Cookie Diplomacy

Sometimes one hears a story that sticks in the memory because it is profound.  That happened to me several decades ago when a naval-officer friend of mine, we’ll call him

The Pentagon, looking northeast with the Potom...

The Pentagon, via Wikipedia

“Ron”, told me a true story about himself.  He was on shore duty in Washington, D.C. and had, as is routine, submitted his request for a certain duty station before retiring.  The duty station he requested was extra important to him because it was in the same area where he intended to retire.  Getting it would mean that he could buy a house there and make the transition to civilian life painlessly.

For those not in the Navy a little background is in order.  Officers’ billet assignments are made under the authority of a Washington-based admiral, the Chief of Naval personnel.  He is the head of the Bureau of Personnel (Bupers, in the parlance), but the actual assignments are handed out through an appointed contact called a “detailer”.  Detailers

are officers generally of the same rank as those they manage, but they hold a job that carries enormous (not too strong an adjective) importance to their clientele, i.e. officers striving for career-enhancing assignments and family-friendly locations.

US Navy Bureau of Naval Personnel Insignia

Image via Wikipedia

Needless to say, having a job as a detailer is a plum assignment in itself.  Just how much influence the individual detailer would have over an assignment was never spelled out, but it was assumed to be considerable.  The U.S. Navy is not a democracy, by the way.  That is why one’s assignment was delivered, quite correctly and literally, as “orders”.

Well, as his time for transfer approached, and as is permitted, Ron began to visit his detailer to ask about how his request was being processed.  (Had he not been in D.C., this would have been done by phone.)  For the first couple of visits his detailer gave him non-committal answers.  Finally Ron said, look, this is really, really important to me.  If I get this assignment, my life would really fall into place.  Is there any thing I can do to convince you that I would be very good in this final job?  The detailer said no, not that he could think of.  But a few moments later in the conversation the detailer said, “Ron, you know what I really like?  I really like those sugar cookies they sell down at the X store.  Have you ever tried them?  They’re great!”

The next few times Ron visited the detailer he happened to bring along a bag of the cookies which he left on the detailer’s desk.  He got the job.  However, I am quite certain that Ron never knew whether the cookies made any difference or not.

Plateful of Christmas Cookies

Image via Wikipedia

Was this a case of corruption?  Can you buy influence with a few bags of sugar cookies?  Was it evil of the detailer to wield his implied power this way?  I have concluded no to corruption and evil and yes to influence.  This was a case of human nature playing out.  Ever since human tribesmen shared food with fellow tribesmen in times of need there has been commerce among us, commerce that promotes social identity while reinforcing xenophobia for those of other tribes on whom we do not rely.  Tit for tat behavior is second nature to us.  Diplomats use it all the time, exchanging gifts and complements with their counterparts from other “tribes” to lubricate cooperation and treaties.  And it works, all out of proportion to the value of the tokens.  Human nature.  (If you need some context for the damage done lately by Wikileaks, then, here it is.)

I used to find Congressional pork expenditures reprehensible, but in retrospect I can see value in the give and take involved.  Relative to the overall budget (when we have one), pork is small stuff indeed, and it often solves and provides jobs in small pockets of need.  It can make a happy town and a pleased politician, and the nation is affected about as much as a pond is affected by a cup of water.  Maybe pork isn’t so bad, and anyway, there’s no vaccine for tit-for-tat disease.  It is pandemic.

Gee, I wonder if it would help if the Israelis gave Mr. Abbas some sugar cookies?

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Ethics / Morality, Philosophy, Politics, Sociology, U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. Navy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Cookie Diplomacy

  1. This is a fantastic article!!! You defend a position that is extremely difficult in a highly convincing and realistic way. I think that it is a legitimate portrait of how decisions like this work.

    I think the cases in which it becomes corruption are situations where someone is given an unfair advantage over another person who has the same desire as another person. I would argue that Ron’s situation could have been viewed as corruption if it deprived another person of a benefit that they place a high value on. A bag of sugar cookies for a job seems fair. The cookies almost function as a thank you or an acknowledgement of the persons position. The argument gets a bit more difficult to make when it comes to an issue like campaign contributions or earmarks, but the principal is probably more similar than most people tend to think.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Upon re-reading your comment I can see that Anson Burlingame’s criticism of me is right, at least in your case. You said,

      I think that it is a legitimate portrait of how decisions like this work.

