Military Culture and Behavior

The scandal over Captain Owen Honors of the USS Enterprise causes me to reflect on how things have changed in the US Navy since I was a young Midshipman.  I entered the US Naval Academy in 1955, graduating in 1959, and was assigned to a surface ship.  It was captained by a full Navy Captain (pay grade O-6) who was a stern, formal disciplinarian.  However, even then his style was becoming passe and is now antique.

Carriers by tradition are commanded by aviators.  Captain Honors’ video confirms that aircraft carriers are not only an exception to Surface Warfare formalism but that the dichotomy of style persists with considerable passion.  (This community-rivalry is what Honors was referring to by mentioning “SWO f**s in the video.  SWO stands for Surface Warfare Officer.)

My blogging colleague Capt. Anson Burlingame has referred to John Paul Jones‘ description of a naval officer’s qualifications.  He may have posted it before, but perhaps it bears repeating here.  It is something every plebe at USNA is required to memorize:

John Paul Jones, the Continental Navy's first ...

John Paul Jones, via Wikipedia

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner.  He must be that of course, but also a great deal more.  He should be as well a gentleman of refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity.  No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.  Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though, at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.

Jones’ description originated in a more formal time, much closer to my first captain’s Navy than what I encountered in the submarine force, the opposite end of the formality spectrum.  To be candid, Jones’s was also a time when the cultural differences between officers and crew were much greater.

Like Naval Aviation, submarines attract a different kind of person – more adventuresome

and less formal.  The submarine force was much more “a band of brothers” who,


Image by Pixel-Pusher via Flickr

having each been vigorously tested in earning their dolphins (insignia) were then relied on one by one another with great trust and camaraderie.  I recall “drinking my dolphins” in a time-honored ceremony – they were dropped into a glass and covered with liquor which I then had to drain at one draught.  I was happy to do what now seems foolish.  It was the culmination of a year’s intense effort and a proud moment.  But that was a ceremony ashore.  What appears described in Capt. Honors’ video though is even more removed from formality, a culture I almost don’t recognize as Navy.

The nature of war was different in an important way in WWII.  That special time mixed many older men with the younger ones in the armed forces.  The age of people in combat makes a profound difference.  What old hands always knew is now confirmed by science.  The human brain does not mature until somewhere between age 20 and 30, depending I suppose on genetic variation.  Prior to maturity the individual is more adventuresome, playful and sexual.  And for sure less wise.  Significantly, a ship’s crew, at least during my career, referred (informally of course) to the ship’s captain (denoting the top job, regardless of rank) as “the old man”.  That’s because the captain invariably was the oldest man aboard.  Hmm.  I wonder if the crew of the Enterprise thought of Captain Honors as “the old man”?

During the Cold War,  deployments of six or seven months at a time became common for the Navy as did twelve months’ family separations for the USMC.  That tradition, having been found tolerable, has been continued to the present day so far as I know.  In my younger days the crew, and officers too, compensated for the stress and hard work of shipboard life by “blowing off steam” when visiting foreign ports, in bars, restaurants and ship’s parties ashore.  Alcohol always flowed freely on such occasions.

As far as any “hijinks” aboard ship, I recall very few.  I recall a “swim call” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  We hung nets over the side, posted a watch with an M-1 looking for any sharks, and those not on watch jumped into a pool a thousand fathoms deep!  My other memories of those times are mainly of seemingly endless work and duty-watches and 2 or 3 movies a week.  Sleep was always precious.  There was no e-mail or satellite video, only snail-mail.

Modern deployments appear to present few opportunities for “shore liberty” in the Middle East operations and I can understand that other outlets for “morale” are necessary, particularly with the prohibition of alcohol on ships, but I think Captain Honors’ solution was way over the line.  But, is this is what it takes to attract the current and shrinking pool of recruitable talent?  I now wonder, are such video’s used in recruiting?

I do not agree with my colleague Anson where he speculates that Captain Honors’ loss of command may be due mainly to homosexual slurs in the videos vis a vis the DADT

CNFK Change of Command

Change of Command, - IMCOM via Flickr

controversy, although that sure didn’t help.  In my opinion Honors’ major fault was to degrade respect for the authority of the chain of command and he would have been relieved anyway. In the military, officers are given special privileges because they are held to a higher standard of wisdom and conduct.  When they try to be at one with the crew, they damage confidence and morale.  At least that’s how it was in the Navy I knew.

