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:
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,
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
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.