Identity and Kings Point – The Real Question
The press has reported an ongoing existential debate as to the US Merchant Marine Academy. Recently, there seems to have been a focus on matters of leadership and the necessity to train students at the Academy in that art – both in definition and practice.
The Kings Point debate is necessary and indeed healthy. It will bring about a much stronger school. However, the debate is not new. We must remember that the first inklings of the confusion in the government about the training of merchant shipping people arose in the Grant administration when money was set aside for the US Navy to provide us with their version of training in proper seamanship and in vessel operations. How quickly we – and they – forget. The US Navy-sainted John Paul Jones was a pretty competent commercial shipmaster fewer than one hundred years before the training concept was funded and before he put on the RN-copied uniform and his silly two-ended hat. But that is another story.
The old canard – recently picked up by the confusions and sniping of current political ideology -- that no federal monies should be used to run a federal school training officers for commercial enterprise is, to be blunt, baloney. A bedrock basis of our country, and therefore a necessary condition to our national security, is its economy. That economy is both domestic and cross-border. It is so important that the Founding Fathers sprinkled many protections for trade in the Constitution. We have no export duties, for example. We are free to trade with any state unless political interest considerations suppress that trade.
Trade is so important that it was one of the three principal initiatives at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 after the unpleasant aspects of WWII were put aside. Modernly, world trade was and is so vital to peace and co-existence in the state and sovereign system started in 1648. At Bretton Woods we promised all states that after the war – standing or not – that our markets were open to them, our navy would protect their trade routes and that we stood to protect the new world order of money agreed upon there. Look at what has happened in the half century since Bretton Woods went into effect. Trade gives us our standard of living and quality of life. Some 90 percent of world trade goes by water. Trade is not a big deal. Trade is a huge deal to the world and to us. The real question is: Does it not make sense that we have a trained body of people who understand and lead the maritime and maritime trade businesses in and from this country?
I believe it does. Kings Point does that. It can do more. This is not to lessen the state schools. Kings Point, being federal, however, takes and teaches a federal perspective. That is far broader than the New York or California or even Texas views of the world. Hence, Kings Point is necessary and worthy of federal funding and support and furtherance as a national school dealing with a national imperative – trade.
Kings Point is often called a service academy as are the other federal schools. That – again to be blunt – is a misnomer of ignorance both within the government and without. While President Roosevelt analogized the school as “West Point is to the Army and Annapolis is to the Navy,” the real intent of the Act of 1936 formalizing the Cadet Corps was not that. The Act of 1936 was a trade act to make more efficient our trade system to help bring us out of the Great Depression. World War II came along and those people trained in trade and commerce suddenly went to war with trade and commerce under government supervision – and many gave their lives to trade. They were no less dead than their military and naval counterparts. But here was no service to the government such as the naval service or the army saddened by their deaths or willing to bear the costs of their deaths or injuries. Nevertheless, Kings Point a federal academy for commercial service. It was not and is not a “service academy” except in the general parlance since during World War II. What about the USMS? The wasted appendix of the USMS – the “service” of some faculty and staff of the Academy and elsewhere within the Maritime Administration -- is merely an atavism of little or no utility and one which has rather shallow historic roots in the original Act of 1936 and nothing else.
So where is Kings Point’s future? I t is necessary to make the distinction between its being a service academy and a federal academy as an important imperative in thought as well as speech. While many of our graduates do turn to federal uniformed service, the larger majority does not and enter the trade industries. We should not train – except as ancillary familiarization – for the Army or the Navy as our primary function or for the law-enforcement suit the Coast Guard now wears in this its latest reinvention. We should train and emphasize the technologies and management skills and leadership useful to trade and commerce and hence to our national security.
The misunderstanding of the distinction within the government has come to the fore recently with the call for more “leadership training” for our people. However, this call came from those trained in military service leadership. Within the minor naval training at Kings Point this is salutary. However, commercial people do not think as naval people and military people who operate with hordes of underlings to do their business and few if any realistically applied cost constraints. Commercial people think of costs first and always work as small teams in highly technical situations – always keeping the broader view -- which represent large amounts of risk capital on ships and ashore. Profits make trade work. Tax dollars do not. It is a different world running a commercial operation from the shipside than officering or commanding a naval ship. It is also different shoreside. One can recognize that sometimes senior military people can do well when put in senior commercial positions. That does not mean that all excel in doing that or that all their leadership skills are applicable or useful in the commercial setting. Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to take a senior officer shore from a shipping company and put him or her in the naval uniform to run a part of that government service. Thus, Kings Pointers do not require military leadership training. As importantly, Kings Point is not all things to all people and those who would try to make it so are doomed to failure in the next electoral cycle when they lose their jobs.
Kings Point requires the recognition of the government that the purpose of Kings Point is trade. It is not useful to the country, to the services, or to trade if it is seen as a military school designed to relieve officer shortages in the seagoing side of the government. Kings Pointers can do that and do that well. However, the shortages can come better from ROTC programs.
Hence the real concern here is the lack of leadership and vision is occurring in the government as it presses for some sort of military leadership training for the wrong reasons. Leadership training at Kings Point should be for commercial trade and any effort to apply military training methods for commercial leadership roles should be clearly and openly explained by its proponents as to the reasons for it and the benefits for the training -- to commercial businesses. Otherwise it is misguided and wasteful of resources better used for the Academy. To my way of thinking, the current training push is a smoke and mirrors game full of Verba non Acta because it is easy to say, undefinable and likely not possible to implement as the government is structured.
The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.