The Navy Can Handle the Truth: Creative Friction without Conflict

By Lieutenant Commander Claude G. Berube, U.S. Navy Reserve

From Carrier to "Destroyermen"

In April 2008, the Public Broadcasting System debuted the ten-part series Carrier , depicting life and work on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68) during its six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf. This series was no 1950s-era Victory at Sea , an award-winning documentary of naval warfare during World War II, nor did it appear to be a standard visit of the media to big decks. Instead, the approach of Carrier was far more familiar to a generation raised on MTV's Real World and other reality-based television programs. The Los Angeles Times dubbed it "one of the riskier and more unconventional public relations strategies in U.S. naval history." 3

For ten hours viewers were given extraordinary insight into the ship's daily routine from flight operations through food services. Like primetime reality programs, it provided a look at the crew (edited by the producers, not the Navy) that ran the gamut of emotions, opinions, maturity, and even legalities. The Sailors represented the geographical diversity of the United States and the range of its people. From utter commitment to the job at hand to fundamental unawareness of the mission, from the racist quickly drummed out of the service to the crewman with the pregnant girlfriend and the petty officer whose natural on-camera wit might make him most likely to succeed Marine-turned-comedian and Daily Show regular Rob Riggle. 4

The documentary was honest—it showed the good, the bad, and the ugly. Despite the pettiness or the joking or the apathy, despite all this and more, the ship carried out her mission, was prepared to respond if called on, and returned with her crew. As one anonymous Navy blogger wrote about the program:

Although we do not recruit exclusively from the ranks of the Vienna Boy's Choir, we do work in close proximity—sometimes very close proximity—with some truly great people. Not everyone gets to fly a fighter off a carrier deck or rage into the break at 500 knots, but most sailors know that they are integral contributors to something important. Something bigger than themselves. 5

Lost by critics and supporters of the show alike may have been a far more national and global implication. This is the real Navy, warts and all. And despite those warts, the Nimitz and her crew, and the entire strike group, conducted and accomplished the mission. But Carrier isn't the only example of this exposure; in fact, it dovetails well into an experiment conducted on board the USS Russell (DDG-59) during her 2008 deployment.

The brainchild of the ship's executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Chris van Avery, who also earlier maintained his own blog, "The Destroyermen" (destroyermen.blogspot.com) was a collaborative effort among the ship's crew to "deliver an authentic, unvarnished, informative and entertaining account of life aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer." 6 The blog started upon deployment of the Russell and received more than 30,000 visitors in its first 45 days.

"The Destroyermen" did not pass through any public affairs officer or the Navy's Chief of Information (CHINFO) at the Pentagon. Largely self-regulated, posts were written by the crew and reviewed by the executive officer and commanding officer to ensure there was no violation of operational security or issues that might have been a violation of Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which restricts contempt of officials.

Navy Bloggers

Navy bloggers have no requirement to be vetted through CHINFO. Some anonymous bloggers are on active duty or retired and comment on Navy issues while others have no military experience but possess more than a passing interest in maritime matters. Bloggers are a relatively new phenomenon, challenging long-established media outlets as a primary or secondary source of news and information. Should they be taken seriously as part of the discussion and commentary?

As opposed to traditional media such as newspapers, radio programs, and television news and even news Web sites, blogs can offer "more depth in the discussion of a specific topic . . . because the commentary can add historical context, additional details, expanded analysis, and links to more information." 7

Most Navy bloggers are anonymous and largely independent of the Navy, and just as they can be quick to praise, they also have the freedom to be critical. According to one Navy blogger, they "offer readers analysis of ideas or analysis for an alternative idea, and a blog represents a medium for those discussions." 8 Perhaps because they have no allegiance to a larger corporate entity such as a defense contractor or a platform's program office at the Pentagon they are free to debate issues as they arise. This leads, however, to the issue of credibility.

Bloggers might be akin to the 18th century newspapers. Often printed by one-man shops (like young Benjamin Franklin publishing Poor Richard's Almanac ), they had little ability to report issues beyond their own township. But for local issues, they had to be reliable and credible if they were to survive. One contemporary example occurred during the 2004 election when news anchor Dan Rather claimed he had a document that stated President George W. Bush had evaded the draft; it was a blogger who exposed the letter as a forgery. Another was the case of Scott Beauchamps, whose 2007 articles in the New Republic about alleged misconduct by troops in Iraq were exposed by military bloggers who found inconsistencies in his reports.

While anyone can establish a blog, it is far more difficult to create a consistent product and gain a significant following. The number of bloggers focused on the Navy for example, appear to have been reduced to about a half dozen in the top tier who have continuously updated content and growing readership. If one blog has erroneous information, there are enough other bloggers to set the record straight. In addition to the bloggers themselves are the visitors, sometimes experts in their respective fields, who also post anonymously but add to the debate through comments. Author Andrew Sullivan echoes this in a recent article in which he wrote that "the high standards of well-trafficked bloggers spilled over into greater accountability, transparency, and punctiliousness among the media powers that were." 9

But just as the bloggers are quick to correct each other, they appear to engage and dispute one another with facts rather than simply empty hyperbole or insults. One recent example of this phenomena spilled over to the pages of the new U.S. Naval Institute blog ( http://blog.usni.org ). Despite their Web-based anonymity, they were remarkably civil. When asked about this observation, one of the disputing bloggers suggested they "can have creative friction without conflict; respect begets respect." 10

A New Audience

Bloggers, as part of the new medium, offer another path for the Navy to reach out to both traditional and non-traditional audiences. "If the Navy wanted to target a naval-centric audience or desires participation by bloggers well versed in naval issues, they would want to remain open to anonymous bloggers." 11 In the first year of "Information Dissemination's" blog, the site receives 1,500 visitors per day. The blog "cdr salamander" receives about the same while "SteelJaw Scribe" receives approximately 350 to 400 per day with some articles producing spikes of 1,000 visitors. These may be far more, for example, than the recent community audiences for informing the public of the new maritime strategy.

