In one of my articles for the good CDR, I ended a consideration of the racialized and hence un-Constitutional policies used for admission at the US Naval Academy, and according to report increasingly in the military as a whole, with the phrase “trow de bums out.” It’s a phrase widely used in journalism to evoke the sharp-elbow politics of the 1930s—it encourages voters to vote out of office public servants who betray the public trust. The good CDR cleaned it up to “throw the bums out,” so it lost some of its period and ethnic flavor. And it seemed to suggest that I think the admirals who tell us that “diversity is our number one priority” and the Naval Academy administration apparently bent on putting racial politics first are bums. Of course they’re not. Besides, they can’t be voted out. But they can be removed by the Secretary of Defense or the Commander in Chief.
I’m in fact sure that, far from being bums, they’re trying to do what they see as the right thing and please their own superior officers, who apparently think they’re doing the right thing too. The problem comes in the fact that all of them have raised their right hand to defend the Constitution: having one short path over a lower bar for non-white applicants to the Naval Academy (with a taxpayer-supported remedial school, that incidentally doesn’t even remediate, available in all but a few cases only to them and to recruited athletes) and another longer one over a higher bar for white applicants not also members of another preferred group (such as athletic recruits) is un-Constitutional. You tell me your skin color and I’ll tell you the track you’re on for admission (assuming we’re not recruiting you already to be on a team and so on). That’s the way they do it.
But no, they’re not bums. I’ve mused on why men and women I have to believe are honorable (and I’ve always said they have to be, which is why the whole thing puzzles me so much) act in this fashion. My best shot was to call them “dinosaurs”—which isn’t very nice either. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t start this name-calling: a former Superintendent of the Naval Academy informed me in an official letter that I had acted “unprofessionally” by publishing an article in the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute that contained information he didn’t want shared with the public, failed to show “good judgment” by informing taxpayers about our illegal admissions policies, and “needlessly criticized all midshipman [sic] past, present and future” by pointing out that many of our students had been recruited for their team membership or skin color rather than for the high predictors most people think of as necessary for admission. More recently I was informed by a newly-arrived official at the Naval Academy that I was having my raise denied because I am not a good “role model”: I wasn’t supposed to say that what his administration is up to is illegal. And so on.)
So yeah. “Bums” is a rhetorical flourish, and “dinosaurs” isn’t very nice. What “dinosaurs” means here is, they’re (sure: honorable) people are out of step with events, stuck in a time warp. It may seem a good thing to admit and retain midshipmen because they’re black or brown if you’re still in a l968 mind-set (the “amicus” briefs to the Supreme Court on behalf of the University of Michigan’s racialized admissions process in 2003 filed by the military repeatedly cited Vietnam-era problems with white officers and non-white enlisted, apparently oblivious to the fact that none of this matters in the age of Obama when the military is all volunteer). It apparently seems to them like forward-looking, rather than backward-looking, politics, to directly set out to enroll and promote to skin color. And you don’t want anybody, especially not a pesky civilian professor, pointing out that this is un-Constitutional. I’m even willing to believe that the people at the top truly have no idea how hugely demoralizing these policies are to the rank and file of officers and enlisted who believe firmly that individual merit should determine advancement. That’s the nature of keeping the CO happy. The XO isn’t going to pass on unwelcome information, and the higher you are, the less contact you have with the people actually affected by your policies. The result is, you stay in your happy place and get to be indignant when someone like a professor suggests that something is rotten in Denmark—or in the US military.
So what they’re doing is hugely destructive of military morale, not to mention illegal. But no, it’s not nice to call them “dinosaurs,” and I won’t do it anymore. Especially in that an op-ed by Mark Moyar in the New York Times of December 20 gives me better and more sophisticated vocabulary to make the same point.
Moyar teaches at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, VA, and so his piece, unsurprisingly, is an “oohrah” to the Marine Corps—more specifically, to their culture of “inducing its officers to operate independently.” 58% of Marines surveyed said that USMC “encouraged risk-taking,” “more than twice as many” as Army respondents. This poses problems, Moyar suggests, for the “leadership ranks” of the Army—and of course, I’m suggesting, the Navy as well. As Moyar puts it, speaking here of both Army and Marine Corps, “a significant portion are not demonstrating the vital leadership attributes of creativity, flexibility, and initiative.” But it’s worse, far worse, outside the Marine Corps. For example, in the Navy.
He then explains. “Researchers have found that the leadership ranks of big organization are dominated” by two “personality types.” People of the first type “prefer structure and standardization, doing things by the book and maintaining tight control.” He goes on: “In the late 20th century, the Army [and I’m adding: Navy] gravitated toward standardization, as peacetime militaries often do, and consequently rewarded the . . . officers who are now the Army’s generals and colonels.” There’s a problem with this: “This personality type functions less well in activities that change frequently or demand regular risk-taking.” The other personality type, that functions better in these challenging circumstances, is more flexible and creative, what Moyar calls the “intuitive-thinking” type. These are necessary to “save lives and win wars.” The problem is, they’re not calling the shots in today’s military. “Today the Army [or, as I add, the Navy] has more intuitive-thinking people among its lieutenants and captains than at the upper levels. Too many of these junior officers continue to leave the service out of disillusionment with its rigidity.”
This is the disillusionment I report on from midshipmen and the officers who write to me. Moyar has some suggestions about how to get more of these flexible and creative types into slots currently filled with those who are focused on “standardization” and “maintaining tight control.” We should, he says, incorporate personality tests into promotion boards. And “generals should repeatedly visit the colonels . . . to see if they are encouraging subordinates to innovate and take risks. Commanders who refuse to stop micromanaging should be relieved.” Micromanagement of midshipmen capable of creative thinking is precisely what’s wrong with the Naval Academy, and why its effect on the students (at a cost in producing officers that averages four times what ROTC costs) is so intensely negative.
Apparently what the brass is doing by racializing to achieve narrow skin-color goals is a result of their personality type. They are who they are, and just can’t do anything about it. So no more “trow de bums out.” Instead, I’ll maintain with Moyar that they “should be relieved”—precisely because they are clearly not going to change.