Two writers could not be more different than Bruce Fleming and David Poyer.
Fleming is a professional rebel, a Naval Academy professor and nonfiction author who tells anyone who will listen how his institution is broken and desperately needs change.
Poyer, who graduated from Annapolis in 1971, is best known for a long-running series of naval fiction thrillers about the derring-do career of his Navy hero, Dan Lenson.
Now, each author has landed on the same subject at a singular moment — the future of the Naval Academy, whether it’s as a vital part of national defense or a symbol of what’s at risk as sea-level rise threatens to flood the campus.
Both Fleming’s “Saving Our Service Academies: My Battle With, and For, the US Naval Academy to Make Thinking Officers” and Poyer’s “The Academy” should be required reading for Vice Adm. Yvette Davids as she starts her delayed but historic tenure in Annapolis Thursday as the first woman superintendent.
Without realizing it, Fleming and Poyer simultaneously framed issues for Davids in their latest books. She will take command from acting Superintendent Rear Adm. Fred Kacher in a ceremony at 1 p.m. Thursday. It is closed to the public but will be livestreamed.
Poyer offers her a fun run read, but one with an imaginary plotline that glimpses the real threat of catastrophic flooding caused by climate change.
“I do think that we need to grab the nettle and do something serious before we have some real problems with losing land and losing buildings,” he said.
Fleming wrote the more challenging book, an uncomfortable read for anyone about to lead the Naval Academy. It is a bold indictment of academy culture and leadership that echoes philosophical and political attacks already underway.
“This new superintendent, she has no expertise running a college and she’s not going to talk with a midshipman,” Fleming said. “So she needs to listen to people who do.”
The books are so unintentionally intertwined — Fleming describes a scene that perfectly mirrors Poyer’s cover art, while Poyer sketches academic figures that could be Fleming stand-ins — they deserve to be read as a matched pair.
An academy memoir
“Saving Our Service Academies” is Fleming’s sixth book since 2019, although the others are academic investigations of democracy, masculinity and other topics. He’s been able to devote so much time to writing while employed at the academy because its leadership limited his work while trying hard to fire him.
His experience is the spine of his story and, in Fleming’s telling, is an indictment of the academy on several levels.
In 2018, the academy fired the English professor after about 30 years on the faculty, claiming he acted inappropriately by, among other things, discussing transgender surgery in his classroom and touching a midshipman. The mids involved testified during the process, and Fleming argues they not only exonerated him but made clear two successive superintendents and the academic dean orchestrated a plot to rid the academy of its troublesome academic.
After an administrative judge ruled in Fleming’s favor, the academy grudgingly reinstated him while it appealed. It keeps him on the payroll, but won’t let him back in the classroom. That’s something Davids and the new dean, Samara L. Firebaugh, could resolve.
Much of this fight was reported as it happened, but Fleming adds to the narrative here with no small amount of score-settling and the revelation that he suffered a stress-related heart attack as it unfolded.
Fleming doubles and triples down on his previous criticisms. He attacks Navy diversity efforts as a misguided effort that hurts national defense. He accuses the academy of lying about protections of academic freedom for its faculty and its application numbers to make it look more prestigious than it is.
He cites two retired superintendents caught up in the Fat Leonard corruption scandals as examples of academy hypocrisy and delves deeply into the idea that service academies outlived their purpose once other colleges started producing the bulk of the officer corps.
Recounting his experience with hundreds of mids, Fleming describes them as disillusioned beneficiaries of a free education. Most, he argues, would leave after the nature of their bargain becomes clear if it weren’t for family pressure and the threat of paying back tuition.
Some of what he writes seems petty, like critiquing the writing of Vice Adm. Sean Buck, who retired after his term as superintendent ended last summer, or joking about former Dean Andrew Phillips’ height.
It’s also worth noting that Fleming’s book was published by Post Hill Press, a Tennesse-based publisher known for its conservative political titles. It’s a clear sign of who will make the most of the ammunition he provides — despite his claim that he wants to remain above the culture wars.
“I would be happiest if both liberals and conservatives got something out of this book,” Fleming said. “I’m not interested in being cannon fodder for one side getting attacks in on the other.”
But Fleming’s observations are detailed enough that Davids should consider them an insider’s alternate view, not a nuisance from someone who never wore the uniform.
A fictional ending
Although Poyer interviewed two academy superintendents for his book, he says up front that “The Academy” is a work of fiction and not a commentary.
“The Academy” is the final novel in the Dan Lenson series, which started with “The Med” in 1988. Poyer’s goal was to land the character, whose career is ending after his tour as superintendent.
“A lot of my readers have written to me over the years and said, you know, please give this guy a happy ending. Don’t kill him off,” he said. “I never intended to do that, but I was happy to be able to sort of end it with a sendoff.”
The narrative follows Lenson as he arrives at an academy threatened by flooding in the future. That future arrives in the form of a killer hurricane. Lenson fights with Congress over pressure to consolidate or eliminate service academies as the nation recovers from a devastating war victory over China, and the decision is brought to a head by the storm’s damage.
Poyer alternates that story with flashbacks to his character’s time as a midshipman and his experience with the bullying, intoxication and sexual misbehavior that regularly erupts into public view at the real academy. There are digressions about the aftermath of the war and Annapolis makes a cameo as the town beyond the academy wall.
But climate change and the threat of sea level rise are the driving forces of Poyer’s story. In real life, the academy is spending $37 million to raise its seawall and stave off flooding through 2100.
Poyer’s Chesapeake hurricane sets the stage for a new academy era that doesn’t seem far-fetched given what we know about climate change.
Lenson’s crisis is likely to be less immediate for Davids but no less serious. Whether the academy can adapt to the 21st century in a way that will make it relevant rather than a relic underlies the novel.
“The idea of closing this or that service academy, or all the service academies, has been around ever since West Point was founded,” Poyer said.