The Sailor & the State

By Captain John L. Byron, U.S. Navy (Retired)

A military officer relates to our nation and its citizens in three ways. He is at the same time a warrior, a citizen, and an employee.

These roles blend and intertwine, and their prominence shifts back and forth throughout an individual's career. The warrior role must be based on a solid understanding of the citizen role, and the role of sailor as employee needs to be changed if the citizen role is to function well. Unless we bring into check the costs of the sailor-employee and integrate the sailor-citizen with the rest of society, the sailor-warrior will be rendered ineffective. All three roles matter; we must address them individually and in their interactions if we are to understand and redress the emergent separation between the sailor and the state.


The essence of the naval officer's profession lies in his or her readiness to fight for America and American values. In this we are in good shape. There is no basis to criticize our Navy's current people as warriors—the minds and the machines of our Navy are ready to fight.

But the warrior role has more to it than just putting to sea and putting it on the line. Naval officers also have the responsibility to ensure that readiness endures, enabling and overseeing what Huntington called "the management of violence" through staff work and higher echelons of command. In these areas things perhaps are not so good.

Our problem is a tendency toward role reversal. As warriors we run the day-to-day Navy, but increasingly we go beyond the warrior role and—to a disturbing degree—into the realm properly reserved for the nation's political leadership. It seems that many of us do not trust civilian control of the military, do not fully embrace the idea that the big decisions involving the Navy belong to the political sphere. At the top of the list of disharmonies in our military's relationship with the state is our apparent belief that we in uniform know more than our political leaders about the fundamental questions of the shape and use of military force and what is good for the Navy.

The Constitution charges Congress to maintain a navy and assigns to it the sober duty of declaring war. It embodies in the president the role of military commander-in-chief. It is clear that the founding fathers very deliberately put control of the military in the hands of civilians elected by the people. Law and tradition call for our expert advice on military matters—but only advice, and always with the understanding that ultimate responsibility lies with Congress and the president.

The reason we try to exceed our military role and venture into the political sphere may be because many of us do not respect either the people we elect or the political institutions in which they serve. An all too common view in the fleet and in the Pentagon is that Congress is a pack of poltroons and our current president a fraud. Many of us think the press is venal and stupid. Many would stifle free speech. Many of us believe that only one political party produces patriots. We are, individually and increasingly as a military, disillusioned with our leaders, distrusting of our institutions, and as a result, profoundly out of touch with America's essential nature and, perhaps too, our oath of office.

This is a sad and serious situation. We who serve need to get back to the warrior basics of our craft and leave the broader political questions to our elected leaders. That is our system. If we cannot or will not respect it, how can we defend it?


We can make the needed course correction if we understand our institutions. This essay is not the place to show how Congress functions or politics works or why the press and free speech are essential to liberty, but there is substance in these topics and they do matter—especially to naval officers. We sailors are citizens of this nation. To best be warriors, we need to be very good citizens. Perhaps right now too many of us are too shallow in our knowledge of this nation and too mistrusting of its institutions to be called good citizens.

This is never a problem at time of big wars. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the two world wars were fought by citizen-sailors. They knew why they were there, they willingly risked their lives for something very important, and they expected to go home to an even better nation, if they lived through the conflict. We have an issue now because we are distant from the last big war and have made ourselves into a career force that lacks the outside attitudes of citizen-sailors and draftees in its ranks. Our ranks have within only those whom we have shaped ourselves through a continual self-patterning that yields an increasingly isolated and jaundiced view of our country. But this country of ours—that world outside our military—is what we are defending, and we should worry much if we've lost touch with it or do not or cannot respect it.

The problem is our perspective. In our increasingly isolated military world, we hold ourselves to be different from and better than the common citizen. We see ourselves as an alternate society, a specialized tribe that is and wants to be separate from those other people, those civilians. What we do in our daily lives emphasizes that difference.