So much has changed, not least the addition of women to combat deployments.  How the Navy manages that I don’t know, as I have opined in these pages before.  Truth be told, I can’t help but suspect that ship commanders tolerate a lot of “hanky pancky” that never gets reported.  After viewing Captain Honors’ video I came across another showing “Women of the CVN 76 . . . “.      It is very well made and for sure a great morale booster.  But to me, what also comes through with great force in this video is a tsunami of pure sexuality.

John Paul Jones would be stunned, but judging by online blog comments by current and former military people, this is the way it should be.  I shall make no sententious judgement here, for American culture has changed beyond my experience.  I suspect though that these changes are closely linked to the all-volunteer nature of today’s Navy, as distinct from the one I knew.  These new cultural memes may be closer to those of the mercenary than to those of the sailors I knew.  One thing I am sure of though:  the character and personality of the captain of a ship has a profound effect on the conduct and morale of its crew.  It is called “command presence” and it is a rare and hard-to-define talent.

The current divorce rate in the US military, at 3.6% per year, is 38% higher in 2010 than it was in 2001.  I don’t know what the Navy’s part of that statistic is.

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 Armed Forces, Culture, Ethics / Morality, Submarines, U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. Navy, USNA. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Military Culture and Behavior

  1. wingwiper says:

    It is difficult to imagine what you and other Naval officers must be thinking at a time such as this one – so, thank you for sharing some of it.

    It does help make things clearer.


  2. catkeeper says:


    The videos, shot between 2006 and 2007, went viral after reaching YouTube, not long after they were sent to The Virginian-Pilot. U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk is currently engaged in an investigation to determine if Captain Honors was subject to reprimand during the time he shot the videos. Since Honors was promoted to CO it stands to reason that if superiors were aware of his on-board extracurricular activities the videos were not deemed sufficiently injurious at the time to stall career advancement — and it appears that some were aware.

    The questions being asked after the release of the videos are straight from Journalism 101: who knew what and when? Is Honors’ demotion to onshore administrative duties due to public relations damage control or a direct result of his disrespect for the chain of command? Enterprise shipmates have been generally supportive and view the videos as “morale building and stress reducing” larks. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that the recent repeal of DADT and Honors use of “gay slurs” could have created a politically uncomfortable situation for the Pentagon. According to the AP: “Last week, the Navy said the videos were intended merely as “humorous skits” and stopped airing them immediately after senior officers became aware of them.” Again, why wasn’t Honors called to the carpet in 2006 if his actions were such an affront to the Navy’s reputation? Obviously, he was deemed competent to take command of the carrier last May, long after the videos were made and broadcast to the ship’s crew.

    While I’m not defending Captain Honors method of “morale building and stress reducing”, it appears to me that he is taking the hit for activities now considered unbecoming for a senior officer. Essentially, he is a media embarrassment and is paying the price years after the fact. Sweeping this incident under the carpet has more political CYA overtones than an adherence to strict military protocol. No doubt, from now on every XO and CO will pay very close attention to what “humorous skits” are performed under their command.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Thanks for your comment. I think you are basically on target. However, I can assure you that his career is over. The shore assignment is the traditional way to shelve him while they let him ponder the differing attractions of two choices: retirement or a cubicle desk job in Iceland (sans window).

      The US Navy is an honorable service and most officers, at least up to the level of a ship’s Commanding Officer achieve that job honorably and justifiably. I felt badly when I was accused of devaluing that system and publicly apologized on my blog.

      But nothing human is perfect, is it? Captain Honors’ case may be revealing of the rare exception. It is traditional in the US Navy that the buck for performance and success stops with the captain of the ship. But seniors who have successfully punched their own tickets with successful command tours very seldom are held accountable in the same way for subsequent jobs, even if they err in judgement. It is my experience that the more-senior brass become susceptible to hubris and insulated by bureaucracy from accountability. I discussed some of this in a previous post. The link, which includes a fair amount of contentious discussion, is below. Please let me know what you think of it.



