Some arguments in favor of the service academies cite the rigorous selection process. But we really have no idea how elite their students are. Admittance requires a nomination from a member of Congress, the vice president, a secretary of the respective military branch or other high-level officials. These nominations are doled out in a process with vague guidelines and nonspecific criteria, making political patronage inevitable. The academies admit recruits according to Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 6954 — which, for guidance, merely says how many cadets can be admitted, who can nominate them and where they can come from. According to an investigation by USA Today, nepotism often governs the nominations, with many going to well-connected families or big-name donors.

Fleming has complained in numerous media outlets about the low quality of the students he teaches at the Naval Academy, and he says three Freedom of Information Act requests about the admissions process haven’t gotten him any closer to understanding why some students are admitted over others.

Gore Vidal (born at West Point and connected to the institution by heritage) depicted the service academies as loathsome breeding grounds for a permanent military-elite class of “ring knockers,” as he wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1973. That’s exactly why people have been trying to shut the academies down since at least 1830, when folk hero and Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett tried to pass a bill abolishing West Point. Another attempt was made in 1863, when Sen. B.F. Wade (R-Ohio) said in the bill’s defense, “I do not believe that there can be found, on the whole face of the Earth . . . any institution that has turned out so many false, ungrateful men as have emanated from this institution.”