Many of us live a "military lifestyle." Our homes are in military enclaves. Our shopping and socializing and recreation are uniquely and specially military. We largely don't pay local taxes, don't vote in local elections, don't join local organizations. The organizations we do participate in tend to cluster around the military community, perhaps bettering our own lot but doing little for those lesser souls outside the gate. And when we retire—when every excuse for not really being a civilian citizen is gone—most of us still cling to our military separateness and insist on keeping our distance from the rest of the community we have settled into. We stand our distance from the common citizen largely because we think we're a bit better. We really don't want to be part of what to all other eyes is truly America. To which one might again inquire why being a good sailor matters if what's being protected doesn't?

The cure to all this is to get off our high horse and join America, developing understanding and trust through actual experience and constant exposure. The way for the military to be part of American society is to live in it.


American civilian life and institutions are distant and perhaps a bit strange to us because we in the military don't have enough direct involvement with them. We think apart because we live apart. This is not so much by design as by an accident of history. In many places and for much of our military's history, there just wasn't much outside community to be part of. We built military installations on the frontier, where we had to make our own community, if there was to be one.

And our earlier Navy was a single-man's Navy, its members overwhelmingly male and unmarried. Most lived on board ship. The shore establishment was not the monster size it is now. Pay was very low, shockingly so, but all needs were furnished. The Navy provided everything to sailors because this was the best and often the only way to do so. Even where there was an option, there was a paternalistic notion that sailors were better off if every aspect of their lives was controlled by the Navy.

All this has changed. Most military locations are close to fully capable American communities. The majority of sailors are married. Their backgrounds and upbringings make them more self-reliant, less in need of smothering paternalism. Pay is good, a sophisticated system that tracks the cost of living and pays more to those in scarce specialties. And now there is a rich range of options for satisfying life's wants—we no longer need the full-support system of before.

The current benefits-and-support system is an anachronism. We have hung on to it and the isolation it creates—even enlarging it—even though its original justification has evaporated. And now the costs are staggering.

Our current system of benefits for those on active duty, for retirees, and for our families, is the least efficient, most expensive approach that could be invented. Because of this, the sailor as employee takes so much out of the Navy coffers as to threaten his role as warrior. And because he has isolated himself so totally, because he is not integrated with his fellow citizens in civilian life, our sailor as citizen stands as obstacle to the obvious solution.

Monetizing Benefits

Our fundamental problem in the Navy right now is that benefits cost so much that they threaten readiness. The obvious answer is to cut the cost of benefits. The way to do that is to abandon the giant inefficiency of providing actual benefits and shift to payment in lieu of service.

The U.S. military runs the last company towns in the country. They're called bases, but they are really municipalities, usually separated from the outside community by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Though there be a town next door, at these bases we offer our sailors services of every variety: food, housing, shopping, recreation, health care, newspapers, veterinary care—the list is mind-boggling. There is a better way. Every company and organization in America has shifted from benefits in kind to benefits in cash, compensating employees entirely through the paycheck. The military must follow suit.

The Navy needs to monetize benefits as totally and as rapidly as possible. Get out of running municipalities. Quit the base-and-benefits business. Stop automatically providing services without regard to nearby availability. Figure out the true cost of all these benefits and, through an appropriate formula, compensate for their removal by a shift of funds into the pay accounts for active-duty and retired personnel.

The good that will come from this is enormous:

  • Sailors will have more money and the freedom to spend it as they see fit, and everyone will be getting the same compensation, regardless of where they are stationed.
  • Navy people will rejoin the civilian world, gaining respect and understanding for and of their fellow Americans, with whom they now live side by side.
  • The Navy can get out of most non-readiness lines of work and drastically cut back on others: stateside medical services, housing, recreation, and the other non-mission support "needs" either disappear or shrink drastically.
  • The Navy's leaders can focus on mission.
  • The cost of both benefits and infrastructure will plummet; funds now spent providing duplicate services and maintaining bases as municipalities will become available for desperately needed modernization.

The last point is critical. Because benefits-in-kind and the base structure needed to support them are so costly, we are in danger of ending up all tail and no tooth. The value of monetizing benefits is greatest in bringing the military back together with the citizenry, but we also are under the gun to protect readiness and modernization by slashing every non-readiness account. Spending on benefits and bases has a big bulls-eye painted on it.

