Are the military service academies wasting taxpayer dollars?

I miss Senator Proxmire of Wisconsin, and you should, too!  Even though he was a Democrat, I enjoyed how he poked fun at the outlandish spending that emanates from Capitol Hill.  From 1975 to 1988, Senator Proxmire awarded Golden Fleece Awards to "Beltway bandits," AKA government contractors and federal agencies, for outrageous waste in government spending.  Today's military could use some Senator Proxmire sense.

I was an ensign in the USCG in 1978.  I worked at the Seventh Coast Guard in Miami as a government bureaucrat in uniform.  I recall a crisis that emerged in my office when we discovered that we were in danger of not spending all the money we had requested in that fiscal year.

In the real world, not spending all the money you planned to spend is called good news.  In the magical land of the federal government, however, not spending your allowed budget is akin to an unforgivable sin.  Our bosses directed us to "obligate fallout funds" quickly by buying office equipment to close the gap.  We obliged by buying stuff we did not need.  The Western world was safe once again.

Today, if I were to nominate a current example of outlandish federal spending, I would point to our service academies.

Once upon a time, when our nation was young and poor, Congress decided that we needed an army and a navy.  If you have an army and a navy, you need engineers to build and maintain all that military stuff.  The army and the navy hoped young engineers would flock to sign up for the military.  Instead, the engineers took jobs in the private sector, where salaries were higher and the job requirements did not put them in danger's way.

"How do we get engineers to sign up for the army and the navy?" our forefathers asked.  They came up with a bold answer.  "We will grow our own engineers."  Early military leaders decided to offer potential engineers free schooling in engineering if the potential engineers would serve in the military for five years after receiving their engineering degrees at West Point or Annapolis.

Image: West Point.  Public domain.

This arrangement worked well initially and gave us people like Robert E. Lee, who designed the artificial island at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor called Fort Carroll, among other distinctions.  Frank Julian Sprague, a graduate of Annapolis, invented the electric motor that made subways feasible in America.

After his Bay of Pigs fiasco, President Kennedy lamented, "Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan."  Politicians in Washington smelled the success of giving free schooling to engineers.  They claimed the right to appoint young men from their states or districts to the service academies, and a simple idea got more complicated.

As America got richer, graduates of the service academies convinced themselves that they were American Brahmans of the military.  Service school graduates got promotions more quickly than "Mustangs" or officers produced by Officer Candidate Schools.  The upper ranks of the military began to teem with "ring knockers."

At some point in the 20th century, the service academies departed from offering only engineering degrees to graduates.  Graduates can now receive degrees in law, finance, political science, and social science.

Back on Capitol Hill, Congress still thinks we are a wealthy nation.  Many of us in the hinterlands know that we are 30 trillion dollars in debt.  If there is anyone in government like Senator Proxmire still interested in cutting costs, the academies are ripe for trimming.  Here are some cost-cutting questions.

  • Why do we have three separate sea service academies?  (Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy)
  • Why do we have vice admirals in charge of the academies when a colonel or a captain (06) could do the job?
  • If OCS and ROTC produce officers more cost-effectively, why do we keep packing the service academies, where the costs per graduate are much higher?

I have always had a knack for asking "inconvenient" questions.  When I was serving in the Coast Guard years ago, I once asked, "Isn't this a waste of money?"  The reply I got still rings in my mind: "The Coast Guard has 200 years of tradition unbroken by progress."

Once, the question was, do we really need to pay $10,000 for a toilet seat cover on our C-17 cargo planes?  Now the question is, do we really need to pour as much money into our military academies?  We miss you, Senator Proxmire!

Ned Cosby's new novel OUTCRY is a love story exposing the refusal of Christian leaders to discipline clergy who sexually abuse our young people.  This work of fiction addresses crimes that are all too real.  He has also written RECOLLECTIONS FROM MY FATHER'S HOUSE, tracing his own odyssey from 1954 to the present.  For more info, visit

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