The Silence of the Admirals

By James H. Webb, Jr.

The world has seen many changes since my time in government. Borders and regimes have fallen. Crises have come and gone. Political positions have ebbed and flowed. The nature of the threat has become vague, and the military has shrunk and become less visible to public debate. But through it all, the basic requirements of leadership, strategy, and tactics remain constant, just as they have over the ages. And so I feel comfortable offering you a pair of eyes that watch from the outside, whose interest in these matters is nothing more than the well-being and proper functioning of the U.S. military an institution into which I was born, which brought me into manhood, which tested me under fire in combat, and which, when all the rhetoric is stripped away, is the ultimate guarantor of this nation's way of life.

How Does the Rest of the Country View You?

Among all the world's nations, the United States is the most diverse in terms of ethnicity, of longevity of citizenship, and, ultimately, of viewpoint. It is impossible to know from aggregate numbers in polling and public opinion surveys exactly how our military is viewed, and how those views affect an understanding of and respect for what you are doing. But I would like to address three separate components, each of which presents the military and the nation with a different set of challenges: the elite policymakers (including the media), the general public, and the "new Americans."

First, and most important to the formulation of military policy, are the elites. At the outset, I would offer you an important touchstone: The greatest lingering effect of the Vietnam era on our society is the notion that military service during time of war is not a prerequisite for moral authority or even respect. This idea has been accorded a quiet affirmation among our elites, usually whispered to one another, that some lives are worth more than others, that it is right and proper for the so-called best and brightest by virtue of an elite education to be excused from the dirty work of our society. Think of the disproportionate loss to society, the logic goes, if a future Albert Einstein or Thomas Edison is killed in some fruitless foreign engagement. Or, as an old Chinese saying puts it, one should never use good steel for nails or good men for soldiers.

I, like the majority of this nation, subscribe to a different view, because when it comes to leadership as opposed to law or medicine or engineering the logic is the reverse: the hotter the fire, the tougher the steel, and the more reliable the leader. And also because in a democracy, the more one has benefited from the fruits of our nation, the greater is one's obligation to serve. It is important to recognize that our elites abandoned this position during the Vietnam War, and it has affected policy for an entire generation. To illustrate: Harvard lost 691 alumni in World War II; in Vietnam it lost 12 out of all the classes from 1962 to 1972.

This notion of special privilege has spread over the decades following the Vietnam War. For most elites who make policy or provide commentary on it, you are little more than an intellectual issue. Just as the crisis in public education is for them a matter to be worried over in removed policy terms rather than one to be directly experienced by their own privately schooled children, almost no one in a position to affect policy has a direct human stake in the outcome of a military engagement.

It also has created a vacuum of true understanding in the highest places. Today, for the first time since the United States became a major world power, none of the principals in the national security arena the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, or the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency has served in the military. This problem might recede when the Clinton administration leaves town, but it is unlikely to go away. Twenty years ago, when I was a committee counsel in Congress, a clear majority of senators and congressmen were veterans, although most of their staff were not. Similarly, a majority of the editors at the major media outlets had military service, although their reporters did not. Today, those staff members and reporters are the congressmen and editors. In Congress, veterans are a distinct minority, and in the media almost no one has served.

In terms of attitude, the elites fall into three categories. Many have a sympathy and respect for what you do. But with few exceptions, they lack a referent in their own experience, among their peers, and in their families to place what you are doing in an understandable context. A second category, despite their public rhetoric, views you to be merely firemen and policemen of a different order, hired for a job, however dangerous, and expected to do it without complaint. This notion was reinforced during the Gulf War, when the Bush administration often pointed out with pride that the war wasn't costing the United States anything because other countries were footing the bill. What does it make you when a national leader places your wartime service in the context of a bill for services rendered? And finally, there is a small but very powerful minority that believes you are dangerous, that you must be continually humiliated and subdued, that militarism is an American disease, and that the more empowered and respected you become, the more you threaten pet political issues and even the fabric of society. Do not underestimate these people. Despite the absurdity of their views, they are intelligent, well positioned at the power centers of our culture, and intent on marginalizing your sacrifices.

