Here is one of the hits: http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.765/article_detail.asp. And another. Search for the word “leavening” within those. Here’s another by an ROTC officer who claimed that they were the leavening needed to straighten out the West Pointers who were too narrow.
Actually, the most famous statement that West Pointers are the leavening came in General Douglas MacArthur’s Farewell Address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in 1962.
“We’re the leavening!” “No you’re not. WE are!”
Actually, I agree with both. Our example helped the ROTC guys be more military. They helped us be more normal.
What, you may ask, is leavening? Surely it is a dated word that did not help us understand even back in the 1960s. Wikipedia says,
A leavening agent (also leavening or leaven, pronounced /ˈlɛvənɪŋ/, /ˈlɛvən/) is any one of a number of substances used in doughs and batters that cause a foaming action which lightens and softens the finished product. The leavening agent incorporates gas bubbles into the dough—this may be air incorporated by mechanical means, but usually it is carbon dioxide produced by biological agents, or by chemical agents reacting with moisture, heat, acidity, or other triggers.
So in other words, we West Point graduates were the Army officer corps’s gas bubbles.
I got the impression that is what happened during my four years in the Army. They ROTC guys were unsure of what to do often. We generally had been so thoroughly trained that we did many things confidently and effortlessly from cadet experience. So it was natural that ROTC guys would watch us for clues on how to do stuff. I did not much sense that from OCS officers. Most couldn’t wait to get out of the Army. Those who wanted to stay in seemed to relate more to the sergeants than the West Pointers—probably a college versus non-college issue.
Truth be told, we West Pointers should have learned how to deal with things we were deprived of during West Point—like alcohol and women—from the ROTC guys who thought quite rightly that West Pointers were astonishingly immature in those areas. I have never had a drink of alcohol so that was not a problem for me. The ROTC guys were more mature around women, but they were out of their element at places like Kileen, TX (adjacent to Fort Hood) where staggering over to the sorority party was not a female-meeting option. A West Point roommate and I devised a very West Point way of dealing with the women situation when you were stationed at a remote Army base. See my book Succeeding for details on that.
But the notion that our leavening agent role was profound and important beyond how to give commands, wear the uniform, and such is probably incorrect. The question is what would the Army officer corps be like if it had no West Pointers at all. I suspect it would not be perceptibly different than it is now. Indeed, the best answer is probably how it was in World War II when West Pointers were at their smallest percentage of the total Army officer corps. We won that war and none since. The military had a distinctly civilian tone back then because so big of a majority of its members were for-the-duration draftees. You can hear it in the popular military-related songs of the war years like This is the Army Mr. Jones and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The GIs regarded the military ways as odd and comical—the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way—If it moves salute it. If it doesn’t move, whitewash it and all that. They sure as hell did not “leaven” their civilian lives with things they had learned in the military when they got out in 1945. I recently read that men stopped wearing hats as civilians after World War II because doing so reminded them of being in the military.
I think the ROTC guys are perfectly adequate officers after about four or five years on active duty. Politically—meaning Army office politics—they seem to be more successful careerwise than West Pointers, not the least of which reason is they are more numerous than West Pointers.
I leave you with a story we often heard at West Point.
Grad goes into a bar. After a few drinks the bartender asks if he is a West Point graduate. “Yes, how did you know? Was it my bearing”? “No, I saw your class ring when you were picking your nose.”
Here is an email from a reader and [my comments in red]:
I have noticed that several of your articles (which I enjoy greatly) say that OCS-sourced officers are less well-educated than West Point grads. I would like you to reconsider this blanket assumption, especially in light of differences in the OCS program over time.
You characterize OCS candidates as coming from the enlisted ranks, whose members are mostly not college graduates. That may be true now, but it was not true during the Vietnam War, when I served.
I completed Army Engineer OCS at Fort Belvoir in 1970. Every candidate at that time had to be at least a college graduate, and my platoon of 60 candidates contained two lawyers, three architects, and numerous other men with one or more degrees beyond college. Many classmates also had real-life career experience and other credentials. Overall, their education and experience levels surely outclassed any West Pointer with no education or life experience other than academic work through a bachelor's degree.[Out-aged is more accurate. I have often described my West Point class as “The class the professional degrees fell on.” Shame on us for not acquiring those advanced degrees while we were still in college. Arguably, if you have a law degree, and you are in the Army standing next to a West Point grad who is several years younger and the same rank as you, you are the one who has been “outclassed.”]
It is technically true that all of my OCS class came from the enlisted ranks, since OCS candidates in those years were required to enlist and go through two months of Basic Training and two months of Advanced Individual Training before entering the 23-week OCS program. During OCS, candidates were paid as E-5s. Those who completed the program, after a total of about a year of training, were discharged from the enlisted components and launched into their two or three year commissioned officer commitments.
OCS can actually be a difficult path for long-time enlisted personnel. In my OCS class, there was only one enlisted man who had not initially enlisted for OCS under the standard Basic/AIT/OCS program. He was a Specialist 6 medic who had been to Vietnam and looked like an enlistment poster. During the three weeks that we had to wait "on deck" for our class to start, he was assumed by the group to be the most likely person to emerge as the star of the class. He quit after two weeks of the actual program. The consensus was that he was too old – about 25 – to hack the program. A better theory might have been that, by the time someone reaches E-6, he is likely to be culturally frozen in the enlisted mindset and be incapable of putting on the mantle of officer status.
You correctly note that, because of their enlisted service (even though it is mostly training), OCS graduates have a greater understanding of Army life in general than USMA grads and a lesser inclination to the "Cream of the Crop" illusion that afflicts USMA grads.[Cream of the Crop is an illusion when West Pointers compare themselves to Ivy League and other highly selective college grads, but not when you compare West Point junior officers to OCS and run-of-the-mill ROTC guys. The admissions and graduation standards for those programs are simply far lower than for West Point. I am not familiar with honors ROTC. There were no such officers when I was in the Army.]