      No, it is not how they work in the U.S. Navy. My intention in the post was to show a facet of human nature when the subtlety of a very small gift might have had an effect on an important decision. Human beings are by definition, well, human, and I suppose it’s possible that in the case of Ron’s detailer it might have swayed his decision if there were an otherwise equal candidate. But there’s lots of close supervision in the Navy and there’s certainly no proof that the cookies had any effect. I suspect the detailer was simply having some fun, as young men do. I have done damage to the Navy’s reputation. It was unintentional and I am repentant. Mea culpa.



      • I meant that this is how decisions like this work in general. The only thing I really know about the Navy is they use boats and David Robinson was a heck of a center.

        I took your point to be a general one. I took the Navy thing as being metaphorical. I think your point is one that applies across the board. I don’t think your article was in any way insulting towards the Navy. I felt it was an accurate assessment of how people in positions of authority often work. If you had been writing about your experiences playing tailback for the Minnesota Vikings or being a doctor in Oklahoma I would have read it the same way. The Navy part had little to do with my reading of the idea.

        Either I did a poor job of making my point or Anson misread me, which is not a hard thing to do in a setting where like the internet where it takes several hours to clear up a misconception that I could have corrected in seconds in person.

        I really enjoyed your article. I’m sure the Navy has a great system of selection and I am also sure that examples like the one you gave exist like they would in any profession staff by humans. It’s a shame Anson missed your point because I believe it to be an exceeding valuable insight.


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    I could not disagree more with your description of the process assigning at least some naval officers to the next “position”. Here is how it worked throughout my entire 23 year career and it worked quite well for me and every nuclear submariner I ever knew.

    Upon graduation, actually well before that event, some 800 midshipmen made their service selection decisions. They were competitive based on class standing and in some cases acceptance into a particular specialty dependant upon interviews, mine with Adm Rickover. I selected nuclear submarines (and was accepted into that community). Others chose aviation, Marine Corps, surface line, supply corps, etc all based on their qualifications and class standing.

    Then the detailers took over. There were some 75 or so going into the submarine community and ALL went to initial training. The only choices were east or west coast locations for the same schools. We told our detailer where we wanted to go and he did what he could to send us there. It was a crap shoot to a degree but class standing again played a role, the best ones by class standing got to the head of the line in choices. My first three duty stations, all related to training assignments of six month duration proceeded accordingly. Then I was assigned to my first ship.

    There were three kinds of submarines upon which I could have been assigned in 1967, a diesel “boat”, a nuclear attack or a nuclear ballistic missile ship. There were some 4 east coast ports and two west coast locations to pick as well. I had to make my own decision as to which kind of ship and where I wanted to go. AGAIN based on class standing in the training pipeline the detailer tried to accomodate the requests with the openings available. To some degree it was a crap shoot but not really. Detailers tried hard to put men where they wanted to go as long as they were so qualified to go there. Almost all got what they requested.

    From there on it was performance, performance, performance that counted for future assignments. That initial number of some 75 men entering training in ’65 was whittled down thru attrition (flunking out of schools or poor performance as a junior officer on the first ship). By the end of my first three years I was one of some 50 or so left standing. AND before going to my next assignment I had to qualify as an Engineer Officer on a nuclear powered ship. That meant my CO had to recommend me for such AND I went back to Rickover and his staff for a grueling two days. One 10 hour written exam and three different oral interviews had to be passed to achieve that qualification. That reduced the pool of available officers by another 25% or so for those not making the “cut”. Again it was all about performance with the best getting what they requested when balanced with the needs of the service.

    The same process applied throughout my seagoing years, 20 years. I had to qualify as an XO before I could be so assigned. Same for CO, a long and difficult qualification. The field of eligable men got smaller and smaller. Over and over, the best ones got what they wanted to some degree at least, all based on performance and “service reputation”.

    By the time a man got to the level of assignment as XO and for sure CO, the big guns got into the game. Admiral so in so in the Pacific said ship such and such needed a real tough guy or maybe a “kinder gentler sort”. Usually by the time came for assignment as CO the Admirals made the choices, not the detailer. I want Burlingame for XX ship because….. was the dictate to the detailer and he obviously would comply. Again, performance and reputation ruled the roost.

    Post command assignments followed the same pattern. Good COs got good, “career enhancing” jobs after command. Those that did not do so well were sent to backwater positions of lesser importance. The flags made essentially all those choices and detailers followed their dictates.

    The one example you give in your blog was for a “twilight tour”, a last assignment to an officer that had “peter principled out”. He had not been selected for future promotion, had served honorably and was looking for his last duty station, one with location and level of stress of his choosing. In almost all cases such assignments were made with great equanimity and actual graditude for the officer that had served well and was soon to retire. It was the Navy’s golden watch so to speak and every effort was made to so assign the man to what he wanted.

