WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "This could be the beginning of the end for the service academies,'' said a West Point alumnus. He was referring to a new law that takes effect with the class of plebes entering the academy in 1997. The midshipmen and cadets at the Naval and Air Force Academies are affected too; upon graduation, they'll no longer receive regular commissions and the implied commitment to a military career. Instead, they'll get reserve commissions and their implication of temporary service.
Indeed, under the new law, all new officers, from the academies and from other sources, such as the Reserve Officer Training Corps, will start off as reserve officers. Everybody in this melting pot will be competing for the coveted regular commissions, which will be offered after about five years of service.
To retired Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., West Point Class of 1946, the change is ''the worst piece of news I've heard in years. It damages the mystique of a lifetime career, which is the foundation of the academies.''
Retired Lt. Gen. Henry ''Hank'' Emerson, West Point Class of 1947, takes the opposite view: ''I know it's heresy, but you can build a case to not have service academies.''
The case begins with the astronomical cost. The average cost per academy graduate is more than $200,000, nearly four times the $55,000 that each ROTC cadet on scholarship costs.
It's a high price to pay for short-term service. Although the academies demand five years of service in return for the free education, only about half of the West Point graduates are on active duty at the 10th year of service. Indeed, one way the Army is reducing the size of its officer corps today is by waiving the five-year payback period; graduates of the Class of 1989 are looking for civilian jobs.
The academies are no longer brass factories, either. ''The shift in general officers from the academy doesn't bode well,'' remarked one Army officer. In 1964, every one of the Army's four-star generals and 78 percent of its two-star major generals were academy graduates. The dominance has since eroded dramatically. This year, 54 percent of the generals and 23 percent of the major generals are academy ''ring knockers.''
The officers being produced by the academies may not be that well educated. Accreditation boards have commented frequently on overloaded cadet schedules and the competing demands between cadet activities and the classroom. The result, according to a 1986 report of the Naval Academy, is ''a certain facile superficial grasp of fact [that] supplants true learning.''
Indeed, the military hothouse may be counterproductive in more subtle ways. One former Army officer said, ''You were never taught to say 'no' at the academy, whereas at civilian schools you're encouraged to ask, 'Why?' ''
As a retired general bluntly said, ''Four years of mental manipulation affects a person's thinking for the next 30 years.
''We should begin by asking how the military schools of a true democracy should be structured,'' he said. ''Can you take an impressionable teen-ager, limit his exposure so he sees his country only on weekends, and have him come out with what we might call a 'national mind' reflective of the values and the priorities of the nation itself?''
''The worst thing that can happen to a country in transition is to have a small, elitist group of traditionalists, and that four-year passage through the academy establishes an elitist group for all time,'' this officer said.
General Emerson confided: ''I always thought it was divisive. . . . The non-grads always resented the WPPA, the West Point Protective Association.''
All these problems suggest a reformation where the academies would be democratized, so to speak. Send all new officers through them, not before commissioning but after they graduate from civilian colleges and universities.
The academies would be returned to what they do best: teaching warfare. Instead of diluting the core curriculum to meet civilian accreditation standards, which has compromised the academies' mission, the training would emphasize hands-on skills in gunnery and tactics.
A year should suffice for all new officers to master the basic tools of the military trade.
And for those eager ensigns and lieutenants committed to a service career, General Emerson said there's nothing inconsistent about waiting to see how they perform before awarding a regular commission.
''An academy education beats any football scholarship I ever heard about, but an athlete coming out of one of those collegiate football factories isn't guaranteed a position in the pros,'' he said. ''They're evaluated on how they perform on the field, not where they came from.''
David Evans is military affairs writer for the Chicago Tribune.