I Went Joint (But I Didn't Inhale)

By Lieutenant Commander Lawrence Di Rita, USNR

That trenchant analysis probably represented the breadth and depth of understanding within the Navy’s officer corps of this “landmark” legislation.  To take it one step further, most of us (those who thought about it or even were aware that the reorganization movement existed, very likely a single-digit percentage of officers) saw it as little more than a continuation of the trend that started in 1947 with the National Security Act.  That was when the Secretary of the Navy was told his presence was no longer required at cabinet meetings.

In the view of many naval officers, the loss of cabinet status began the slide down the slippery slope that led to Goldwater-Nichols.  To them, some of the more objectionable features of the legislation include joint duty as a prerequisite for flag selection and greater authority for theater commanders-in-chief to hire and fire their subordinates.  (Imagine an Air Force officer—to whom a deployment is three weeks of temporary additional duty with per diem and a rental car—actually having an impact on the career of a naval officer!)

It’s too early to say whether Goldwater-Nichols has had its intended effect.  Proponents of the bill point to Desert Storm and declare the law a success.  The implication, of course, is that, without Goldwater-Nichols, the 40 days of mind-numbing aerial bombardment punctuated by Tomahawks flying through Saddam Hussein’s parlor that culminated in 500,000 beef-fed American ground troops accepting the surrender of Iraqi teenagers reduced to sleeping in their own filth would somehow have had a different ending.  I’m no expert, but I have my doubts.

The bill’s impact has been felt in some areas, though.  Personnel assignment patterns have been altered to reflect the requirement for joint duty.  Now, for example, when your detailer tells you he’s sending you to a job in the logistics directorate of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, he actually means it when he says it will be career-enhancing.  To most naval officers, who are incurable ticket-punchers, one joint assignment is no better or worse than another.  Whether you’re the Chairman’s executive assistant or the guy who’s responsible for a joint fuel farm in Korea, it’s a three-year tour working for guys who wear funny uniforms and salute without their covers on, to be tolerated until you can get back to the Navy, and never to be repeated.  Far from being the heresy it once was, joint assignment is now an official Good Thing.

Having completed a tour on the Joint Staff, I thought it would be useful to record some of my observations and share them with colleagues contemplating future assignment in the joint arena.  (A term that brings to mind the “arena” to which another legislative body—the Roman Senate—consigned the heretics of the day, so the folly of their beliefs could be fully exposed with the help of some unsympathetic carnivores.  It could be argued that those who survived the process were better for it, if not purged of their heresies.)

What’s In a Name? (Part I)

Maybe it’s just a Pentagon thing, but it became apparent very early in my tour that the officer/enlisted relationship in the other services is quite different from that in the Navy.  Shortly after I arrived, my boss told me that, within the next few days, “Sam” would take me around the building to get checked in. (The events described in this article actually occurred, although I’ve changed the names because most of the people involved are bigger than I am, and there’s a chance that they won’t recognize themselves.)  I assumed that Sam was a fellow action officer, the “AO” being the lowest organism in the Joint Staff food chain.  I was wrong.  Sam was actually Staff Sergeant Kozlowski, and my joint professional military education had begun.  Evidently, in the Army and Air Force, it is not uncommon to call enlisted personnel by their first names.  This struck me as unusual, but it seems to work for them.  I suppose it has something to do with their not having to deploy in ships at sea, the fundamental aspect of our profession that, Freud-like, defines all our other characteristics.  I submit that these things would be very different for us if we ever chose to dispense the formality of last names.  Consider this potential exchange in the middle of a six-month WestPac deployment:

Tactical Action Officer : “Say, Frank, why don’t you grab the fellas and field day the combat information center during the mid-watch?”

Watch Supervisor : “Actually, Bill, why don’t you get off your khaki a—and do it yourself?”

Curiously, though, this officer/enlisted familiarity in the other services is not matched within their officer corps.  The respect for rank and decorum between officers a single pay grade apart, for example, borders on obsession.  I finally gave up enjoining an Army colleague—one year group behind me and on the major’s promotion list—to use my first name, when it became obvious that he was actually uncomfortable doing so.

