A Cultural Journey

USS Enterprise CVN 65

USS Enterprise, via Flickr

The persistence of the USS Enterprise scandal as a public topic is evidence that there is something profound in it, something that goes beyond the job assignment at its heart.  In my opinion that something is the changing nature of American culture, and along with that, the changing nature of the concept of “war”.

Six decades ago in WWII, “war” was different.  It was a temporary onus, something to be endured for the “duration”, after which the world would be free.  In the words of an old Vaughn Monroe song,

When the lights go on again all over the world

And the boys are home again all over the world

And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above

A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “Hello to love”

When the lights go on again all over the world

And the ships will sail again all over the world

Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing

When the lights go on again all over the world

To be sure, there was entertainment, trips by Bob Hope and others of the USO and all that, portrayed very well by movies like South Pacific and Mr. Roberts.  And there was

Hope (left) with President and Mrs. Ronald Rea...

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Betty Grable in a swimsuit and cathouses in Honolulu.  But those were also times of serious fear when the outcome of the battles and the war itself were dubious in many minds.  Little wonder then that many of our SENIOR military men at the war’s end called for draconian reprisals against  the citizens of Japan and Germany.  Certainly and rightly there war trials of the worst-offending enemy leaders, but the populations of those countries were

helped by the Marshall Plan in Europe and MacArthur’s benign regulation in Japan.  In other words, cooler and wiser heads prevailed.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during ini...

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Isn’t that what we want in top leaders, cooler and wiser heads?  Don’t we want qualities like wisdom, compassion, dignity and tolerance for differences in them?  I think so.  But in those times, such qualities were accompanied by a demeanor of dignity and solemnity that was the signature of leadership. The old leaders were human too, of course.  FDR had a mistress and Ike played around, just for example.  But they took care to conceal their dalliances from the public.  Why?  Because they knew that their followers needed confidence in their strength, fairness, wisdom and calm determination.

“War” is no longer temporary.  Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan.  The latter is now starting its tenth year and is projected for at least four more.  The war on terrorism may well be the forever war.  We now have all-volunteer military forces, much better paid and much better armed than in the old days, but still facing terribly long deployments and danger.  Those forces are now closer to being mercenaries than the citizen-soldiers who fought WWII.  It is only natural that our leaders would go to great lengths to maintain the troops’ morale under conditions where the lights of the world are blazing quite nicely, thank you, while the endless “war” goes on.

But do those morale efforts have to mean the sacrifice of leaders’ dignity?  Or does it even matter?  Maybe it doesn’t, but sometimes I long for the days when, for example, I could converse with persons younger than my children, whether in retail or when I’m in a hospital gown, without them assuming a first-name familiarity with me.  Want to call me stuffy?  Go ahead, it’s just more of the same.

As captain of the Enterprise, Honors was on a fast track for promotion to flag rank.  Even as captain, could he have been faced under some circumstances with making a decision,

USS Maine (SSBN 741), Ohio class ballistic mis...

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say, on launching a nuclear weapon?  That’s classified I’m sure, but I think I know the answer.  This is a stretch I know, but if you saw the movie, “Crimson Tide”,  you will know what I’m talking about.  (I predict that Anson sides with Gene Hackman but I prefer Denzel Washington’s character in the movie.)  Do you want someone with gravitas making that kind of decision?  I know I do.

It is a different culture now for sure.  Bob Hope has been replaced, on the Enterprise at least, by a version of SNL and with the XO and future captain of the Enterprise as emcee.  Does it matter?  Captain Anson Burlingame, my blogging colleague, sees the flap as a forgivable blunder.  I differ, siding with such as Peggy Noonan, whose column I can reference here because Anson, ironically, sent it to me.

IMHO, dignity matters because big decisions demand it.

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, Leadership, Nuclear weapons, Submarines, U.S. Navy, War. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to A Cultural Journey

  1. I think your point about the change in the nature and length of war is quite important. It has implications for indefinite detainment without some determination of guilt even for POW’s more problematic in my view.


  2. wingwiper says:

    Indeed War is different, but in every age, except for the fighters doing the fighting.

    Everyone else, knows nothing except for our opinions and heartbreak.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right your are, Wing. And the military community is getting smaller and more isolated from the population at large. I wonder where these changes will eventually lead? Given both the cultural and health (obesity, e.g.) changes underway I can see us getting more and more isolated. I find it all not only concerning but interesting as all get-out. Wish I could live another hundred years to find out.



      • wingwiper says:

        I wonder too, Jim.

