Cause for Alarm

By Lieutenant James Drennan, U.S. Navy

Yet righting this ship will require more than emergency responses. First, the Navy should consider a new perspective on the meaning of integrity as it pertains to behavior , distinct from ethics and morality. Second, junior officers must cultivate a sense of individual responsibility for maintaining the highest standard of personal integrity. Otherwise, the Navy is at risk of sacrificing its long sacred standard of command performance, sinking into mediocrity and, eventually, failure.

Gaps in Character

When the alarm for General Quarters is sounded on U.S. Navy ships, the crew immediately shuts certain hatches, valves, and vents for maximum airtight and watertight integrity in the event of emergency. Today, the Navy must take similar action when it comes to personal integrity. Achieving physical integrity in a ship involves the elimination of gaps that would allow the intrusion and spread of dangers like seawater or fire. Personal integrity involves the elimination of inconsistencies between stated principles and behavior. These inconsistencies can be viewed as gaps in a leader’s character. For COs who were relieved for personal misconduct, those gaps allowed corrosive agents such as mistrust or poor judgment to spread, eventually leading to the downfall of their careers.

It is a common misconception that “integrity” can be used interchangeably with words like “morality.” Immorality can certainly account for the more egregious incidents, but is not as easily ascribed to behavior like drunk driving (“Prowler training squadron CO fired after DUI”), even though it is a clear violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). 6 Morality has some connotation of “goodness of character.” Going back to its Latin root integer (whole, complete), integrity involves “consistency of character.” Put simply, integrity is about doing what one says he or she is going to do. Officers agree not to drive drunk, so when COs get DUIs, they must be fired because they have shown a lack of integrity. Some philosophers argue that even morally reprehensible people, such as those involved in organized crime, can be said to have integrity because they live by the principles they espouse.

Why then should a virtue that can be associated with murderers and thieves be the focus of the Navy’s effort to solve its personal-misconduct problems among COs? The key is that integrity provides the link between individual behavior and organizational principles, of which the Navy’s are already beyond reproach. Several documents, including the Navy’s Core Values Charter, the UCMJ, the Sailor’s Creed, and the Oath of Office, lay out an unparalleled personal standard of conduct. For all intents and purposes, these documents represent a naval officer’s “word” even if he or she has never explicitly expressed the Navy’s principles. Simply by wearing the uniform, naval officers agree to abide by the standards and principles laid out before them. Yet, for all the Navy’s morally upright principles, problems still persist. Clearly, there is a disconnect between certain COs’ words and their actions, providing a textbook definition for a lack of integrity.

COs relieved because of personal misconduct did not necessarily lie , but integrity involves more than honesty. Like valves aligned on a ship, it involves aligning individual behavior with personal values and principles. These COs were not tasked with defining the Navy’s principles, only embracing them. Furthermore, the situations that led to their downfall were not intense moral or ethical dilemmas. Questions of morality and ethics are often intractable, yet naval officers are expected to wrestle with and ultimately handle these issues. The aftermath of a true moral dilemma may not call a leader’s integrity into question because there was no obvious “right” decision. There is, however, no moral dilemma involved in insulting, striking, and pouring beer on one’s subordinates (“Report: Commander drunk, abusive in Bahrain”). 7 There is only a lack of integrity.

An Individual Responsibility

Although the Navy’s principles are dictated to commanding officers, it is not sufficient or even desired for them to just do what they are told. After all, a globally dispersed force depends on command initiative, and furthermore, COs are entrusted to make tough decisions that cannot be outlined in a set of rules. COs can look to the Navy’s principles for guidance, but ultimately their integrity is determined by their making decisions that coincide with personally held values. Integrity is an inherently individual responsibility. All officers, regardless of command aspirations, must internalize the Navy’s principles and take them aboard as their own. From early in their careers, officers should consciously examine any personal objections to the standard of conduct dictated by the Navy. Continuous integrity training should focus on studying the documents that prescribe values, principles, or personal behavior to officers, and taking action to resolve internal conflicts when necessary. For example, if an officer cannot agree with the Navy standard on behavior with the opposite sex, then he or she should petition to change the standard or resign.

Conversely, the Navy should be careful to keep the list of such documents as short as possible in recognition of the extreme personal commitment it requires of each officer. The service must also be cognizant of the standard set by the American people, whose expectations are not directly under the Navy’s control. The public may perceive officers as lacking integrity because they failed to meet their expectations, even if none of the Navy’s principles was violated. It is incumbent on the Navy to manage these expectations while each and every officer should strive to live up to them. As Army General John Vessey Jr. put it in his remarks to the 1983 graduating class of the Naval War College, “Inseparable from the concept of service is the concept of integrity. The citizens of this great nation place great trust in their military services. They will continue to judge us by stricter rules than they apply to themselves. And they should do that because, ultimately, their security rests with us and the way we perform our duties.” 8

The American people will not hold junior officers to a lower standard of integrity than COs, and neither should the Navy. To attack the root of integrity problems, officers must commit to the same high standard of integrity throughout their careers. Instead of testing integrity among potential COs and then relying on them to instill integrity among their subordinates, the effort should be focused directly at the most junior levels. In fact, the effort to cultivate integrity in officers must begin on Day One at the U.S. Naval Academy and all other commissioning programs.