At the same time, being on a promotion list gives an Army or Air Force officer an immediate primus inter pares status that actually means something.  Even though it may be two years before he or she actually pins on, the (P) (for selected promotion) that follows the rank designation—as in Lieutenant Colonel(P) Jones—confers stature that any Navy commander growing old on the captain promotion list in these post-frocking times would kill for.  One of the really critical functions that I performed as an executive assistant on the Joint Staff was signing travel orders.  I once had an Army lieutenant colonel(P) ask me to rewrite his orders because, in my joint ignorance, I’d overlooked his enhanced stature and, as a result, he wouldn’t get as good a room in Army quarters while on assignment.  The absurdity of his request was exceeded only by the absurdity of the probability that he was right.

Come as You Are

Some time ago, the Navy found itself wrestling with a paradox: our uniforms weren’t uniform.  I remember quite clearly a Proceedings article by a flag officer decrying the lack of standardization at the unit level on such basics as long sleeves versus short sleeves, the type and color of ballcaps, and sweaters versus jackets.  Although the issue was focused on working uniforms, we even went through an interesting (and, thankfully, brief) period when we permitted this mix-and-match mentality to spill over into service dress uniforms.  (Remember “salt and pepper” for officers, a ghastly combination that reminded one of nothing so much as a Jamaican police officer’s uniform?)  Fortunately, this crisis is behind us, and commanders of the best ships, squadrons, and detachments have returned to first principles, recalling the reasons why individuals in military organizations are required to wear uniforms at all.  Moreover, when—twice a year—the signal goes out to shift service dress uniforms, we’re not left to decide, “Which ensemble today?”

The same cannot be said for our air-land brethren.  There are nearly as many combinations of necktie, open collar, sweater, blouse, and long- and short-sleeved uniforms throughout the year as there are insignia, buttons, and pins hanging from the front of an Army officer’s service dress uniform.

This plethora of choices available to the beleaguered Army or Air Force officer does not even speak to an interesting recent development: The current Air Force Chief of Staff, apparently fed up with being stopped on the streets of Washington by tourists and asked if the 38G Metrobus goes all the way to the Smithsonian, has embarked on a campaign to change his service’s dress uniform.  Consequently, some 800 selected officers and enlisted are sampling the new uniform, which comes in yet another variety of combinations too confusing to sort out.  At this writing, it appears as though a version has been selected (by “popular demand”) that eliminates potential confusion with that of a Royal Dutch Airlines crewman.

To his credit, though, the Chief has determined that, regardless of the style, the new Air Force uniform will be made mostly of natural materials.  In the Navy, on the other hand, about the time we standardized our service dress uniforms we also decided that it was important to eliminate all natural fibers in the process.  Now we are left with uniforms of essentially the same style as those found in Chester Nimitz’ seabag, but produced using the technology that made plastic garbage-can liners universally available (and wrinkle-free).

One final thought on uniforms: An Army officer once told me that the Army uniform was redesigned after World War II to look more stylish—like a business suit.  He was right: the Army uniform looks like a 1945 business suit.

I’m OK, You’re OK

Lieutenant Commander Queeg is the most gifted naval officer of this generation.  He singlehandedly saved the ship from enemy attack by projecting it into a momentarily transcendent space-time continuum, has healed the sick through the laying on of hands, and corrected most of the fundamental ballistics errors in Dahlgren’s early manuscripts.  He has my strongest unqualified endorsement for promotion ahead of his contemporaries, and he already has been selected for Chief of Naval Operations or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This citation typifies the final paragraph of a fitness report for a Navy lieutenant commander.  To his wife, Queeg is looking pretty good.  To those of us who have read hundreds of these or perhaps served on a selection board, it’s obvious that he won’t break out of the pack because the word “or” rather than “and” is used in the last sentence, between CNO and Chairman.  This nuanced and sophisticated approach to officer evaluations makes the Navy special, and certainly differs from that of the other services.

Both the Army and the Air Force decided some time ago to deflate their officer evaluation processes, something that has been advocated by many for the Navy.  The Army evaluation manual even prohibits as “gimmicks” such time-honored Navy traditions as underlining, bold-faced type, and—most effective of them all—handwriting on the evaluation form itself.  These deflationary efforts have been successful, to the point that the annual opportunity to read their evals for Army and Air Force officers must be more like a trip to the hardware store or the dentist, rather than the Disney-like fantasy naval officers enjoy at least once a year.