        Certainly, to the extent that settling of political disputes by violent means has ever been tolerable, it has certainly been unavoidable. A warrior class has gradually become something like a program of self-defense in America ever since the War Department was euphemized as a Department of Defense. Witness, as one recent example, how one side recoiled at the concept of “pre-emptive” actions following 9/11; whereas strategic, tactical and logistic pre-emption has always been one of the first considerations in any armed conflict.

        In sharing your concern and interest, and wish to see how it all evolves, I must express the genuine fear that an alternative involving “roving bands of militia” and ever more UAV attacks may be the two most probable near-term features of warfare – should anything more happen to weaken the status quo.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    My only “bomb” retort is your presumption that I thought the character played by Gene Hackman in “Crimson Tide” had my respect. No way, no time, under no cirmcustance would I ever agree with that character and what he tried to do, launch a nuclear weapon without appropriate authority. Unthinkable, but it was an interesting movie for someone that had been in such an environmnet with 16 nuclear weapons within 15 minutes of being launched.

    Otherwise a great blog. Dignity does matter, mostly to the men showing respect for the seniors. Deep down they want to show dignity towards a commanding officer. After all they put their lives in his hands each time they go to sea.

    I had command at sea some 25 years ago. I have been associated with the “alumni” of my ship, USS Bluefish (SSN675) for the last 10 years or so. I have been to reunions with those men, all long retired now, and engaged in emails with many over the years. Almost all of them were then enlisted men.

    I always sign my emails “Anson”. I assure them all that no one wears collar devices now.

    They in turn almost always address me as “Skipper”. Deep inside, even today to those wonderful men, to call me by my first name does not, to them, “just seem right”.

    25 years after the fact, dignity still prevails. Others might call it respect, which I prefer.

    Dignity to me can be viewed as remoteness, being a “stuffed shirt”, acting (not being) as if one was “aloof” or above the fray. I have seen Naval Officers with lots of “dignity” of that sort that could only manage to drive desks in peacetime, not warships at sea during war. “Out there” respect is all that matters.

    And one cannot DEMAND respect except in the most superficial way. Any leader must EARN respect. And in my freewheeling, raucous submarine world, any officer that demanded respect never got much.

    That does not mean one had to “lower himself” to the “level” of the crew in manners, etc. In fact those that tried to do that usually failed in such attempts. Crews WANT their Captains to be “different” in many ways. Again, their lives depend upon such “differences”.

    But crews, at least submarine crews, want to really “know” their skippers primarily in just how good they are when the “chips are down” or the shit is hitting the fan, a la a crisis is right there in everyones face, like a fire, or a reactor “scram” at 40o feet and beneath the Artic Ice, etc.

    I have seen “stuffed shirts” striving to be “dignified” literally crumble under great stress. I have never seen a “warrior” no matter how undignified do so. And believe me the men with whom I served could see the difference from a mile a way.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Very well said, Anson, and I couldn’t agree more. Respect is indeed the kind of dignity that I have been advocating all along. At the bottom line I think, it is that the good leader shows a demeanor appropriate to the situation. When the crew knows in their hearts that the man with the missile-launch key acts differently from his persona in the bar brawl, their confidence is assured. It is of course a critical line. Having the respect of your men after all these years proves you did it right. Few if any civilians could appreciate the magnitude of that.

      I find it ironic that this subject that is so passionate to us elicited so little interest and enthusiasm online and in the paper. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the growing distance between military culture and the one at large, as discussed in Wing’s comment and mine below.



      • wingwiper says:

        I often wonder, too, Gentlemen, to what degree the following has any bearing on these consequences we so often discuss:
        tf: http://catholicism.org/the-code-of-a-gentleman.html
        This code of conduct was extant at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), circa 1839–1997:

        Without a strict observance of the fundamental Code of Honor [cf., that a gentleman does not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do], no man, no matter how ‘polished’, can be considered a gentleman. The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles. He is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless and the champion of justice… or he is not a Gentleman.

        A Gentleman…

        …Does not discuss his family affairs in public or with acquaintances.

        …Does not speak more than casually about his girlfriend.

        …Does not go to a lady’s house if he is affected by alcohol. He is temperate in the use of alcohol.

        …Does not lose his temper; nor exhibit anger, fear, hate, embarrassment, ardor, or hilarity in public.

        …Does not hail a lady from a club window.

        A gentleman never discusses the merits or demerits of a lady.

        …Does not mention names exactly as he avoids the mention of what things cost.

        …Does not borrow money from a friend, except in dire need. Money borrowed is a debt of honor, and must be repaid as promptly as possible.