This bifurcation of our society causes some otherwise well-meaning people to put modern military service into a false context. Recently, William Bennett gave a lecture on ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy, in which he compared the World War II and Vietnam generations by focusing on the twin events that took place in 1994: the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy and the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. One celebration, according to Mr. Bennett, mirrored a generation that understood sacrifice and service. The other illuminated an age group consumed by drugs and self-absorption. To Mr. Bennett, who in 1969 was a student at Harvard Law School, this probably was an apt comparison. But for those who graduated from the Naval Academy during that era, this speech bordered on insult.

If Mr. Bennett had wanted to reinforce the value of service and the notion of sacrifice in front of that audience, he could have compared the two elements of his own generation, and discussed what each was doing during the summer of 1969. I was leading a rifle platoon in the An Hoa Basin of Vietnam, and spent part of that summer in recuperation after being wounded. And I was hardly alone. Five hundred thousand other Americans far more than turned out for the party made famous for its drugs, sex, and rock and roll were serving there with me. But who on the national scene saw this, or remembers it, even among conservative commentators? And who truly understands what is means to deploy to sea again and again in the 1990s, leaving family and friends behind for months at a time?

Next, there is the general public. In the aggregate, they like you, they support you, and they respect you. In reality, however, they know less and less about what you are doing, and fewer and fewer among them have a human stake if what you are doing goes wrong. When we had the draft, families throughout the nation paid close attention, because nearly all of them were at risk when troops were sent into harm's way. In addition, a constant stream of veterans was returning to communities throughout the country, and despite persistent media reports to the contrary, they were bringing home a positive story about military service and the challenges of wearing the uniform. Veterans still are able to communicate these messages, but with a smaller military, longer enlistments, and higher retention, the veteran population is dwindling. A thousand World War II veterans are dying every day.

And what of the "new Americans?" Our country is so rich and powerful, so dominant in the world's cultural centers through its impact on film, music, and fashion, that it is difficult for many newcomers to understand that it was built from nothing, on the backs of individuals who tamed a wilderness, designed a unique system of government, and along the way had to be willing to take time from their lives and serve the larger good. Many recent immigrants come from cultures that do not respect their militaries, or from societies where the military is viewed as corrupt and authoritarian. They do not understand the deep sense of patriotism and tradition that is at the bottom of our most dedicated military people's service. Indeed, they have been given no reason to see military service as a duty of citizenship. And a lost opportunity lurks here the chance to embrace these new Americans as equal citizens, and to reinforce the notion that being an American brings with it a shared history, no matter at what point one's own family arrived, as well as an obligation to serve the greater good. Being an American is more than paying taxes and obeying the speed limit. The sacrifices of the past inform the greatness of the present, and the sacrifices of the present provide security for the future, and it is above all the military services that connect us all in such a way.

These are all, as we used to say in the Pentagon, disconnects. And there is a further disconnect embraced by all three of these groups that frequently distorts or submerges the importance of national defense internationalization. We live in an age of multinational corporations, heightened economic interdependence, instant global communications. It can be argued that the ability of powerful investment engines to withhold capital or to shift its flow from one country to another is the most visible form of raw power in the world today. And people across America want a piece of the pie. They want to become well off. They want to do business. They don't want to be told that in 5 or 15 years the business they are pursuing might in some vague way hurt the country. And so in a world where the threats to our national security have become arguable and blurred, money has become amoral, refusing to recognize national borders, and investments repudiate the notion of loyalty. Our government leaders have consciously ignored this phenomenon, hidden from it, sometimes even fed it for fear that their campaign contributions would dry up if they did otherwise. And American business has become almost a caricature of Lenin's famous taunt that the last capitalist would be hung from the rope he sold for a profit.

Is It Really that Bad?

The short answer is yes.

One can see the dangers of this lack of strategic thinking in the Clinton administration's China policy, for I cannot imagine a greater example of what can happen when conscious strategic ignorance creates a disadvantage for those who wear the uniform. I spend a lot of time in Asia, and it was clear that the President's announcement of a strategic partnership with China during his trip last summer sent chills through the region. He spent nine days in China and did not visit Japan, in my view our most important ally. His rhetoric and his actions went far beyond normal bounds to reward the policies of a repressive regime that has been a nuclear proliferator and has developed a dangerous strategic axis through the Muslim world for more than a decade. Why? Everybody knows why. Trade.