One benefit of reaching out to Navy bloggers not directly affiliated with the Department of the Navy is to gauge interest in specific Navy programs. Search strings on topics such as the Littoral Combat Ship might enable the Navy to understand items of interest to the general public or particular government organizations (including the U.S. House and Senate, industry, other military services and other media) and consequently adapt its own opportunities for outreach. Blogger "Steeljaw Scribe" found that one of his assessments, "China's ASAT—The Problem with Debris," was linked to one of China's space agency Web sites. 12 "Information Dissemination," for example, notes that his site had thousands more visits from the search string "Conversations with the Country" (at the time of the maritime strategy dialogue with community leaders nationwide) "than the reported number of people who have actually participated in all those events combined." 13 Steeljaw Scribe notes that there is a community and segment that needs to be reached by the Navy. He suggested that "Conversations with the Country" was "great for the 1980s and okay for today, but it was a limited audience with little follow-through and only limited discussion. After the new maritime strategy's release, however, the conversation really occurred consistently on a few blogs, such as the specific issue of the strategy's influence on force structure—as it did in the 1980s." 14

In addition to those bloggers with little direct affiliation with the Navy are the military bloggers themselves, active military members who maintain blogs either anonymously or under their own name. Components of the Army, for example, decided to embrace the idea of individual soldiers' blogs. "This has dramatically increased the Army's ability to communicate its story, to build the nation's trust in its Soldiers and capabilities, and to educate citizens about its efforts on their behalf." 15

One blogger suggests that "the Navy's current outreach effort to bloggers, or rather its few outreach attempts to date, has created a default relationship between the Navy and naval-centric bloggers that the Navy may not fully appreciate." But this seems to have changed in recent months. Other bloggers have been embedded last year on ships such as the USS Kearsage (LHD-3) and the USS Freedom (LCS-1).

Outreach to the Blogosphere

The traditional methods of communication have included press releases and press conferences with reporters from various newspapers. In March 2008, however, the Navy took an unprecedented step into this particular new medium when one flag officer participated in a conference call on Blogtalkradio ( www.blogtalkradio.com ) and responded to questions posed by several Navy bloggers. Participants were not provided any instructions or guidance on topics. One thought the format was "surprisingly open and allow[ed] for depth in discussion and follow up questions." The success of that blogger round table was followed up a month later with a discussion on the reestablishment of 4th Fleet. By the fall of 2008, such events had become commonplace.

For every one of the examples above, there are examples where openness has not been the case, whether for operational security or other reasons. It is possible that some commands may be reticent to trust their own people or are overly cautious about all journalists because they may have been bitten by a few. Freedom of speech or openness to the press are not simply excuses to criticize nor powers to be feared; they are about expanding ideas and embracing opportunities that advance knowledge and civilizations. Displaying the Navy's people and platforms is largely a positive direction.

Today's military is comprised of an all-volunteer force. In the current environment, due to largely to changing missions, budgetary constraints, and varying priorities, the Navy continues to shrink in terms of both ships and personnel, decreasing the already minimal familiarity of the general American public with its Sea Services. Bullets and shells may win the battles, but words and ideas define the war and mobilize or sway the requisite public opinion to win it. Therefore, it is important for the Navy to recognize that one of America's greatest strengths—its freedom of speech—can be its own force multiplier. This freedom allows for creativity, the engine of culture, the economy, and the military; dictatorial powers largely experience the relative creative stagnation regnant in a closed society.

The consequences of such freedom, such openness, such glasnost should serve as a warning to potential future peer competitors. Likewise, it is an important reminder to national leaders that our nation's strength is based on our own "glasnost" and not government regulation of thoughts and ideas. Today's Carrier , "Destroyermen," and Navy bloggers could be a subtle, but nevertheless important, aspect to future military and national success.

 



1. Admiral William Crowe, Jr., The Line of Fire: From Washington, the Politics and Battles of the New Military (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), pp. 274-279.

2. Crowe, p. 80.

3. Martin Miller, "PBS' ' Carrier': This message approved," Los Angeles Times , 26 April 2008.

4. A Marine veteran, comedian, former featured player on Saturday Night Live , and now "correspondent" on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show .

5. "Gambling that You'll Get It," http://www.neptunuslex.com/2008/04/26/gambling-that-youll-get-it/

6. http://www.yankeesailor.us/

7. www.informationdissemination.blogspot.com . Email exchange with the author, 4 May 2008.

8. Ibid.

9. Andrew Sullivan, "Why I Blog," The Atlantic , November 2008, p. 109.

10. Email exchanges with "Galrahn" and "CDR Salamander" with the author on 9 January 2009.

11. Ibid.

12. http://steeljawscribe.blogspot.com/2007/01/chinas-asat-problem-with-debr...

13. www.informationdissemination.blogspot.com . Email exchange with the author, 4 May 2008.

14. Steeljaw Scribe interview

15. MAJ Elizabeth Robbins, USA, "Muddy Boots IO: The Rise of Soldier Blogs," Military Review , September-October 2007, p. 111.

Lieutenant Commander Berube served with Expeditionary Strike Group Five (2004-05) and currently teaches at the United States Naval Academy. His next book, on U.S. naval crises, will be published by the Naval Institute Press.

 

 

Claude Berube has worked for the Office of Naval Intelligence and on Capitol Hill. In 2004, as a Navy Reserve officer, he deployed with Expeditionary Strike Group Five to the Persian Gulf. He is the coauthor of three works of non-fiction and over thirty articles and teaches at the U. S. Naval Academy.

Photograph by Jillian Crim

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