  3. catkeeper says:


    There’s no question that America was extremely fortunate to have a superb collection of military talent during WW II. I would place U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (often overlooked) high on the list for his brilliant administrative abilities in coordinating Allied war efforts. Although Marshall never held field command, his decision-making proficiency, adroit diplomatic/political dexterity and organizational skills were instrumental factors in America’s eventual victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

    Defining what constitutes “heroic” (larger than life-size) is certainly subjective. Bestowing this attribute to an individual is a matter of personal belief(s). For example, some consider FDR’s Depression Era economic policies a “heroic” effort to pull the country back from complete collapse; others share a completely different view. What appears to be the origin of “Heroism — What is it?” was Anson Burlingame’s assertion that General Franks (U.S. Central Command) displayed “heroic military leadership” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Veteran Pentagon reporter Thomas E. Ricks, author of “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq”, would disagree with Anson’s assessment, as would military correspondent Michael R. Gordon and military historian and retired Marine Corps general Bernard Trainor. Their book, “Cobra II”, launches harsh criticism at Franks for failing to recognize the threat of the Saddam Fedayeen after the fall of Baghdad. Of course, we now know former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and senior Pentagon Brass did not anticipate the savage and well-coordinated post-invasion insurgency or that ancient animosities would erupt into a deadly civil war/power struggle between Sunni and Shi’a. In fairness, General Franks was not the architect of “preemption, rather than reaction” (the Bush Doctrine), and was assigned the task of removing Saddam and his regime by civilian superiors.

    Ensuing comments became less about the definition of “heroism” and more about why America hasn’t produced “great leaders” since WW II. Anson believes a prerequisite for being a “good” president is a background in “military leadership”, preferably on the battlefield. (U.S. Grant would greatly test that opinion). I lost interest when Anson devolved into scatter-shot and often discombobulated criticism of President Obama. I’m not sure how “Heroism — What is it?” became a launching pad for undiluted partisanship, but it seems to be the soup de jour in our highly contentious political environment.

    Back to your original post, I agree “…be aware of the use of emotional, religious and patriotic demagoguery.” Heroism doesn’t always have to be displayed in battle. The man or woman who works hard to provide for their family and takes an active interest in the betterment of their community can be “larger than life-size” to those whose lives they’ve enriched.


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      It’s always a pleasure to meet someone, online or otherwise, who displays articulate, thoughtful and reference-based analysis of topics and I surely put you in that category. i will further add that I agree with your opinions here. I hope you will stay in touch.

      Do you have a blog?


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Carol has emailed me asking for a forum column to join one from you showing our differing views. Having read your blog I do not see major differences.

    Certainly we both agree that Capt Honor must be (has been now) relieved for cause and ending his career in ignominity as such. I perhaps see as it more sad than you do. My sense is you think it is deserved because his actions were untoward 4 years ago and deserving of firm, career ending discipline at the time, again 4 years ago.

    Is that your sense of our difference view? Of course if you deem the XO’s actions 4 years ago then either the CO should have given him a terrible fitness report if not even a letter of reprimand OR the CO from that time (whom is now an admiral on active duty) should be so disciplined himself NOW.

    And that of course begs the whole issue of “was there an embarked Battle Group Commander, an admiral, embarked at the time” any of the untoward videos were shown and what should be done to HIM, NOW?

    My essential point is that untoward behavior is acceptable to some degree under such conditions of long periods of separation. But such standards certainly change over time and all must adapt. But how does one adapt retroactively I wonder.

    It is a “pickle” for sure. I will write my forum input and send to Carol. If you want to see it before publication send me your email address (mine is
    Or give me a call. My number is in the phone book.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Yes, I think we both agree on the necessity of ending Capt. Honors’ career, but I think we differ on why.

      Some think it necessary only because the videos became public and as a sop to politics and the controversy of DADT. Those who feel that way also seem to see his behavior as, in your words “. . .acceptable to some degree under such conditions of long periods of separation.” I perceive you to be in this group.

      I see it a little differently. It is indeed a blow to Captain Honors’ aspirations for further advancement, but I do not see it as any kind of tragedy. He’s just at the end of an honorable career in the service of his country. He deserves the nation’s and the government’s hearty and sincere thanks for that service. And he deserves the medical and retirement benefits he will receive.

      We both know that the up-or-out system of promotion (and job assignments) is extremely competitive. In our previous commenting you stated strongly that the assignment process for that was fair and objective and I apologized for implying, without intending to do so, that it might contain an element of subjectivity (i.e., cookies). I for sure never experienced any evidence of corruption in that process. On the other hand, I do feel that there must be a significant degree of subjectivity in the assignment and promotion process at the higher levels, and I think the O-6 grade qualifies as that. The subjectivity is needed, IMHO, in balancing the morale of the service against the mores and culture of the nation it serves, and that includes not only the strategic aims of the Commander in Chief but the cultural and political concerns of the Congress, which after all is charged with responsibilities of declaring war and funding it.