Although COs sometimes seem to “flip a switch” when they exhibit behavior inconsistent with the Navy’s principles, underlying integrity issues may have grown over time. Much like the slow spread of rust on a ship weakens its ability to withstand pressure, eventually causing structural failure, an officer without a well-developed sense of integrity will buckle under the burden and authority of command. Even a promising young officer may forget that respect for one’s shipmates is a central Navy principle that he or she has sworn to uphold (“Cruiser CO relieved for ‘cruelty’”). 9

A recent spate of integrity violations at the Naval Academy indicates that issues arise very early in an officer’s career, and that the rash of CO firings may be only a symptom of a much wider epidemic. In 2009, the Academy had more integrity violations than it did in the previous 25 years (records on honor-code violations prior to 1984 are not available), with 140 substantiated and 21 midshipmen being sent home. 10 These numbers alone are not necessarily cause for concern. In fact, contrary to the trend of COs being relieved due to personal misconduct, these numbers may be a positive sign the Navy is getting serious about integrity. One would hope that most integrity violations occur at the beginning of an officer’s career, rather than in a position of such great responsibility as command.

Building integrity involves education, not just discipline. Each year, midshipmen receive 12 hours of instruction on the Honor Concept (which begins “Midshipmen are persons of integrity.”). 11 It is disturbing, however, that young officers appear to unlearn these lessons of honor and integrity as they go out into the Fleet. For example, midshipmen in all commissioning programs swear to abide by an Honor Code that is usually some form of “A midshipman does not lie, cheat, or steal.” When they commission as ensigns, they are no longer held to such a strict standard. While the Honor Code does not cover every aspect of integrity, and arguably the Navy’s Core Values or the UCMJ provide a similar standard of behavior, is there any reason to back away from such an explicit statement? The Honor Concept, or a version of the Honor Code, should be extended to apply to all commissioned officers.

Some midshipmen apparently believe that commissioned officers are granted more leeway on issues of honor and integrity. In 1995, when many of today’s COs were commissioned, the Government Accountability Office released a report on service-academy honor and conduct systems. The report stated that 46 percent of Naval Academy midshipmen believe that “the concept of honor is much more stringent at the Academy than it is among active duty officers.” In addition, midshipmen’s views toward honor tended to become more negative as they progressed through the Academy. First-class midshipmen (seniors) saw more inconsistency than plebes (freshmen) in the application of the Honor Concept and saw fewer scenarios as integrity or honor violations. 12 These perceptions likely continue into an officer’s commissioned service. This trend can be reversed if junior officers commit themselves to the same high standard of integrity to which the Navy is now holding its COs. Furthermore, the Navy should not consider rank when disciplining officers for integrity violations. The punishment (i.e., removal from current assignment) should be the same, although the ramifications would be more severe for more senior officers.

The Standard of Command Performance

While officers need more than integrity to succeed in command, without it they are destined to fail because there will be a lack of trust from their subordinates, peers, and superiors. A vigilant devotion to integrity builds trust, while one lapse can destroy it. “The Charge of Command,” a 2011 memorandum sent to all prospective COs, states that “ Trust is a fundamental building block of our command and control structure and our ability to achieve mission success.” 13 Given the importance the Navy places on trust in COs, it is easy to see why those displaying a lack of integrity are so readily fired. In fact, some argue that the Navy is paying more attention to integrity and therefore tolerating fewer personal shortcomings among its COs. This may be true, but getting rid of COs who behave badly only mitigates the problem. If it were a solution, then one would expect a decline in the rate of integrity violations among COs. Naval officers cannot afford to wait for that decline to appear.

Attitudes in the media suggest that COs, who are supposed to lead by example, are actually reinforcing the stereotype that the Navy has tried desperately to shake (“Like Drunken Sailors”). 14 Some recent commentators even argue that the Navy has never held its COs to the same standard of personal integrity as command performance. Retired Rear Admiral Hamlin Tallent offers, “The Navy’s acceptance of certain behavior is a lot more strict . . . it used to be widespread that guys were cheating on wives. Guys were fairly open about it.” 15 Whether the change has been fueled by gender integration, sailors with smartphones and social media, or even a moral imperative, the Navy clearly understands it cannot enforce a double standard for COs. The standard of integrity must be commensurate with the standard of command performance, otherwise both will suffer, and the barrage of embarrassing headlines will continue to erode the trust the American people place in the Navy to accomplish its mission.

