Somebody, PLEASE Rock the Boat!

By Jay R. Avella

More than a century ago, Alfred Thayer Mahan published articles in Proceedings that were radical for their time—and that were not well-received in some circles. Yet Mahan persisted, and with the help of some outside the Navy (and indeed outside the United States), his views eventually became accepted strategic thought. Other boat-rockers such as William Sims, who proposed some extreme (for the time) ideas about naval gunnery, or Hyman Rickover, who grasped the merits of nuclear power long before anyone else, come to mind. These officers shared three characteristics: All stood up for their ideas; none initially found support from sympathetic seniors; and all had their careers rescued by someone outside the Navy.

Yet lack of support did not deter their unwavering commitment. They proudly attached their names to controversial pieces for all to see. They placed their careers in jeopardy for a concept they believed would make our Navy and our nation stronger. That they were rescued eventually is probably more a matter of fate than design, but when they set their thoughts down on paper and crossed their own Rubicons, they performed the intellectual equivalent of David Farragut at Mobile Bay—and damned the torpedoes!

For each of these men, there were no doubt hundreds more who made similar efforts, but were less fortunate in the end. Whatever the reason—poor timing, lack of support, faulty logic, or just plain bad luck—their careers were stifled and even terminated early, solely because they dared to challenge the status quo. Where are such officers today? Sadly, they do not appear on the pages of Proceedings . Too often, I find myself wondering whether this is a forum for naval professionals seeking objective discourse—or the Harvard Business Review .

As dean of a university that specializes in military studies, I hear continual laments from faculty that Navy and Marine Corps officer students who produce well-researched and persuasively argued papers are unwilling to submit them to Proceedings . This does not reflect insecurity, where the student might lack the self-confidence in his or her scholarly work to submit it for review, but rather a near-universal fear of having their names in print attached to a potentially controversial stand on a particular issue. After all, some readers who disagree might sit on their promotion boards or write their fitness reports.

That such a climate of fear exists is a professional disgrace. Leaders should be fostering the kind of moral courage shown by the likes of Mahan, Sims, and Rickover, not stifling it—which, from my perspective, is exactly what is happening. We like to point with pride to the "Navy of the Nineties" with its improved opportunities for women, its affirmative action successes, and its focus on family matters. But when it comes to fostering honest, frank intellectual discussion and debate, we seem to be in the 1890s, not the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the "don't rock the boat" syndrome reaches far beyond the pages of Proceedings ; indeed, it seems to pervade the entire system. Junior officer students regularly speak of competition among their peers for promotion, screening for ship department head, and high-visibility billets. This seemingly obsessive concern can have only a negative effect on teamwork and team-building. Is it no longer the goal to achieve success for the ship or the squadron? At one time, individual success followed unit success and was based significantly on one's contribution to that collective result. Not any more. Today, the goals are personalized: "How does it further my career?"

"Protecting one's tail" has evolved into a fine art. It seems increasingly that one achieves success by moving to the rear ranks. After all, they shoot at the people out front—and today it takes only one shot to end a career. One hardly need be a philosopher to know that avoiding the negative does not mean achieving the positive.

Are more commanding officers being relieved for cause than in years past? Is there a correlation? Are we fostering professional mediocrity because we don't encourage our officers to think, speak out, and act on what they believe? Isn't it part of officer development to screw up once in a while—and to learn from one's mistakes? Shouldn't seniors who have made the same mistake be there to counsel, to assist, to lead? Then again, if those senior officers were selected because they excelled at risk avoidance .... Isn't it a skipper's job to develop subordinates and not merely to weed out nonconformists?

What is happening? For one thing, wardrooms don't socialize regularly as a group any more, although in the past it was wardroom camaraderie that contributed as much to team building as the repeated drills on board ship. Officers came to know each other well and forged lifelong friendships. It provided an informal atmosphere where seniors could counsel and mentor juniors away from the critical limelight of the skipper's or department head's office.

Not any more, at least not according to my students. Bachelors don't live aboard ship or in the BOQ. You rarely hear about "snake ranches" any more. There are very few wardroom parties, because (horrors!) one might be seen drinking. And, heaven forbid, if one should be seen having a second—the sure sign of a "problem drinker." We have accepted the principle that restricting public consumption of alcohol makes for a temperate Navy, when it is more accurate to say that that we have driven the alcoholic/problem drinker underground, only to discover our mistake when a case of child abuse emerges. Good leaders used to take care of excessive drinking more informally—and never confused the innocent with the guilty.

Am I a dinosaur? Possibly. An overly nostalgic retiree who longs for the good old days? Guilty. But one thing I feel sure of: Today's Navy is no longer an adventure—it's just a job.

Captain Avella , a naval flight officer, is the Dean of American Military University. 

 

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