      Captain Honors was obviously an outstanding Naval Aviator, one of the best of the best. I recall taking a written aviation-aptitude test before I graduated USNA in 1959. I took it mostly out of curiosity, because I already knew from “aviation summer” training that I wasn’t good at pulling g’s in a plane. (I have low blood pressure and would red-out.) When I took the test, I instinctively tried to answer it as I thought an aviator would. For example, one question asked how I felt about the idea of riding motorcycles at high speeds and I marked a high “yes”. I made a high score and could have gone to flight training, so far as I know. It’s a good thing I didn’t. Captain Honors would surely have out-scored me, and without mental effort effort for bias. But what makes an outstanding fighter pilot and flight-leader, or motor-cycle jockey, doesn’t necessarily make an outstanding admiral (or politician, for that matter – consider John McCain, who disappointed me badly in the last campaign and since.)

      I say, well done to Captain Honors and good luck to him with the rest of his life. But I don’t feel sad about this turn of events. The men and women of the Navy need senior leaders who inspire and lead but, again IMHO, who also have a gravitas that Captain Honors seemed to lack. Morale inspired by entertainment needs to be tempered by a perception of fairness and tolerance for diversity, and I see that as a deficiency in his qualifications for command of a carrier and further promotion. I think it’s all for the best. He isn’t dead, just retired and ready for a new career.



  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim, again,

    Sorry to keep “pinging” on this, but I reread your blog. Yes, I had quoted JPJ but from memory. I did so BEFORE the current scandal came to my attention. You either have a better “Reef Points” memory than mine or found his full statement elsewhere. What I had forgotten but you included was the closing statement “…well meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.”

    THAT becomes the crux of our differing views. Was Honors’ conduct a well meant shortcoming or ….? I put his conduct in the first category and you seem to think it was “heedless or stupid”. That kind of disagreement can be fair and balanced and with no dispersion on either of us. And good leader must make critical decisions making such distinctions, one way or the other.

    But the basis of such decisions MUST, in my view be made with the “good of the service” in mind and NOT motivated by concepts of political correctness, however fast that might change.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Good point. I agree that this seems to be the crux of our disagreement. Having watched the video I would judge that Honors’ conduct was not a single “blunder” or even a few “blunders”, but was instead completely characteristic of his leadership style and his personality. I have opined that such a leadership style is inappropriate for a senior officer. His seniors’ official opinion is the same as mine. Now, either the admirals disagree with you or they are spineless toadies more interested in their own careers than in principle. Do you see any third possibility?



      • ansonburlingame says:

        Of course there is a third possibility and thus far the Navy seems to be taking it. Honors and Honors alone has been fired. I have said all along that he should have been.

        But no more head hunting, no more howls of how terrible the Navy might be, how homophobic (as it was 4 years ago and is today)it will be in the future. In say 1970 do you think there might have well been some womanizers in high ranking positions in the Navy but not today? Times and standards change.

        Put your stake in the sand to say that conduct such as Honors is no longer acceptable under NEW standards and make the changes necessary.

        Now anyone that thinks a whole lot of the Navy was NOT homophobic “yesterday” and cluck, clucks over such matters today….? My guess is they have never been to sea very much “back then”.

        Tomorrow it will be different as it should now become.



  6. ansonburlingame says:


    I read your comments above related to Jim’s former blog on heroism with interest and some agreement.

    Yes, I did cast dispersion on President Obama for MILITARY decision made on his watch. I attributed such poor, in my view, decision making on his lack of experience in that area. One can also take the view that he did the best he could at the time. That is why we debate.

    I also don’t think I ever said or infered that any President should have a military background. Some really lousy ones had such a background such as Grant. Carter tried to make folks believe he had experience in that area, but for those in the “know” claims were a joke, to us.

    But whether or not a President has ANY military experience he MUST be able to act as the Commander in Chief and do the “right” things accordingly. Now ask General McCrystal what HE REALLY thinks of President Obama’s decisions.

    And of course the basis for my criticism of President Obama during the early Afghanistan decisions in his administration were based primarily on my reading of Woodward’s seminal book in that matter. You and Jim can read the book with a different view. Fine and again that is why we debate things in these pages.

    Keep coming back. Your comments whether in criticism or support are well written and soundly based (even if I disagree from time to time)



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.