Let the Youngsters Live Their Lives

By Ward Carroll

But as I glanced at the driver of the Honda and wondered how he could stand the volume, I saw he was lost in the beat, head bobbing and hands drumming on the steering wheel. The lyrics must have made sense to him because he was matching the singer rap for rap. He looked to be, dare I say, having a great deal of fun.

Then it struck me: perhaps the bumper sticker was right. Maybe he wasn't the problem; maybe I was. What sort of elitist had I become, what sort of pedant, that I could judge what qualified as "real" in the celebration of youth? At that moment, I realized who I was: I was the old guy in the bumper sticker. It was time to let go and give the next generation its due—the consideration that its members will be true to the sense of what moves them. My Paul McCartney was my dad's Elvis Presley and my grandfather's Charlie Parker, and is now my son's Busta Rhymes. Whose goose bumps are more well-defined when listening to their favorites?

Alas the rumblings, from the pages of professional journals, and from idle chatter in the parking lots as the seminars, meetings, and receptions let out; the consensus seems timeless and irrefutable:

  • The Navy used to be more fun.
  • The warrior culture is gone.
  • Today's officers are forced to be careerists.
  • Things are too technical.
  • Nobody has a sense of duty and national service anymore.
  • As a result of all of the above, the defense of our great nation is in jeopardy.

As an officer who until a few months ago was involved in the carrier-based strike warfare side of the Navy, and is now working with midshipmen at Annapolis—members of the next generation of officers—I have a response to the assertions above: Cease buzzer and relax.

Those who feel the six bullets above are true (I'd guess primarily sidetracked active-duty 0-6s and retired senior officers) haven't been paying attention. This isn't 1994, and we're not arguing with SecNav about why we can't give a new guy in the squadron the call sign "Puke" anymore. While you continue to fan the embers (not flames) of dated controversy, the lieutenants and lieutenant commanders of the fleet have been fixing the program, and, I submit, they've been having fun in the process.

No, you say? Which fun are you talking about? The fun of the sea-based race riots in the early 1970s? The Vietnam-era fun of public disdain for the military? The fun of months on Gonzo Station and a failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt?

Or by "fun" do you mean pulling liberty in Subic Bay—you know, old-style liberty, where a man could act like a man, or even a caveman and not worry about getting charged with conduct unbecoming an officer? Are you heartsick because we've lost the ethos of "What happens on cruise stays on cruise?" Hey, that was what trust was all about, brother. How's a guy supposed to figure it out now?

I was deployed with the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Battle Group this time last year, and I saw more esprit and fraternity in that air wing than I'd ever seen in my career, and I've been in five different fighter squadrons, two of them B.T. (Before Tailhook). The Marine Hornet squadron's executive officer was killed in a mid-air while flying in the Gulf. The entire wing banded together and threw a wake during the port call a few days afterward that was as reflective, energetic, and cathartic as any gathering of a group of warriors could be. So tell the junior officers there at the Seaman's Club in Dubai, on a 12-hour strike-ready tether, with tears in their eyes for having known the fallen comrade and conviction in their souls for the missions ahead, that their emotions are somehow invalid.

And yes, I said gathering of warriors. While you were watching Larry King Live and hoping the President was going to get impeached for adultery (what does he think this is, the old days in Subic?) the U.S. Navy was executing strikes into Iraq. While you grew tired of the ethics debate between Ted Danson and William Bennett and began to channel surf, the forward-- deployed surface warfare officers were high-fiving each other because they got their last Tomahawk off and crossing their fingers that it would make it to the target. At the same time, after reading an article you wrote that said women were ruining the service, a female Hornet pilot watched the AAA light show beneath her and responded to radar-warning indications with jinks and expendables while guiding a laser-guided bomb to a direct hit on a chemical munitions bunker. And 200 miles north of her, a Tomcat crew took the war to downtown Baghdad in a jet you said was too old to be effective.

In case you missed it, Desert Fox was a Navy victory that validated the viability of carrier-based warfare in the post-Cold War world. NATO tasking notwithstanding, let the Air Force at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia worry about the lack of a mission and morale as they sit grounded by the host nation's political concerns. Navy crews were too busy rising to the challenge of flying five strikes in three days to hang-dog around and debate their raison d'etre—just as Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) aviators at this writing are too busy flying strikes in support of Operation Allied Force to participate in the discourse on the modern utility of naval power.

As the dust has settled on the watershed issues of the early-- to mid-1990s, the Navy has taken stock of the lessons learned and attempted to implement the proper fixes. Agreed, in a lot of cases the changes aren't happening fast enough, and yes, many good officers are still getting out dissatisfied. So was everybody in the pool for CNO in your day? And was every skipper you worked for Gary Cooper?

And technology isn't a burden, by the way. You had reduction tables and a sextant; they have hand-held satellite navigation systems. If you had a chance to see the rate at which tactics are developing, not only in the wardrooms and ready rooms, but at the weapons schools and centers of excellence that didn't exist in your Navy, you'd realize these guys have the luxury, not the burden, of technology to focus them on the mission.

When you utter statements like those listed in the bullets near the beginning of this article, you're implicitly saying, "My life was better than yours ever has the potential to be," and that's fine. You're old. You probably need to think that. We respect what you've done, but guess what? It's not true. And it's not fair that you should poison the well for the talented folks who are trying to follow you. I've seen it here at the Naval Academy in the attitudes of many of the midshipmen. They have this sense that the Navy is in peril, and their careers are going to be misery. I didn't tell them this; I was too busy planning the war and working 18 hours a day at sea loving life to give them any of these ideas. You told them.

Get out of the auditoriums and visit a ship at sea (talk to a type commander's public affairs officer for an embark) and get yourself back in touch with reality. On any given day off either coast of the United States, you can see crews of patriots fighting the war of the Inter-Deployment Training Cycle, young men and women who don't need to be petitioned on a value-added basis, but possess the same sense that you had about service to country. You'll see the job getting done. You'll see that the defense of the nation is in good hands, maybe even in better hands.

It's a loud message. If it's too loud, you're too old.

Commander Carroll , a radar intercept officer with 2,800 hours in F-14s, is the Director, Company Officer Masters Program, and an instructor in English and Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was the editor of Approach magazine, the naval aviation safety journal, from 1989 to 1991.


Commander Carroll is recently retired from the Navy and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings. He was named Naval Institute Press Author of the Year in 2001 for his novel Punk's War. A sequel, On Punk's Wing, will be published by Penguin-Putnam in spring 2003.

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