Absence of Purpose

By Captain Wade R. Sanders, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)

Navy pay continues to be lower than that of comparable civilian occupations, but the reality is that it is better now than ever. Deployments may seem long, but at an average of six months, they are shorter than at any time in Navy history. There is no shortage of qualified enlistment candidates, and as the Marine Corps has demonstrated, the challenge of marketing to Generation X can be met successfully. Besides, Generation X already is being displaced in the continuing cycle of youth cultures.

Another interesting factor in recruiting, although not addressed by the Navy directly, is the end of the Cold War. The abrupt disappearance of a clear enemy has created a climate of uncertainty within our society, and has blurred the role of the United States and its armed services in domestic and international matters. Coincidentally, this must create a similar uncertainty among those who serve in those armed forces. It certainly is arguable that this would make it more difficult for recruiters to stimulate patriotic or cultural feelings of duty in our youth.

My contention, therefore, is that even if the Navy fixed all of these problems, and made a sailor's life as pleasant as it possibly could be, the retention and recruiting crisis would continue. Why? Because Navy leadership, in its search for answers, continues to focus on external matters. It is time for the Navy to take a hard look inward, at how it is operating in the present circumstances of global transition. Forgive the pun, but a little naval contemplation is in order. As that great American sage, Pogo, once observed, "We have met the enemy and the enemy is us."

This is not rocket science. The simple fact is that there is a problem obtaining and retaining personnel because the Navy is not the kind of place where enough people want to be. My intent is not to discredit the Navy's efforts to date, but rather to suggest a different focus and a more holistic process of improvement. Before we can understand the recruiting crisis, we must find out why sailors stay and why they leave. After all, our veterans are our most effective recruiters. What they tell their friends and families about their Navy experience matters.

In a recent fleet survey, our sailors and officers, as well as their families, were asked how they felt about their Navy careers. Among the usual concerns about housing, pay, and deployments, many of our Navy men and women noted that they feel the service is "rudderless," and that they do not matter to the Navy's leadership; that they are not part of something greater that matters to their country; and that what they do is not important.

During the time I served in the Department of the Navy, I traveled the globe to assess the readiness of our total force. In general, I found that the Marines were clear on who they were and what they were doing. They had a strong sense of community and purpose and seemed to feel a personal connection with their leaders, all the way to the Commandant, whom they spoke of with awe and affection. In contrast, most of the Navy personnel I encountered expressed feelings of malaise, confusion, and sadness, along with the usual complaints on pay and deployment schedules. Although some spoke well of their immediate leaders, they felt that they did not matter to senior Navy leadership and that outside of their immediate crew, they had no greater purpose, no sense of community. There also was a feeling of alienation from the civilian world, a belief that what they did was not important to or appreciated by society.

I do not mean to imply that the Navy is bereft of leaders, or that it is, in fact, rudderless. What I will say is that based on my experience, today's Navy does not nurture or encourage the kind of enlightened and inspirational leaders who might be capable of dispelling the aforementioned feelings. Such leaders are few and becoming fewer. Without them, there is little to demonstrate to the men and women of the Navy that a military career is more than just a job, more than an adventure. Nor do Navy leaders do enough to educate their sailors on the probable future of the United States in the emerging global environment, or on a sailor's role in and contribution to that future.

It is both dangerous and naive to think that the lowest ranking sailors are not affected by the tone and example set by their most senior leaders. During my tour in the Navy secretariat, I too often saw the cautious, self-serving keepers of the status quo rewarded and advanced, while the innovative and inspirational were pushed aside. Our sailors noticed this, too.

I met too few people who were willing to speak their convictions, or to speak up when they encountered waste and incompetence, and I saw those who dared be ignored or punished. Our sailors noticed this, too.

I saw too little courage and loyalty, and I watched as honorable men and women were sacrificed to political expediency and correctness. Our sailors noticed this, too.

Time and again, I heard Navy leaders declare that "our sailors are our most important assets," even as they were approving spending programs that stripped funds sorely needed to ensure the quality of life of those same sailors. I listened to hours of talk about new platforms and airplanes, but saw precious few moments devoted to dealing with the welfare of our sailors. Our sailors noticed this, too.

I watched Pentagon warriors, secure in their careers and comfortable offices, curtail—and sometimes eliminate—leadership, incentive, and awards programs designed to motivate and reward our hard-working sailors at sea. Our sailors noticed this, too.

Most of all, I witnessed the steady erosion of the Navy's heart and spirit in a pernicious atmosphere of zero defects, driven by elements of leadership terrified of external criticism and apparently committed to self-preservation at all costs. This destructive environment was, and may still be, dominated and enforced by an Inspector General system that operated far beyond the scope of its charter and common decency. Our sailors noticed this, too.

There is a great similarity between an organization and a family. For either to function at its best, each member must have a sense of identity and purpose, and he must be woven into the larger community that shares that purpose and imbues its members with a sense of belonging. The Navy is a family, and a healthy family needs leaders capable of inspiring loyalty and optimal performance, who clearly demonstrate their love and caring. Those who are courageous and committed, who back their people up, regardless of political considerations, self-survival, or "60 Minutes," demonstrate that kind of leadership. Those who are capable of forgiveness, and who do the right thing, every time, provide that kind of leadership. Sailors who are being asked to go in harm's way are entitled to no less a measure, and they notice its absence.