        Debts incurred by a deceased parent, brother, sister or grown child are assumed by honorable men as a debt of honor.

        …Does not display his wealth, money, or possessions.

        …Does not put his manners on and off, whether in the club or in a ballroom. He treats people with courtesy, no matter what their social position may be.

        …Does not slap strangers on the back nor so much as lay a finger on a lady.

        …Does not ‘lick the boots of those above’ nor ‘kick the face of those below’ him on the social ladder.

        …Does not take advantage of another’s helplessness or ignorance and assumes that no gentleman will take advantage of him.

        A Gentleman respects the reserves of others, but demands that others respect those which are his.

        A Gentleman can become what he wills to be…
        That is to say, how MUCH have we sacrificed of our vitals for the sake of populist equanimity…


  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim first,

    Despite our argument, heated at times, privately, I KNEW we were bound together with a common heritage called USNA. Perhaps after all has been said and done, the word RESPECT bears more emphasis as to what any leader must hold FOR AND FROM those whom he leads. Sometimes it becomes an individual matter, man to man. Them perhaps it can move from group to group with groups becoming ever larger until they become nations.

    Without respect, only force can prevail, ultimately. And I have never seen a good leader ultimately prevail using force alone.

    For WW,

    Frankly, I did not agree with the long list of “things” required of a gentleman. My belief, I think, is that all that you listed can be boiled down into one word, Honor. That, again in my simple view, is a core upon which all else must follow.

    Jim and I were taught just that many, many years ago and while of course not perfect, we both are better men that had such not been shoved up our ….. and absolute complaince demanded, always. But for sure many others from all walks of life can learn such as well. We just did it one way.

    Now how much do we hear about Honor from our public education system today? Is that perhaps a missing “core” in that system?

    For both and others reading,

    The lack of online response to the forum does not disappoint me. Response volumns in that venue are usually when the “nuts” come out to play. In my view the general public has no idea of the complexity of the Honors matter. That is not because they are necessarily dumb. They simply have not experienced such matters in the real world in which they live. Most online commenters have a black or white view and get confused when grey enters the picture.

    Not so of course with most, I repeat most, blog commenters.




  5. wingwiper says:

    “My belief, I think, is that all that you listed can be boiled down into one word, Honor.”

    Indeed. A much ignored and maligned word these days, eh? Honor…

    Many times I’ve heard leftist commentators denigrate that word as being vestigial, having come from “some false sense” associated with American southerners.

    I suppose that if someone had learned the Code early enough, then it would all be subsumed with that one word, Honor. I found myself trying to teach this to my sons.


    • ansonburlingame says:


      And in so attempting and no matter how much or little such teaching “took” you for sure did the “next right thing” in my humble opinion.

      Now how do we apply such attempts to “ghetto moms” and many others?



  6. wingwiper says:

    “Now how do we apply such attempts to “ghetto moms” and many others?”

    Frankly, I believe (based on living in a large community of blacks for several years in high school, and on subsequent observation of the ascent of institutionalized victimization) that there are about the same number (adjusted for increased population since the 1960s) of us who will do the next right thing, regardless of where our roots were planted, as there ever have been. Mitigating against that, of course, has been unending Leftist propaganda influencing people of color everywhere from the crack house to the White House and every community college or Ivy League University in between; not including “privileged whites” who busted butt to correct cultural errors and (with rare exception) get zero credit for their sacrifices to equality and the common good.

    Organizations such as American Renaissance and NAACP are cut from the same cloth, just as the ACLU and NRA are. Each does something to the good, for someone, but in the end they might achieve their aims only by accident because they are by definition opponents.

    Honor, per se, is one thing that could unite them, if only the Code were applied as intended. Instead, it is usually cut short when it meets the enemy. The concept of noble opposition and common purpose has suffered; worse than I’ve ever seen or read about other than in cases such as our own Civil War (sic), Russian and French Revolutions and the Fall of Rome.

    Inflammatory speech, which once reached only a comparative handful of ears, now reaches billions of eyes in a few seconds. Honor, as such, is not high on the list of most “Googled” terms – as of today we can get only 107,000,000 hits on that, but 577,000,000 on the word “War.” Lucky for us, perhaps, we will see 1,820,000,000 for the word “Love.”

    Is Love possible without Honor? I doubt so.


  7. ansonburlingame says:


    Interesting Google statistics. I wonder where “hate” would fall on that list.

