The Best Defense

Life during the government shutdown (I): Empty classrooms and a busy football team show what the USNA is really about

By Bruce Fleming
Best Defense guest columnist

The halls of the English department at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I am in my 27th year as a civilian professor, were almost free of midshipmen students on Tuesday, Oct. l, when I had to go in to sign my official furlough letter, the one informing me that I was out of work until and unless the government shutdown ends. The students weren't there because most of their classes had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Civilian faculty were paid until noon, four hours for an "orderly shutdown." Though grim (no pay with little chance of restitution if the government ever gets going again), it seemed a bit like a party as well, all of us in weekend shorts and bright shirts rather than our usual suits and professional attire. But as non-essential civilian DOD employees, we professors were sent home, while our students, military and hence unaffected by the shutdown, killed time. We were told not to assign them other work during the shutdown, not to volunteer to come in to teach for free, and not to use military instructors to cover for us.

So classes were suspended in mid-stream. In my plebe Rhetoric and Introduction to Literature class, we'd reached Act II of Othello. It's a play I find essential for a military academy, about Othello's inability to switch from his "guy" world of the military, where he has served "in the tented field" since the age of seven(!), to the new world of Venice, city manners, and women that, hired by the Venetian senators as a mercenary admiral, he is suddenly thrust into. Now he's gone and married Desdemona, but his trusted warrior subordinate Iago tells him she's unfaithful. Othello is insecure (he's old and dark-skinned) and he believes in the band of brothers rather than his wife. The result is tragedy for all. Females and too great a reliance on the bros -- what can be more timely for USNA, racked by sexual assault scandals and toxic SAPR training?

But, hey, Congress thought otherwise. Students can't do much with only two acts out of five. Worse, all plebes go next week to see a performance of this play funded by outside sources, the Brady family, that every year pays to have an event meant to spark discussion of leadership issues. This funding is non-appropriated, so the show will go on.  Only the audience won't have read it or discussed it. Too, as part of the deal funded by the Brady family, the London actors of the production were supposed to go into our classrooms during the week before to discuss and hold workshops. Now there are few classes for them to go into.

To be sure, not all of our classrooms are dark. The English Department, like almost all other USNA departments, is overwhelmingly (more than two-thirds) civilian; these are furloughed. And the few officers we have, with the exception of the Ph.D. permanent military professor, are junior officers who typically do not teach upper level courses: However, whatever they teach goes on. History is about the same proportion of military instructors to permanent civilians, while mathematics as another example is only about one-fifth military. Though the academy currently claims that military make up 44 percent of the faculty, this includes the temporary ensigns awaiting flight school dates and assigned as helpers to various departments, frequently physical education. Only the Leadership, Ethics and Law Department, with loads of professional courses, is overwhelmingly military, officers who come a few years and move on.

So Annapolis as a college has all but ground to a halt. In some departments, the military instructors are gathering lecture halls full of sections without professors and somehow filling the time. Civilians outside the classroom have been furloughed, too: You can't check books out of the library or get reference help, the registrar isn't there, the Academic Center isn't there, and the writing center (take your paper for help) isn't there -- except for a lone LT once in a while.  Almost no professors, a non-functional library, and no academic support. Yet the weekend football game with Air Force will go on -- that too is non-appropriated funds, as is the coach's $1.5 million salary: That's what Annapolis is really about, after all.

Bruce Fleming has been an English Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. He is the author of numerous books and articles on subjects ranging from literary Modernism and dance to political theory and military strategy, which are listed at .

Got a tale of life during the federal shutdown that you'd like to share? Send it along to Best Defense by e-mail. The address is over on the right near the postage stamp-sized photo of Tom. 

U.S. Naval Academy

The Best Defense

Accountability, Gen. Amos? How about doing the right thing by Maj. Weirick?

By L. Lee Thweatt
Best Defense guest columnist

We recently saw General Amos relieve two of his commanders for failing to protect an airbase in Afghanistan.  He was right to do so, and I'm sure it was difficult to deliver such news to his colleagues of so many years.

I wonder now, though, if General Amos has the self-discipline to hold himself accountable, as well, in a matter involving military justice and what certainly appears to be an orchestrated effort by the commandant and his top legal advisors to burn and discredit a Marine Corps officer for filing an inspector general's complaint which exposes disturbing misconduct at the highest levels of the Marine Corps.

You are by now familiar with sad episode of Marines urinating on a dead Taliban member in Afghanistan.  Those events were photographed and filmed.  The misconduct involved was, of course, sent to senior Marine Corps commanders for handling and disposition.  Whatever misjudgements committed by the Marines depicted in those images (and from the photos it appears there were many), they were still entitled to fair treatment and due process as the appropriate punishments were considered.  After all, some charged with misconduct had been wounded in combat on multiple occasions, nonetheless re-enlisting to the dangerous and hard work asked of them and their brethren in faraway lands.  Their commitment to one another continues to amaze.  Because we know by now that Marines do not run across fields of fire to serve notions of baseball, apple pie, and the American flag.  No sir, they do not.  Not really.  They do that most of all for one reason:  for each other.  That is why they fight:  for each other.  Even when they do things like this that we all wish they would not do.    

My long-time friend and colleague Major James Weirick was assigned as a deputy staff judge advocate to help a lieutenant general navigate the disposition of these difficult cases.  In the conduct of that job, to his chagrin, he ultimately observed and uncovered a pattern from the commandant and his senior lawyers revealing unlawful command influence, a failure to comply with legal discovery requirements, and preferential treatment given to the son of a former commandant while other Marines were placed on legal hold.  Without valid legal justification, the commandant and his senior advisors refused to turn over documents establishing all of this misconduct.  So, Major Weirick did what he was trained to do, and he spoke truth to power in order to compel them to comply with the rule of law.  Specifically, he filed a complaint with the inspector general of the Department of Defense detailing their coordinated efforts to hide what had occurred.  After the filing of that complaint, relevant documents were finally produced, although not without an effort by the commandant to first have the documents improperly and unlawfully characterized as "classified" to prevent their disclosure to inquiring criminal defense attorneys.  Additionally, a lieutenant general has signed a sworn affidavit detailing that the commandant told him to "crush" the Marines involved in these desecration cases.  For years, military appellate courts have deemed such directives from commanders as "unlawful command influence" decrying it as the "mortal enemy of military justice."  And as well they should.  Nobody, not even and especially the commandant of the Marine Corps, is permitted to deprive a Marine of due process by seeking pre-determined outcomes in a military justice setting.  No matter the conduct, fairness must rule the process.  Otherwise, it is a sham.

As a reward for his moral courage, Major Weirick was relieved of his duties, and yesterday was compared by the commandant's top civilian attorney (Robert Hogue) to the mentally unstable mass murderer who killed 12 people recently in the Washington Navy Yard.  I have written the general counsel for the Department of the Navy in protest.  My email to him has the hope of prompting what thus far has been completely absent from the commandant and his most senior legal advisors:  accountability.  The very thing all Marines are taught, and that which, on this issue, they have themselves avoided and worse, they have now improperly and wrongly assigned to someone else.  It is shameful, and given the corrosive chilling effect it can have on the ability of junior officers across all disciplines to speak with candor to senior commanders, I hope it is something you will look into as you continue to hold military leaders accountable going forward.  Because we all ought to expect that the commandant of the Marine Corps and his lawyers will serve the rule of law rather than trample upon it, and hang another Marine out to dry for doing the right thing.

L. Lee Thweatt is a former Marine Corps judge advocate, honorably discharged at the rank of captain, now in private law practice in Houston.  While on active duty, he served as a trial counsel for various units within the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

U.S. Marine Corps