The Navy must restore and replenish its soul. For me, this process began with my first day in service, and continued as seasoned petty officers introduced me to responsibilities and loyalties greater than myself: to my shipmates and to the lives entrusted to me. For some, the bonds of trust and love were forged in combat; for others, they were born in the daily and arduous tasks of maintaining peace. But wherever they were spawned and nurtured, we all learned that every decision we make calls on us to act on our personal integrity and willingness to sacrifice for our comrades. There is no more powerful commitment, and it is the essence of the Navy community, its leadership, and its spirit, and is embodied in the word shipmate.

I believe the Marine Corps has it right, and the Navy would do well to draw from the many studies on leadership produced by the Corps. To paraphrase Marine General John Lagan, men and women don't die for their country or their flag; they sacrifice their lives for the love of the men and women who stand beside them in battle. This sentiment was echoed by a survivor of one of the bloodiest battles of Mogadishu, who was asked if his friends had died in vain because of the political uncertainty of the Somalia mission. His response speaks volumes:

"Maybe my sergeant died so I could be here now," the young man said, with tears in his eyes. "Maybe that was the reason he died."

What has happened to this spirit in the Navy? The most prevalent attitude among our young whitehats and officers, driven by an unforgiving competitive process, seems to be one of "looking out for number one."

There is much that service leaders can do to restore the heart of the Navy and renew its sense of purpose and family. Enlightened leadership needs to be identified and nurtured. The kind of initiative and individuality that inspired our Navy in past conflicts must be encouraged. By example, they need to inject into our sailors the virtues of honor, love, duty, loyalty, discipline, compassion, and courage. Without these, the family spirit breaks down, and retention problems, alienation, lack of purpose, and even unit failure under fire begin to manifest themselves.

Specifically, the Navy must reinvigorate its core of leadership, especially its petty officers, who have been weakened by the well-meaning application of inappropriate civilian corporate management techniques. Consensus building and process action teams have merit, but they must be tempered by the reality of the military mission: to be ready at a moment's notice to go into harm's way. Decisiveness is not a flaw; it is a necessary element of readiness.

Navy leadership must establish an appropriately generous and responsive awards and recognition program. Decisions concerning all awards should be put back where they belong—with the fleet and out of the Pentagon. In the past, these programs have gone a long way toward restoring the pride and professionalism of our sailors.

The Navy needs to moderate its tendency to fix blame and levy punishment. This is especially true in gender-related incidents, where the trend is to repress rather than resolve problems. This does not mean tolerance of wrongdoing, but a commitment to real rather than politically expedient solutions. The destruction of valuable careers is tearing the Navy apart.

Young officers and sailors must be able to learn and grow, but today's Navy leaves little room for error. Chester Nimitz grounded his ship twice, yet his superiors recognized his potential and he went on to lead our forces to victory in the Pacific in World War II. The Navy would be wise to remember that an officer who risks nothing learns nothing.

Many of our sailors feel alienated from, and not appreciated by, society at large. Here, the Navy could take a page from the noted author Dr. Karl Menninger and his observations regarding police officers. In choosing their profession, he says, policemen announce themselves to the world as supermen—ready to act more forcefully, more wisely, more calmly, more bravely, and more law abiding than the average person. To be a police officer also takes intelligence, understanding, kindness, patience, tact, and self-control. But what Dr. Menninger found is that even if the public did not often appreciate these qualities, it was more important that they be appreciated by the police officers themselves. He made a statement in "A Psychiatrist's World" that has great relevance to those who serve in the military:

When members of the police community come to have a higher opinion of themselves, to recognize that they are leaders in the community (the conscience of the community as it were), umpires in the great game of semi-domesticated human beings trying to live peacefully with one another in a complicated world, then they will inspire similar respect, support, and admiration from the public at large.

Our sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen are, after all, the ultimate police force. Protecting our way of life is their responsibility, and it is vital that they understand this and feel good about themselves. It is the responsibility of Navy leaders to engender and encourage that feeling.

Finally, I believe that Navy leadership, both civilian and uniformed, must be drawn from those who are capable of inspiring and leading, not merely adept at budget management and systems analysis. They must have a clear track record of moral courage and absolute dedication to the welfare of their sailors. Beginning in boot camp and the officer-commissioning programs, the Navy needs to focus on weaving those traditions and values into contemporary military life.

This is a long-haul process, and change will come hard and slow to the Navy. Recent messages from Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, however, seem to indicate a revitalization of enlightened Navy leadership. He has acknowledged the need for change, especially with regard to the zero-defects philosophy, and has suggested that the promotion process include a greater willingness to forgive mistakes in otherwise stellar careers. This, as well as his other humanistic initiatives, is very encouraging.

I encourage Secretary Danzig to include in the vital dialogue of readiness and quality of life the most important issue of all: the state of the Navy's heart and spirit. Whatever his flaws may have been, Admiral Mike Boorda had begun the process of creating a happier, more fulfilling Navy. We need to correct our helm and return to that course. If this is done, the word will go out from the Navy, its sailors and veterans, that the U.S. Navy is the place to be.

Captain Sanders served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs from October 1993 until December 1997. He served two combat tours in Vietnam and was decorated for wounds and gallantry in action. Presently, he is running for the House of Representatives in the 49th Congressional District in San Diego, California.



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