    Love without honor, again interesting. Christ was the epitomy of Love. But honor was as well at his core, in my opinion. Yet is the “devil” (evil or total hate or the absence of love) honorable in his, “its” pursuit of such goals.???



  8. ansonburlingame says:

    Another thought,

    Would the skipper of a submarine that “pulled the trigger” to unleash nuclear holocaust on the world be actting honorably?



    • wingwiper says:

      I don’t believe so, Skipper. BTW, “Hate” yields 173,000,000 hits, only a few more than “Honor” – interesting, is it not?

      Check out this contemporaneous expression of “Honor”:


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Without researching anew all the philosophers and pundits of history, and based solely on the instant, knee-jerk reaction of an aging old man, here is my answer: Yes, unless there were reliable evidence that the order was corrupt.

      This opinion is accompanied by a few thoughts:

      1. After all wars, the victors write the history and use their own judicial systems and cultural standards of morality to assign heroism and blame.
      2. Officers in the US Armed Forces take an oath to the constitution, not to the president or the Secretary of Defense or any other individual, therefore in this and other military decisions, morality as a factor can not be avoided. This rules out blind obedience and mandates rational behavior.
      3. Absent the aforementioned reliable evidence of corruption, which is almost unimaginable to me, the skipper MUST follow the order. Allowing any alternative of not following the order weakens the very purpose of the system.
      4. One example of possible corruption occurs to me. I think it was in the old movie, Fail Safe. In it, the president ordered the nuclear destruction of New York City because he couldn’t recall a nuclear air strike against Moscow. IMHO, the skipper would have to follow the order, providing that he UNDERSTOOD the rationale – that failure to carry out the order would initiate full nuclear broadsides from both sides.

      Now, having unloaded my unqualified opinion, as requested, I hope you, Anson, will give us the expert’s opinion.



  9. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Are you being cynical is asking for my “expert” opinion? I hope not as it is a very serious subject, one that as a young man I gave deep and careful thought.

    First a “sea story” of sorts and then my conclusions.

    My former father-in-law was a GS-13, retired bureaucrat from a desk job in DC and lived in Arlington. He considered himself a wise man of the world from reading the Wash Post each day. Frankly, I never liked him very much, but that is beside the point.

    Occassionally during family visits he and I would go out for a beer after dinner. One night over such a beer he asked me what I would do if given the order to launch our nuclear weapons. I was a junior officer at that time but had given careful thought to that matter. I told him I would carry out my duties to facilitate such a launch.

    He responded by asking me “Is that not like Nazi Germany?”

    I spewed beer all over the bar.

    Is it honorable to order men into battle knowing full well that men will die? Is it honorable to order men into battle knowing that some innocents will die? And in the extreme is it honorable to order the launch of Armagedon and for men to carry out such a launch?

    I continued to serve for years after that exchange with my father-in-law and did all in my power to act in an honorable way while doing so.

    There is my answer. Others will of course disagree.



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Dang, Anson. Of course I know what your father was referring to – the standard defense of “war criminals”, as in “I was just following orders”. I tried to address that point when I discussed the nature of the oath of office for our military officers.

      I intended ZERO;/strong cynicism in my request for your view on the comments I made. ZERO. I was absolutely sincere in wanting your viewpoint on all four points of my thoughts. YOU were the link in the chain of Mutual Assured Destruction and were bound to have thought more deeply on the subject than the rest of us. As such, you are one of very few people who have actually been in that position. (How many USA SSBN CO’s have there been, ever? I’m guessing less than 1,000. Ever.) My experience as a nuclear weapons officer was minuscule compared to yours. You had one of the two KEYS!

      Please, take your armor off, and the filter off your glasses, and address my comments. I’d really like to know, and I bet others would too.



  10. wingwiper says:


    Maybe if it were the warriors who made the final decisions as to which weapons were in their arsenals and when they were to be used, then there would be a better chance of honorable conduct with them?

    As things stand, they get more weapons of kinds they say they do not want or need, and not enough of what they do want and need – in the endless political confusion about the differences between strategy, tactics and logistics.

    Example? The F-4 Phantom of Vietnam fame; a fighter designed to fill the role of light strategic high-speed bomber during a transition from heavy bombers. It had no cannon. Result? When we needed competitively maneuverable dog fighters our F-4 could outrun the MIG, but got eaten up by it without a cannon. So, by and by (while our Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots were being blown out of the air by communist Ground-to-Air missiles and MIGs) a cannon was retrofitted and the playing field evened out. The Phantom suddenly became a tactical weapon, which is what the Air Force and Navy had asked for and needed in the first place.


