What Would Stephen Decatur Do?

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Lest you think this is about me trying to impress you with my combat experiences, I will tell you that this mission was cancelled. Other men had to deal with far greater tests than I had faced that night, because the firebase was overrun before we could get to it.

But the fear I felt was very real, and I sincerely believe that I was ready to carry out that mission for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that Stephen Decatur was watching over my shoulder.

Many times in my career I had to face difficult circumstances where fear, or self-promotion, or greed, or fatigue, or some other negative force tried to take control of me, to override my doing what I knew was right, if not easy. And in those situations, while I relied on my naval training, my patriotism, and the values given to me by parents, teachers, mentors, and the like, I also relied upon my naval heritage to fight the temptation to take the easy path. Knowing what others before me had been able to do under arduous circumstances was a powerful motivator when facing difficult situations. I truly believe that a rich heritage can serve as an inspirational force when ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary things.

One of the things that convinces me that I am right about this is that the Marines effectively use their heritage as a motivational leadership tool. Yet, even though we often acknowledge their success at this, we in the Navy don't do the same—at least not consistently and not nearly as effectively. We've all heard the stories of asking sailors and Marines when their respective service birthdays are and finding that the Marines all know the answer, but sailors often don't even understand the question.

When I bring this up in various forums, I often hear the refrain "But we're not Marines, and we have a different culture from them." While this may be true, it serves more as an excuse than a reason for our failure to take good advantage of a useful leadership tool. Our cultures may be different, but that does not mean we cannot change. It also does not mean that we cannot successfully borrow from the culture of our sister service. There is precedent!

Those guiding values of honor, courage, and commitment that we profess as our core values actually belonged to the Marines before we adopted them. We also modeled our "Battle Stations" event at boot camp after the "Crucible" at Parris Island. Have we somehow grown thicker necks because we now live by the same core values as the Marines? Were we wrong to adopt Battle Stations? Are we any less sailors as a result?

The Navy's heritage is every bit as rich as that of the Marines. Yet we largely squander a valuable leadership tool by failing to embrace our enviable heritage as they do. We can do worse than borrowing from the finest Marine Corps in the world and arguably the most admired of all the U.S. armed services. Let us not allow cultural differences or service pride to get in the way. Let us learn from our sister service. Let us find ways for every sailor to bond with the likes of Stephen Decatur.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler , senior acquisitions editor at the Naval Institute Press, enlisted in the Navy at 17 and was a gunner's mate second class prior to being commissioned in 1969. A Vietnam veteran, he wrote Brown Water, Black Berets, published by the Press.


Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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