The actions taken by our sister services in this regard are noteworthy, but they take some getting used to for unenlightened naval parochialists.  On the Army evaluation form, for example, the block that is roughly equivalent to our “Top 1%” block is rarely used; instead, each officer is compared to the other officers in his pay grade who have been evaluated by the same reporting senior.  This clever idea leads to a “natural” bell-curve distribution and I’m sure provides full employment to no small number of computer programmers and operations analysts at the Army’s personnel command.  Moreover, it often results in the rather unusual circumstance—from my inflated naval perspective—in which an officer about whom only the most glowing comments are made in the narrative is placed in the Army equivalent of the “top 10%,” and he’s damned proud of it!  By comparison, a naval officer so evaluated would be well advised to go out and buy some civilian trousers and a sports jacket to go with his Corfams and to start working up a résumé.

The Air Force goes one better.  Its promotion and selection system is highly personalized, evidently a throwback to the days when General Carl Spaatz himself decided who got promoted and personally provided each new general with his own set of stars.  Indeed, one wonders what Air Force placement officers and detailers actually do, because it apparently, has nothing to do with writing orders for people.  As the executive assistant to two Air Force generals, I sometimes had the interesting task of reviewing résumés sent by Air Force officers shopping around for jobs!

The benefit of this is that senior officers take a personal and aggressive interest in moving younger officers around to billets in which their individual talents may be applied, even if neither the officer nor the billet are within that senior officer’s purview.  Consequently, the evaluation process has taken on a just-give-me-the-facts character.  A typical comment in an Air Force officer’s evaluation might be: “Of all the officers I’ve served with, Major Horstelmeier was definitely one of them.”

This is less pleasing, to be sure, than the Navy fitness report I cited, but it gets the point across.

Moreover, the Air Force has developed a system in which it actually uses two separate officer evaluation forms.  One is used for routine reports, which generally read more like an officer data card that is just favorable enough to have been drafted by the officer himself.  No reference to the officer’s promotion potential may be made in this report.  I once had a colonel’s evaluation returned to me to be rewritten by my boss, because it contained a reference to the fact that the officer “frequently performed duties normally expected of an officer in the next senior pay grade.”  A vanilla comment that would have been considered a slight in the Navy fitness report, it evidently set off alarms at the Air Force personnel bureau.

The other Air Force evaluation form is used when the officer is being considered for promotion.  In this form, reporting seniors are permitted a little madness and may imply that the officer is capable of being trained for the most limited responsibilities of the least challenging billet in the next pay grade—but not before he hangs around on a promotion list for a couple of years.  Even with this indulgence, the officer’s promotion remains dependent on a personalized process in which his record is reviewed by a board of senior officers within his command, which develops a recommended promotion slate for the service-wide board to consider.  (In a slightly more serious vein, because Goldwater-Nichols requires that the promotion rate for officers assigned to joint duty be as high for headquarters staffs, the Air Force’s “double promotion board” system has resulted in the assignment of exceptionally high-caliber mid-grade officers to the Joint Staff.)  Given this process, could anyone honestly have been surprised when a 1991 Government Accounting Office study determined that the Air Force promotion system “relies too heavily on a good-old boy network?”  I claim no particular expertise in Air Force personnel matters, but I thought that was the whole point.

What’s In a Name? (Part II)

I’m no sociologist, but I’ve discovered a distinct pattern that I thought I would share.  It may not seem to be relevant to the discussion at hand, but it is at least as probing as the analysis I’ve provided thus far and offers food for thought for individuals trained in the discipline.

It should come as no surprise that most of the U.S. Navy’s activities are concentrated along the coasts of the country.  The Naval Weapons Stations, Crane, Indiana, the Ship’s Parts Control Center, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and other congressional pork barrels notwithstanding, we do our thing near water.  Because of this, we recruit heavily from among the coastal population, for whom the Navy is a familiar presence that can be trusted to look after and train their sons and daughters.