A recent New York Times investigation spelled out just how far this obsession with China has gone. Looser regulations regarding U.S. export policies have enabled Chinese companies to obtain a wide range of sensitive, sophisticated technology worth billions. The new rules allowed U.S. companies to sell many of these products without prior government approval, and the President decided to change the rules without a rigorous review by intelligence officials or other national security experts. The new policy was anchored in the fantasy that industry executives would raise questions about their own sales, requiring them to seek a Commerce Department license only if they believed that the equipment would end up in military hands. Now it has been revealed that some of the high-speed computers sold to civilian customers ostensibly for predicting weather patterns but also capable of scrambling secret communications and even designing nuclear weapons are being used by the Chinese Army.

As my 13-year-old daughter would say, "Like, duh." Even those with a passing knowledge of China know that in matters of security and technology its government is a monolith, and that the Chinese military itself has operated dozens of shell corporations involved in everything from selling AK-47s and SKS rifles on the streets of Los Angeles to obtaining just this sort of technology. And this travesty occurred at the same time that the Chinese were enabling Pakistan to develop a nuclear capability and were assisting Iran and North Korea with their missile programs. I can think of no greater example of calculated stupidity and unthinking betrayal over the past 40 years.

So who benefits from it? And who pays if these sorts of miscalculations go wrong? A memory surfaces here, of World War II soldiers lamenting that the Japanese artillery coming their way was made from scrap metal that American businessmen had sold a few years earlier for a profit.

But let us speak of the present, and the future. Does our nation have a strategy in the wake of the Cold War? How is the military being used, and positioned for future use?

From this outside observer's studied referent, there is not a clear strategy, particularly one that is driving the makeup of our armed forces. The last clearly enunciated strategy of this sort was the Nixon Doctrine, announced in 1969, which laid down three benchmarks for U.S. defense policy: that we would provide a nuclear umbrella for our nonnuclear allies and work vigorously against nuclear proliferation, that we would honor our treaty commitments, and that we would provide assistance to other friendly nations defending themselves from external threats if such actions were in the national interest of the United States.

The U.S. military is becoming quite sophisticated in meeting lower-end threats such as those it recently encountered in Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia, and has made impressive doctrinal strides in such areas as the potential use of force in littoral regions. But focusing on these scenarios in the absence of a clearly enunciated global strategy puts our overall force structure at greater risk. We can do this job well and so we fund it, but we should be careful about when we do it: the fruitless commitment to Somalia where we have no treaties, no national interest, and initially had no forces at risk is perhaps the classic example of how not to use the U.S. military.

On the larger scale, in the face of truly serious threats, we are the only credible guarantor of deterrence and stability in the free world. The potential for such threats is real, and their dynamics are unpredictable. Korea is, as always, a tinderbox. The Islamic world is galvanizing and gaining ever more sophisticated weaponry. Historical references are flawed, but Russia increasingly reminds one of Weimar Germany, and China or Japan in the 1930s. If we cease to structure our forces in a way that can defeat these and other threats, the probability of their occurrence will increase. And to state the obvious, it is impossible to rebuild and train a larger navy in six months or a year if the world turns ugly again and requires us to sustain a large-scale military presence in a vital region. Nowhere are we so vulnerable in this new era as in the reduced size of our Navy.

This is not to diminish the difficulties of the Army and the Air Force, which have seen dramatic reductions since the end of the Cold War. But these changes largely were the product of our reduced presence in NATO Europe, and that presence was a historical anomaly for the United States. Never before 1949 did our country occupy large positions in foreign countries solely for the purpose of local defense. By contrast, for more than a century we have recognized that the Navy connects us to the world and is essential to its day-to-day security, as well as to our own. Just as Russia, China, and Germany are traditional continental powers, the United States is a maritime nation, by virtue of its geographical position, economic and security interests, cultural ties, and treaty obligations. The NATO reductions actually were a return to a historical normality for the U.S. military. In the decades before World War II, the Navy received roughly half of the national security budget.