The standard of command performance is among the highest of any organization in the world and, to the Navy, it is sacred. As then-Captain James Stavridis wrote (with retired Vice Admiral William Mack) in Command at Sea , “in the U.S. Navy in particular, strict accountability is an integral part of command. Not even the profession of medicine embraces the absolute accountability found at sea. A doctor may lose a patient under trying circumstances and continue to practice, a naval officer seldom has the opportunity to hazard a second ship.” 16

It is important to note that a failure of performance is not the same as a failure of integrity, although the nature of command dictates that the Navy hold COs accountable for both. A CO should not be accused of lacking integrity because he runs his ship into a buoy, even if he is relieved of command. In 1983 General Vessey warned young naval officers not to confuse integrity with fallibility: “the warrior class has room for fallibility . . . there is no room for a lack of integrity. . . .” 17 Today, the Navy is sending a similar message to its COs by holding them to the same high standard of professional and personal accountability.

For now, at least, the Navy stands strong in holding COs accountable for their actions (“US Navy commander jailed for three years after pleading guilty to rape of two female sailors”), but it must guard against a “can’t happen here” mentality. 18 Less egregious, yet still questionable, behavior has been tolerated by the chain of command (“40 faulted in Enterprise video investigation”), until it received national media attention. 19 It will take sustained commitment from individual officers to stop the flood of personal misconduct that threatens the Navy’s foundational principles and standards.

Words and Actions

I do not claim to understand the burdens of command but, as Captain Harley Cope wrote in the preface to the first edition of Command at Sea , “Every young sailor who is worth his salt looks forward eagerly to his first command.” 20 As a young naval officer, I have committed myself and my family to a life of service in hopes of achieving such a position. In looking forward, I know that I can succeed only if my sense of integrity is well developed long before (if ever) I take command of a ship. I believe there are other junior officers like me who are alarmed by the headlines they read but have not voiced their opinions. Who can blame them? What if their views on integrity are not consistent with that of senior leadership? What if they bring undue attention to the current situation by blowing it out of proportion? What if they become an example of a lack of integrity because of one mistake?

These are difficult questions that cannot be answered without taking action. It is my hope, however, that junior officers throughout the Fleet will bond together and start shutting these gaps in character by aligning their words with their actions. The Navy has established a watertight standard for personal integrity among its COs. It is up to future generations to either sink into failure, or rise to the challenge.

1. “Integrity: The Heart of Navy Core Values for the Submariner.” .

2. VADM Thomas Kilcline, “Developing the Whole Sailor,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , July 2010.

3. CAPT Mark Light, “The Navy’s Moral Compass: Commanding Officers and Personal Misconduct.” Naval War College Review , Summer 2012, 136–52.

4. “Submarine commander sunk after allegedly faking death to end affair,” Fox News, 13 August 2012, . M. Thompson, “Navy Skippers: The Gift that Keeps on Giving,” Time , 14 August 2012,

5. S. Fellman, “CNO’s tough new rules for screening commanders,” Navy Times , 18 June 2012,

6. G. Fuentes, “Prowler training squadron CO fired after DUI,” Navy Times , 12 April 2011,

7. B. Vergakis, “Report: Commander drunk, abusive in Bahrain,” Navy Times , 7 October 2011,

8. GEN John Vessey Jr., USA, “Remarks to the Graduating Class of the Naval War College,” Newport, RI, 24 June 1983.

9. P. Ewing, “Cruiser CO relieved for ‘cruelty,’” Navy Times , 15 January 2010,

10. J. Murray, “What is the USNA Honor Code?” Word Press, 26 March 2010,

11. M. Gebicke, “DOD Service Academies: Comparison of Honor and Conduct Adjudicatory Processes,” (Washington, DC: United States General Accounting Office, 1995).

12. Ibid.

13. ADM Gary Roughead, USN, “The Charge of Command,” 9 June 2011.

14. S. W. Matthews, “Like Drunken Sailors,” The Daily , 15 August 2012,

15. Ibid.

16. CAPT James Stavridis, USN, and VADM William Mack, USN (Ret.), Command at Sea , Fifth Edition (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999).

17. Vessey, “Remarks to the Graduating Class. . . .”

18. J. Satherley, “US Navy commander jailed for three years after pleading guilty to rape of two female sailors,” The Daily Mail , 29 October 2011,

19. W. H. McMichael, “40 faulted in Enterprise video investigation,” Navy Times , 3 March 2011,

20. Stavridis and Mack, Command at Sea .

Lieutenant Drennan is a surface warfare officer. He recently completed an assignment as a Director Fellow in the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group and is now in department-head training at the Surface Warfare Officer School.


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