    Bag of cookies my ass. It was all about performance and you know it Jim, long and faithful service doing the best one could do. Everyone “peter principled out” at some level. CNOs HAVE to retire, whether they want to or not. Rickover was the only exception to that ironclad rule and it was Congress not the Navy that kept him around so long. The President himself had to finally “fire him”.

    Now many may complain about how performance was judged by senior officers. But judge they did, time and time again as an officer progressed thru his career. To suggest that “plum” assignments were the result of politics (cookies) rather than performance is a gross misstatment of what actually went on in MY Navy and eveyone else’s Navy that I knew about. Aviation, surface warfare, Marine Corps, you name it all had their standards and those that met or exceeded those standards got the “plums”.

    Finally, have you ever heard of the “slates”. Say there were 10 men coming up for post command assignment at a given time. The detailer was the bookkeeper that assembled the names and service records of those 10 men. That was the “slate” or list of men coming up for assignment. I have seen them first hand.

    That “slate” would go to Commander Sub Lant (Atlantic), Commander Sub Pac (pacific) and OP-02) (the three star Admiral in DC) They would pick who went where and the detailer would let the men know the results, pure and simple.

    And one did NOT give cookies to three star admirals for damn sure!!!

    You have made light of a very rigorous and demanding process of selection to higher responsibilities that has met the test of time through war and peace. Again, cookies my ass. It was all about performance, performance, performance. Too bad that doesn’t happen in other professions to the same degree.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      You are taking my post way too seriously here. I am well aware that I was talking about a twilight assignment and the point I was trying to make was that there are subtleties and human choices to such a decision process. Suppose there were more than one officer who wanted the assignment that Ron coveted and that they were equally qualified? Someone would have had to make a subjective call. I was simply trying to say that you can’t take human nature out of the equation, not that the entire system was corrupt.

      I am glad your assignment process was so rigorous and tied to class standing and performance. I feel that mine was also, except at the beginning. When my class of 1959 graduated we got to select our general area of service as you did, but our ship assignments were by random lottery, not class standing. I finished 452 out of 802 in my class but I drew ship choice number 798. Beyond that, I feel that I was treated fairly throughout my career. For you and any other readers I want to make it clear that i found ZERO corruption in the process.

      My post was about human nature. Civility, demeanor and etiquette do matter. I wish you would lighten up a little.



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Yet, and I am sure by no intention on your part, a non-Navy guy thinks you revealed corruption and politics in our professional assignments which could not be farther from the truth in my view and strongly expressed.

    You also made a point in your follow on explanation that “Ron” and someone else might be “equally qualified”. That NEVER happened in MY Navy once again. They might well be close but never equal. Someone always had a “edge” somewhere along the line in performance as shown in fitness reports and “service reputation” a vague but very cherished attribute. I want Burlingame because…… (based on my reputation) or I DON’T WANT Burlingame because he will “kill that crew” again based on my reputation. The same criteria and judgement by senior officers helped by detailers was applied all the time to everyone in my particular warfare community.

    I called Obama a wing nut and got slapped down, correctly as it seemed to apply too broadly. Well, consider yourself slapped back on this blog for the reasons stated.

    And NO, I am no angry. I just want to try to correct what to mean is a big mistake. Others can make their own judgments.



  4. ansonburlingame says:


    I will acknowledge one important point as to the relationships between “cookies” and assignments in the military. At the three (sometimes) and almost always at the four star level is it ALL about cookies, big political ones. Many, many very high ranking officers achieve such levels and are thus assigned base on pure politics. I believe our current CNO fits right in with that observation. His misguided efforts towards diversity and what he is doing to the honor concept at USNA are prime examples of good military thinking clouded by pure politics, in this case racial politics of the worst sort, whether he admits it or not.

    If he keeps doing as he currently is doing in following the Presidential “party line” he could well be the next Chairman of JCOS. Normally they “rotate” such assignments between the services but this guy has his nose so far up the administrations ass that an exception might well be made in his case.

    But Presidents and his horse holders could care less which Navy Commander (a rank like Lt. Col for you civilians) is assigned to Command a given ship. At the beginning and up to close to the end for even the most “famous” officers it is all about performance, performance, performance.

    Pick any famous Admiral or General in our history and I will show you a damn good, even exceptional junior officer and mid-grade officer as well. Only the real cream rises all the way to the top though it may well sour upon reaching the lofty levels of responsibility even in the military.




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