Owing to a variety of factors—a discussion of which goes well beyond my ability to control it—many of those recruits have names much like my own.  That is, there are a lot of Italian-Americans in the Navy.  (Indeed, when I interviewed for my Joint Staff assignment, two of the other candidates were Navy commanders with names that start with “D” and end in vowels, who worked in the same directorate as I.  This may have been sheer coincidence, but I considered contacting the American Civil Liberties Union to ask if we were being discriminated against.)  I note this in the most sensitive, politically correct way, of course.  There are also a lot of Irish-Americans and a fair amount of Polish-Americans in the Navy. Why?  Because their ancestors settled in communities along the East Coast, where the Navy has a visible presence.

The great immigrant waves of the 19 th and 20 th centuries included many from the Scandinavian regions of Europe.  Where did they settle?  In the tundra of the upper Midwest, which approximates the unforgiving conditions they’d left behind.  For geostrategic reasons—a discussion of which would give this essay a seriousness I never intended—the Air Force decided to give real meaning to the term “Cold War” by putting many of its missile and bomber bases in the same frozen wastelands.  Hence, the Air Force became a familiar presence to many of the descendants of the Scandinavian-Americans who populated those areas.  Although these findings require further study, the upshot is this: The Air Force has a lot of guys with names like Lutefisk and Sinterklausen.

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

My final observation may or may not be attributable to Goldwater-Nichols, but it supports the notion that the Joint Staff is “a special place” and is therefore entirely consistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

A principal theme of Goldwater-Nichols is the centralization of power and influence in the person of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and in the Joint Staff itself.  This latter body has ceased being the many-headed expression of the corporate Joint Chiefs of Staff and has become the Chairman’s staff.  For better or worse, this centralizing phenomenon occurred at the very time centrally organized bodies around the world were falling into disfavor, so to speak.  That is to say, in the late 1980s, institutions, like the Soviet Politburo no longer had quite the same allure they once did (except, of course, in the faculty lounges of most college campuses, but that’s another essay altogether).

Along with the diffusion of authority that was taking place everywhere from Albania to Zaire—except, thanks to Goldwater Nichols, at the highest reaches of military authority in the world’s greatest democracy—came a breakdown, literally, of the physical barriers that central authorities had imposed on their subjects.  The most dramatic example, of course, was the “fall” of the Berlin Wall (a term that ignores the fact that it was actually pushed over by great cold warriors like President Ronald Reagan and Lady Margaret Thatcher).

Even as the dust was settling in Berlin and elsewhere, our newly centralized Joint Staff was erecting impediments to the free passage of its subjects that would have made the East Germans proud.  I speak of the frustrating requirements imposed on all who wish to enter the Joint Staff area of the Pentagon.  At a time when Western scholars are permitted unrestricted access to Stalin’s KGB files, when the Russian president addresses a joint session of Congress, and when Jane Fonda is free to perform the “tomahawk chop” with abandon, captains and colonels who don’t hold the necessary badges or know the double-secret handshake must be escorted past armed guards into the Joint Staff area to conduct their services’ business with “the mother of all staffs.”  Oblivious to the apparent irony, building managers even erected a monument to the failure of centralized authority—a large section of the Berlin Wall in a glass case—just outside the Joint Staff guardpost, where a constable sits in his own glass case ready to talk Redskins football with anyone who’ll listen and who is otherwise charged with keeping out the unwashed and unjoint masses.  Meanwhile, any Pentagon tour group could wander unhindered into the Secretary of the Navy’s office without so much as signing the guest log.  You figure it out.

All for One and One for All

Has the Goldwater-Nichols Act had its intended effect?  It’s too early to say, although I hope this discussion highlights some of the more important issues for further study.  I’m content with simply recording events as they occur.

Some will argue that an officer in the Navy—that most parochial of services—has no business kicking off the debate on so important a topic as joint operations.  Anyone who has ever seen two ships from different coasts try to communicate via secure UHF without first having a week-long planning conference and swapping operations officers for the occasion probably would agree.

Call me an optimist, but I reject the notion that the Navy isn’t ready for jointness.  It isn’t a question of whether we’re joint enough; I would argue instead that we’re the jointest of services already.  After all—as critics are quick to point out—we have our own air force and army.  With that in mind, the question becomes: Why do we keep the other ones?


Joint duty proved too much of a good thing for Lieutenant Commander Di Rita .  Since this article was written, he left active duty and is now the Deputy Director for Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.


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