  11. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Anytime someone tries to refer to me as an expert, my suspicions go up. Sorry.

    But in a sense, Jim, in terms of thinking through the “warrior” side of the question, I have been there, done that, very carefully. Not many have done so, particularly in Joplin, MO. That does not make me right, just that I have given the issue more thought than most.

    Here is another short attempt to explain my rational or “honor” in deciding that if called upon to launch I would launch.

    Is Mutual Assured Destruction honorable? Of course not. Christ said just turn the other cheek.

    But is deterrence to prevent MAD, honorable. Yes, at least for now, it is. If someone comes up with a better way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons, I am all ears.

    If an enemy thought that I as the skipper of a launch platform would not launch if so ordered, would deterrence be degraded. You bet it would. And such degradation of deterrence could lead to the most dishonorable of all outcomes, MAD.

    Is that short or “expert” enough for now?



  12. ansonburlingame says:


    Incidentally, I held command of an attack submarine SSN, NOT a ballistic missile submarine, SSBN. But I had nuclear weapons under my control on an SSN and held some of the keys in my jobs on SSBNs.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I thought you had both, Anson. Thanks for the clarification. That does change things, and I hope it helps explain why I asked for your “expert” opinion.

      Nowadays I am confident that at least some fast attack nukes have cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, but that was probably not the case with your command. (I don’t expect you to clarify that of course, for obvious reasons.) Firing a tactical nuclear weapon is a long way from pressing the button to destroy a city. In a tactical situation I wouldn’t hesitate a New York minute as a CO, if it was authorized and the situation called for it. But the Fail Safe scenario is at least conceivable to me. I assume that human beings (CO and Weapons Officer) are still links in the operational procedure to launch. (The day that becomes automatic, say from a code-enabled button on the White House desk, we are ALL in deep kim-chi for sure. How’s that for a scary thought?)

      Christ did say, “Turn the other cheek”, a philosophy I can not accept. But he also overturned the money-changers’ tables in a violent act. That’s just one of many inconsistencies in the bible of course. And, you surely can’t deny that MAD, abhorrent as the concept is, was successful in deterring the use of nuclear weapons for more than 65 years. So, no, I don’t agree that it isn’t honorable, but I do agree that there’s no better solution in sight. But, the development of neutron warheads worries me – it makes their use more likely, and therefore discourse on the subject, as in this blog, are far from passe’.

      I have never been in a position to informally discuss such philosophy with the CO of an SSBN. Have you? You know, I suspect you haven’t. Any CO or potential CO who emitted even a whiff of evidence that he might question a launch order under ANY circumstances might be endangering his command status. But, if so, I would love to hear about it. Almost all Americans now take it for granted that our Trident fleet is solid as granite out there in the deeps, patrolling in the silent depths and waiting for the almost-unimaginable order to launch. But there are human beings in the linkage thereof and a Fail Safe scenario is not impossible, just extremely unlikely. This is worthy of much deep thought.



  13. ansonburlingame says:

    To all, again,

    I wrote and posted a second reply to Jim’s request for my “expert” opinion. It is not “here” and I don’t know why. Thus I will try to rewrite what I wrote yesterday.

    Anytime someone implies that I might be an “expert” I become suspicious. Sorry. Having been an important “link” in the nuclear release chain, I do have views perhaps not carefully considered by most, at least in Joplin, MO. Whether or not that makes me an “expert” is TDB by others.

    Is Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) an honorable concept. Of course it is not. Creating Armagedon is about the height of being dishornorable.

    Is Deterrence to PREVENT MAD an honorable concept. Partially, at least, in my view. And it is the ONLY way we have found thus far to mitigate (but not eliminate) the possibility of a nuclear exchange or Armagendon.

    If as a link in the chain I refuse an order to launch or the enemy thinks I will refuse such an order, is deterrence degraded, perhaps to the point that a nuclear launch initiated by the enemy is more likely? You bet it is in my view.

    As well, I was trained to know how and why to carry out my duties. Would it be dishonorable for me to accept such training and all the pay and benefits that go along with it and then turn around and refuse to execute a lawful order (lawful within the concept of the society in which I live). It would be the height of being dishornorable in my view.

    I swore an oath to “protect and defend….. IAW the constitution….” To invalidate that oath to me would be terribly dishonorable, particularly when the “chips were down”.

    On the other hand if after all that training, etc. I considered my actions to launch as being dishonorable before receiving such an order, then I could honorably disengage from such service after careful thought and counsel.

    Does that answer your question, Jim.



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