In 1990, our military spending split about evenly between combat and noncombat spending. But in the short time since, we have moved to a military in which less than one-third of the funding pays for combat readiness. The rest goes to support functions, of which bases and benefits are a huge and growing cost element. Monetizing benefits will generate the cash needed to provide warriors with the tools they need.

And there. is one final favorable outcome. Do you think those civilians outside the gate approve of the commissaries and exchanges and veterinary clinics on the base? You think they're not jealous? The existing military benefits system is a sharp stick in the eye for most Americans not in the military. They will give us and national defense a lot more sympathy and support when we abandon our current system of military welfare.


But what of the whining and bleating certain to come from military retirees and those who will purport to speak for sailors? The right answer is to ignore it. The changes must be made, and we have no reason to believe that they won't be made fairly. In most cases, the services and shopping are better out in town. Pay will go up, the additional dollars covering the cost of the old services. This is not a harmful change, no matter how noisy it gets.

There is nothing wonderfully fair about the current system. The Navy has housing for only one-third of its married members. Base facilities vary from great to awful. Retiree support and medical care is a function of location more than of eligibility. This also is largely true for those on active duty—a sailor's cash pay is the same regardless of whether benefits are obtainable. Monetization of benefits will level compensation in a way that no effort to patch the current mess could ever do. It will be an improvement for all except those who have a lifestyle perfectly in tune with the services provided at their base, and that only lasts for one duty tour.

There will be opposition. Advocates of quality of life will worry. But former Marine Commandant Al Gray has the correct response: "For a warrior, the most important quality of life is having one." If we cannot bring down costs of infrastructure and non-mission items, we will have fewer weapons of lesser capability in the future. As a recent Vice Chief of Naval Operations observed, quality of life is not an unbounded good; there must be some end to it.

Making It Work

Shifting our benefits system to a cash-only basis won't be painless. In the short run, the federal government will have to negotiate the shift of the service load onto local communities. Even more fundamentally, the new community residents—the military members and their families—must have full rights and responsibilities as local citizens. This means the right to vote in local elections and the requirement to pay local taxes. Both will require adjustments to the 58-year-old Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, something long overdue.

Ultimately, getting out of the benefits business mandates that we extend trust to yet another American institution: free-market capitalism. Private enterprise offers a lot. If we back our military out of everything that is not mission, and if we support the powerful thesis that government should do only what it must, then we can bring in private enterprise to do for the military support area what already is done in military hardware: provide everything. This saves even more money for readiness, permits even stronger focus on mission, and enables private-sector innovation and technology beyond our best government dreams.

Our fear of change and our cultural resistance to a full shift to private sources for support services has much more to do with our attitudes and our distance from the way our country really works than with risk or military requirements. We have to get past the hurdles. The military's revolution in business affairs is urgently needed and will require three interlinking parts to be successful:

  • Get out of the noncombat services business by monetizing benefits.
  • Strip our military bases down to pure mission.
  • Outsource to the private sector everything left that is not inherently governmental.

The New Sailor

Our military men and women and their families are great people. And they will be great citizens in the new civilian communities in which they will live. When they are shifted to a cash basis for benefits and moved back in with the civilian population both physically and in attitude, we can predict a growth in citizenship and a better understanding of the sailor's proper relationship to the state.

Will these changes bring us into harmony and reconcile the breach between the military and American democracy? Yes. We end up with four significant results:

  • We regain the status of common citizens and set the stage to depoliticize our view of civilian authority, returning the stance of service and obedience that law and custom require. We become once again a service that holds the central institutions and the political processes of our nation in respect.
  • We close the growing separation between military and civilian society. We live and vote and shop and pay taxes alongside our civilian brethren. They know us and we know them—and from this grows respect.
  • We get a benefits system that will not kill our combat accounts and that we can keep in tune with modern management principles. We eliminate the huge costs of benefits in kind and non-mission infrastructure and realign our bases to pure mission support. We get out of all those lines of work that don't go directly to mission.
  • We make the adjustments needed for true readiness now, in peacetime.

Captain Byron retired in 1993, after 37 years of continuous active duty. He has twice been honored as the Proceedings Author of the Year.


Captain Byron is a frequent contributor to Proceedings. A former detailer, qualified in submarines and surface warfare, he retired in 1993 after 37 years of active duty.

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