The end of the Cold War brought very few changes to the obligations faced by the Navy. It must operate continuously in today's low-threat conditions, and it must be capable of doing even more at the turn of a switch. Its presence around the world on the calmest of days is a signal of global stability, a message that the United States is looking after its economic and security interests. Its ability to maneuver and respond at crisis points is the single most important measure of our day-to-day credibility. If the threat increases, the Navy-Marine Corps doctrine of amphibious power projection in the littoral regions of the globe allows us to assert our interests without the diplomatic frustrations and operational vulnerability of ground bases. And the capability of putting a sustainable logistical train in place during major engagements, coupled with the power of the fleet, is an essential ingredient of national strategy.

What Has Happened to the Navy in the Past Decade?

Our effort to build a 600-ship Navy during the 1980s was in reality a rather modest comeback from a period of serious neglect. I had argued in writing before becoming Secretary of the Navy that we should return to historical normality by reducing our presence in NATO and increasing the size of the fleet. The morning I resigned as Secretary rather than agreeing to a reduction in the fleet, I made a half-joking comment to Larry Garrett, then my Under secretary, that I did not choose to be remembered as the father of the 350-ship Navy. Never did I imagine that the Navy's leaders would allow the devastation that now has resulted in a 300-ship Navy, with the numbers continuing to sink. If present construction schedules hold, we may be headed for a 200-ship Navy.

By fiscal year 2001, the Navy will have reduced the size of the fleet by 45% since my resignation if it meets its procurement goals. Since 1992, the size of the fleet has decreased by 31%, while operations tempo has increased by 26%. More than half of the ships in the Navy are at sea on any given day, and a majority of those are forward deployed. The aircraft mishap rate in 1998 was nearly double the previous year's, the highest level in the past five years. Recruitment is off dramatically, 7,000 below requirements, the worst of all the services. Enlisted retention is below requirements and all the warfighting communities forecast serious officer retention problems. Funding for ship and aircraft modernization has decreased by more than 50% since 1990. The people who are leaving cite more and more frequently that their primary reason is disappointment in the quality of leadership they are receiving.

These are all signs of a force that is growing tired, fraying around the edges. And what is the Navy's leadership proposing in response to this dilemma? The answer on the table right now is to cut back infrastructure, to size down the bases so that they meet the reductions in the fleet. In other words, rather than argue against the dangerous reduction of the fleet, they are accepting permanently its reduction by removing the infrastructure that supported larger numbers. Their only other substantive proposal is to bring back the 50% retirement package, as if 10% more in retirement pay alone is going to keep the overworked and underappreciated 25-year-old in the system.

Those of us who have been around for a while including today's admirals have seen all of this before, although not at this truly dangerous level. When I was commissioned in 1968, there were 930 combatants in the Navy. We had the high operations tempo of Vietnam, but we did not have the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In the post-Vietnam malaise, the traditional strategic arguments were discredited, the careful warnings were disregarded, and by 1979, the Navy had bottomed out at 479 combatants. Then the Indian Ocean commitments began after the twin crises in Iran and Afghanistan. Operations tempo became unbearable as it became necessary to keep carriers continually on station. The Independence (CV-62) made a 210-day deployment with eight days ashore. The Nimitz (CVN-68) made a 146-day deployment with no days ashore. Ships fell into disrepair. People voted with their feet until the Navy was short 23,000 petty officers. My Navy peers came up with a cynical slogan: Make commander and get your divorce.

This vision haunted me in late 1987 and early 1988, when we were faced with again reducing the size of the fleet. As we argued the issue, I had my staff come up with a chart that covered several decades. On it I had them plot three curves: size of the fleet, operational commitments assigned to the Navy by the National Command Authorities, and retention. Predictably, it was shown that operational commitments did not vary with the size of the fleet. And retention went down along with the "bathtub" effect of fleet reduction. So after three attempts to meet budget reductions without reducing the fleet were rejected, I decided that I would not walk the fleet back from our goal of 600 ships into the bathtub where the Navy now resides.

