'Worse Than a Crime - A Mistake'

By Captain J. M. van Tol, U.S. Navy (Retired)

I inherited a severe disciplinary problem in my LHD command. The primary reasons for it were failures to use the Chiefs' Mess properly to run (and discipline) the ship, employ a consistent "swift punishment, swift reward" philosophy, and use Captain's Mast as a disciplinary rather than a counseling tool. 3 Reversing those failures led to rapid restoration of command discipline; there were zero liberty incidents attracting foreign attention among that large crew for my entire last year on board, which included two months at home in a semi-tropical summertime Sasebo that offers regrettably few distractions for young Sailors. The apparent paradox—but not paradoxical at all—was that this was accompanied by an exceptionally low Mast rate and high crew morale.

There is nothing particularly difficult about establishing proper discipline, the kind that is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing. Indeed, it is nothing more than "Naval Leadership 101," which relies fundamentally on treating one's subordinates in practice—not merely in pretty rhetoric—as adults and fellow professionals. If you treat people like adults and professionals, they will behave that way. It also entails treating people as individuals, not imposing constraints on entire groups (e.g., all E-3 and below) or even whole crews, in the false hope of deterring the odd bad apple.

How Not to Lead

What will not create the self-reinforcing "virtuous circle" that results in sustained well-disciplined, professional behavior are things like these: 

  • In loco parentis mentality . Too many commanding officers and seniors treat Sailors as if they were children to be protected from themselves, and then are surprised at the subsequent infantilization of some of them. Former CNO Admiral Vern Clark, during his confirmation testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, was asked by Senator John Warner (R-VA) how he would "take care of his Sailors." Clark answered to the effect of, "Senator, that's not my job. My job is to treat them as professionals and provide them the resources they need to succeed." Exactly!
  • Intrusive leadership . In my nearly 29 years of service, I did not encounter a more sinister, nay, Stalinist slogan or policy. For a variety of reasons, worthy and unworthy, three-star leadership has tasked unit leaders at various levels to become familiar (in great detail) with what was going on in the lives of their subordinates, supposedly to deal preemptively with personal problems that could lead to suicide, risk-taking, unsafe practices, and disciplinary problems. While that sounds laudable and compassionate in theory, it comes at the cost of incredible intrusions into peoples' private lives. More subtly and insidiously, it undercuts personal responsibility, dignity, and confidence in one's judgment and abilities. It is one of the most pernicious policies ever foisted on the Fleet.


  • Re-education camp mentality . Every liberty incident now requires a report up the chain of command, explaining in detail whether and how the command might have been delinquent in not foreseeing the offense. Units waste countless hours in getting the reports right lest some "blast" come back from on high for errors of omission or commission. Comparison with the old communist re-education camps in which offenders were required to engage in ritualistic self-criticism is irresistible.


  • Collective punishment and universal regulation . Few things bother hard-working, well-behaved Sailors as much as the perception of being punished for the sins of a tiny percentage of miscreants. Restrictive unit policies, especially those imposed from outside the lifelines, which put unfair burdens on the vast majority of Sailors who perform and behave well, are exceptionally counter-productive and costly in the currency of morale. Mindlessly adding layer after layer of "one size fits all" regulations and detailed policies in an absurd attempt to "prevent that kind of event from ever happening again" is profoundly ineffective, and only adds to the problem by creating large numbers of justifiably resentful Sailors. Having pro forma standdowns to do collective penance (and to answer the "do something!" imperative) is worse than useless since it invariably heightens the cynicism of the not-guilty and does nothing to deter the others.


  • Guilty before being proven innocent . The so-called "Exceptional Sailor" program mandates that junior Sailors reporting to an FDNF unit wait six months before they can be declared "exceptional" and be subject to a somewhat less onerous set of liberty restrictions. Apart from the Orwellian language (are "exceptional" Sailors really that unusual?), the implicit assumption is that newly arriving Sailors are suspect until they prove that they're not screw-ups. Is that really how a first-rate organization greets new people?


  • The "good and faithful servant" mentality . Many commanders dutifully (and properly) impose whatever restrictions they are ordered to impose by higher authority, but then often add their own additional restrictions to demonstrate the ostensible seriousness with which they are taking the guidance from higher up.

    These are some of the things that dismay and demoralize the typical good Sailor based in Japan (and no doubt elsewhere). But wait, there's more!

    These policies not only infantilize Sailors, but when inflicted from outside the lifelines, they undercut the authority and discretion (and ultimately self-confidence) of commanding officers as well. Imposing universal rules from on high devalues the judgment traditionally expected from those in whom the Navy supposedly "reposes special trust and confidence." Senior leadership merely reinforces a risk-averse, "Mother, may I?" mentality in which many COs are more concerned with avoiding error than accomplishing positive things. Do we really want cowering COs? Is this what COs are supposed to be? If the Navy is selecting officers for command who cannot maintain discipline, then there is something very wrong with the selection system—or it is selecting officers based on the wrong metrics. But de facto taking the primary responsibility for crew discipline out of COs' hands is deeply perverse and antithetical to every principle of good naval leadership.

    Trust Your People

    The real underpinning to good order and discipline is trust in your Sailors (and prompt condign punishment of the occasional guilty one), not the constant mistrust of our people exemplified by the restrictive policies prevalent in the FDNF. But it must be genuine trust. COs and higher authority must walk the walk if they talk the talk of trust. This really amounts to no more than the traditional maxim of giving people responsibility and holding them accountable, and it works. 4

    Tellingly, no one at COMSEVENTHFLT or COMNAVFORJAPAN was ever interested in understanding why the conduct of my LHD crew completely turned around, and how similar policies might have helped reduce liberty incidents elsewhere. Perhaps it sounds cynical, but too many leaders seem to find it easier simply to issue more rules and regulations—just because they can.

    But there is a real cost to ignoring basic naval leadership principles. Sailors are smart, smell hypocrisy instantly, and will walk if the conditions of employment and daily life are onerous enough. If the CNO really wants to make the Navy competitive in the "war for talent" and make it "a top 50 company to work for," he and senior Navy leadership won't get there by tolerating policies and mentalities that make a 30-year-old married E-6 file a detailed liberty plan requiring approval from a superior and check-up phone calls to ensure it's being followed to the letter.

    Ultimately, the FDNF liberty policy issue is a small reflection of a much more serious problem of pervasive risk aversion at all levels within a Navy that today still remains largely a peacetime organization. But that is a more complex subject for another day.


    1. Gidget Fuentes, "Kitty Hawk sailors chafe under liberty rules," Navy Times website, posted 23 December 2007 9:49:18 EST, http://www.navytimes.com/news/2007/12/navy_liberty_071217w/ .

    2. Indeed, proper behavior and discipline will become more important than ever in light of recent serious incidents, including the April arrest of a U.S. Sailor for killing a Japanese taxi driver.

    3. Mast was held within 72 hours of an offense if the CPO Disciplinary Review Board determined that the matter could not be resolved by the Chiefs' Mess. Recognition of fine performance was just as quick.

    4. As a case in point, my liberty drinking policy was that the local liberty port drinking age was the drinking age for my crew, whether that was 18 or 21. I never had a moment's worry or regret over that policy, since I knew the crew had every interest in keeping a good thing going, thus were highly motivated to police one another.

    Captain van Tol commanded three warships while on active duty, most recently the USS Essex (LHD-2). He retired in 2007 and now works as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, DC.


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