Naval Academy graduation is a festive event. I usually love it, and I've been going for the 30 years I've been a professor of English. The students look their best, the weather usually cooperates, the Blue Angels fly overhead in a roaring rush, and the midshipmen are deliriously happy. I'm particularly proud of the students I've taught and mentored, and I wish them all well.
However this year it wasn't fun. Every single speaker — from Vice Adm. Ted Carter, the superintendent of the Naval Academy, to Acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley, to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, to the main speaker, Vice President Mike Pence — portrayed a vision of the Navy as a self-serving, closed entity at odds with the rest of American society, and the midshipmen, whose education came on the back of the taxpayers, as superior to those people they are supposed to defend.
Vice President Pence nailed this attitude when he assured the graduates that they were the best America had to offer — after Messrs. Carter, Richardson and Stackley (all of whom had graduated from Annapolis) did the same. But if they are the best, why should they defend the worst?
"President Trump has your back!" VPOTUS assured the graduates, parents and friends, and offered as evidence Mr. Trump's plans to expand the numbers of those in uniform and "rebuild the Navy." But the military isn't a special interest group that necessarily gets better by getting bigger. And against whom or what does the president have their back? You'd think the commander-in-chief wouldn't have to send word he supports his own military against enemies. So apparently it's against those people who try to attack the military right here at home.
The superintendent echoed the acting secretary, who assured us that all of the graduates were the equal of graduates of any other institution in the U.S. — even the so-called "anchor man," the one who scraped by with a 2.0 "C" average. Or rather, they're better. As the acting secretary had it, students at civilian schools are the "lookers-on" not the "do-ers."
But 80 percent of new officers come from civilian schools or up through the ranks. Are Annapolis graduates the best Naval officers? No. There is no evidence for this. Check out the percentage of Annapolis graduates involved in the so-called Fat Leonard corruption scandal, for example, unfolding as I write. In fact the service academies are hideously expensive and don't give taxpayers any extra defense for their dollars. The academies cost us almost half a million dollars per student. This is about four times what the average ROTC student costs, and eight times what the average Officer Candidate School student costs. For no better product.
Civilians are lookers-on? Tell that to the doctors, teachers, architects, cooks and stay-at-home parents. There are in fact many ways to serve your country — or your community or mankind. Not just as part of the less than 1 percent of Americans wearing a military uniform, who in fact serve precisely these civilians. Roughly 90 percent of those in the military are enlisted and not officers at all. Recipients of a free education and an officer's commission should be thanking us civilians, not being told they're better.
So it was all insider "us vs. them" clubbiness, further wrapped in clubby religion. The CNO listed the "three vows" he had made in his life: that of his baptism to his faith, that to his wife and that to the Constitution. Clearly we were meant to see them as related.
It's not good for the military to believe itself better than the civilians it defends. It's not good for the students who have been the recipients of the taxpayer largesse to feel superior either to civilians or to the other officers, or the enlisted. Nor is it good to hear that every U.S. intervention has resulted in a win — including Iraq and Afghanistan as the vice president had it. That's lying to my students, and it suggests we haven't learned from our mistakes.
Do we need a strong military? Of course. But it can't be strong if a tiny clique of graduates from expensive and largely ceremonial military academies believe themselves superior to other officers, the enlisted and the taxpayers they are paid to defend.
I was ashamed of the academy during this year's graduation. And alarmed. All of us should be.
Bruce Fleming is a tenured civilian professor at the U.S. Naval Academy who sometimes expresses views not shared by the administration. Twitter: @bef_annapolis.