We Can't Afford Perfection

By Lieutenant Commander Patrick J. Vincent, U.S. Navy

The Navy's self-immolation has its origins in the withering, often unbalanced criticism endured over a series of highly publicized scandals. The Navy's proper response to this scrutiny should have been to point out that in any organization with hundreds of thousands of people, criminal behavior occasionally will occur, but that such aberrant behavior is not the norm. The crimes of individuals, deplorable though they are, do not indicate an endemic disease in a force equal in size to the population of a large city. Instead, the embattled Navy now seems to believe that it really is as bad as its detractors insist, and the honor of its people is no longer worth defending. Each new incident is countered with stand downs, firings of personnel far removed from the process, and awareness programs for law-abiding sailors.

In an attempt to stem further criticism, the Navy has embarked on a jihad against itself, attempting to root out any traces of impurity. The Navy today is a hypersensitive organization that punishes respectable citizens for not being perfect, and rejects the guiltless for not being free of taint.

In addition to destroying innocent lives, the Navy's internal campaign of terror has caused the rank-and-file to lie low and play it safe. If an inept comment or unbecoming action can end a career, the safest options are silence and inaction. Free thinking and open debate are suffocated and innovation and spontaneity are stifled. Major military policies-.g., women in combat and racial quotas in recruiting-go unquestioned for fear that a politically incorrect statement will end one's career.

The one-strike-you're-out policy also concentrates extraordinary power in the hands of every manager. Since a single negative appraisal is a death blow to one's career, managers have life-or death power over their subordinates. Personnel are much less apt to offer their honest opinions or sincerely question the viewpoints and assumptions of their superiors, if doing so can lead to such negative consequences. Similarly, senior personnel are less likely to be informed of bad news that needs to be heard. Career preservation has become a top priority in today's military, with systemic sclerosis as the result. A high ranking officer recently told me, "Voicing disagreement with the boss, even if you're right, is like walking around in public with no clothes on."

The most pernicious effect of the Navy's crusade for purity is the demoralization of the officer corps. While officers are being told that they should have the highest integrity, they see their own organization destroying innocent people for minor offenses. While they should be honest, they live instead in quiet fear, lest they utter an unfashionable viewpoint. While officers should be fair, they are subject to a Pentagon regulation that allows unsubstantiated allegations to be placed in their files. While officers are told they should be rational and balanced, they see their peers subjected to hysterical overreactions and mindless witch hunts. Can the notion of "core values" be taken seriously in an organization that subjects fine (albeit imperfect) officers to such treatment?

Forty years ago the military was one of our most respected national institutions: even the phrase "spending money like a drunken sailor" was part of the lexicon. Now, a drunken sailor is a national news story. In a bygone era Admiral Boorda, upon learning he was wearing an improper medal, would have replied, "Geez, I've got so many I must have screwed up!" Some would have chuckled, some would have shrugged, and life would have gone on.

A year after Admiral Boorda's suicide, the United States Navy, as a whole, is suffering from self-inflicted wounds. We had best heed Eric Hoffer's observation that "many of the insights of the saint stem from his experiences as a sinner."

 

 
 

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