Why is this happening again? Because Navy leaders were unable or unwilling to make the case for a larger Navy, and as a result failed to educate Congress and the public. They didn't fight at 600 ships. They didn't fight at 500. They didn't fight at 400. They are telling the world that 300 is fine and doable, while they are on the way to 200. And so I return to my initial observation. In a world where fewer and fewer policymakers have any connection to the military, and where the political process knows less and less about matters of strategy, leadership, and the intricacies of force structure planning, whose duty should it be to bring forward the logic and the answers? The senior admirals should not be selling 300 ships to the Navy. They should be arguing 400 ships, or more, to the nation.

Those leaders who comfortably claim that the notion of civilian control precludes them from arguing their own case should study the success of the Marine Corps, for arguing its own case is exactly what it did in the late 1940s, when it was threatened with extinction. And in a different form, it is what Marine Corps leaders continue to do today. Military subservience to political control applies to existing policy, not to policy debates. The political process requires the unfettered opinions of military leaders, and military leaders who lack the courage to offer such opinions are just as accountable to their people as the politicians who have secured their silence.

The silence of the admirals as the fleet shrinks and their sailors continue to do more with less has not gone unnoticed. An October 1998 Proceedings article pointing out that only one in ten Navy junior officers in a recent study aspires to command and that number not even addressing the issue of quality is an ominous warning. A lot of reasons were given, but two messages came through loud and clear. The first was that money alone won't solve the problem. Americans never have been mercenaries, and although it is the duty of their leaders to provide for their well-being, they cannot be bought. The second was an overwhelming disenchantment with the Navy's senior leaders. I heard these same two messages again and again during a recent discussion with junior aviators in Japan.

This breakdown in the junior officer corps is troubling, for it hints of a fundamental change in the Navy's culture, probably fueled in equal parts by the Goldwater-Nichols legislation and the effects of the Tailhook scandal on Navy leadership. Command is tough, risky, lonely the most challenging job an officer can have. But it also is the very emblem of traditional military service. It is what dedicated officers always have lived for and aspired to. The greatest experience of my professional life has been the privilege of commanding Marines at the platoon and company levels. And what is a military service whose leaders do not aspire to command? It becomes a gutless bureaucracy, pushing papers and taking a paycheck.

These young officers did not come into the Navy with this attitude. The circumstances of their careers have inflicted it on them.

When leadership fails, sometimes a fundamental shift overtakes a unit, or a military service, or a nation, that is so profound that it can change an entire ethos. Most often it occurs gradually, not because of decisions taken by senior leaders so much as from their inaction, an acquiescence to insistent, incremental pressures generated from the outside. Usually, the leaders, reacting to and sometimes overwhelmed by these pressures, are the ones who comprehend the changes the least, and in some cases cannot perceive what has happened until it is too late for them to protect even their own legacy.

Let's hope that this will not be the epitaph for a U.S. Navy on its way to 200 ships and a third-rate future. Its history, its traditions, and its special place at the center of all that is great about this country demand that those who serve of whatever rank and level of experience do what they can to explain to the American people that the Navy must be led from within, that what has happened over the past ten years is not right, and that what is left is not enough.

EDITOR'S NOTE : This is a modified version of an address, "Military Leadership in a Changing Society," Naval War College's Ethics Conference, November 1998.

Mr. Webb served as a full committee counsel in Congress, as an Assistant Secretary of Defense, and as Secretary of the Navy. His novel Emperor's General will be published by Broadway Books in April.

 

James Webb was Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration and is the author of several best-selling books, including A Country Such as This (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), Fields of Fire (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), and A Sense of Honor (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995). His new novel, set in Vietnam, is Lost Soldiers (New York: Bantam, 2001). The preceding is an edited excerpt from his address to the Sixth Annual U.S. Naval Institute Warfare Exposition and Symposium on 3 October 2001 in Virginia Beach. To order audiotapes or audio CDs from past Naval Institute Seminars (all sessions since 1994 have been recorded), including Secretary Webb's full address and question-and-answer session, call A.V.E.R. Associates at 410-796-8940.

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