Semper Huh?

By Captain Michael Junge, U.S. Navy

That notwithstanding, the most recognizable and memorable phrase associated with the Marine Corps is official—the motto Semper Fidelis, emblazoned on the official “Eagle, Globe, and Anchor” emblem. Often shortened to Semper Fi, the phrase is part of the Corps’ vernacular, routinely used by Marines of every rank.

The Navy also has an official motto: Semper Fortis. It is rarely used—conversationally or officially. The one exception to that seems to be the sitting Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

So why is it that the Marine Corps has such high-profile trappings of tradition and history, while the Navy has so few? Culture. The Marine culture is one of overall unit cohesion and identity—clearly evident in the “every Marine is a rifleman” ethos. The Corps sublimates individual identity to the common identity—“Once a Marine, always a Marine.” And those trappings carry the patina of age: Semper Fidelis was adopted in 1883; “Once a Marine, always a Marine” was born in the interwar period.

The Navy, in comparison, appears to be an organization continuously in search of an overall identity and repeatedly falls short for the same reason, culture. Navy culture grew, and grows, from the independence inherent in command at sea. Until the advent of radio, ships at sea were a world unto themselves, wholly cut off from land—and higher headquarters. The captain of a ship at sea was once the closest thing to a god on Earth, having almost unquestioned power of life and death over all on board. The unforgiving nature of the sea, and the dependence of the officers and crew on their ship, led to a culture built around crews and hulls—not the Navy itself.

The Marine Culture

Since inception, the Marine Corps has been a sub-unit of the Navy. Despite that, or because of it, the Marines managed to establish their own separate and very distinct culture and identity. The Marine most credited with that feat is Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune, who served as Commandant in the transitional interwar years of 1920–29.

Lejeune made his mark by focusing the Marine Corps on what he saw as its primary mission—serving as the expeditionary force of the Navy. He supported that mission with three guiding principles:  

• Administer the affairs of the Marine Corps economically and efficiently.

• Make the Marine Corps as useful as possible to the government and to the people of the United States in peace as well as war.

• Make the Marine Corps the finest military organization in the world. 1

The mission was the focal point of his guiding principles. Nearly a century later, the goals that Lejeune put in place are, almost inarguably, the reasons the Unites States has a Marine Corps.

Why then does the Navy find itself in a modern struggle for a coherent culture? The answers have to do with size, the changing nature of war at sea, and the Navy culture of command itself.

The Matter of Size

In the 1920s the Marine Corps had fewer than 20,000 Marines. Framing a culture for 20,000 is a far cry from creating one for 100,000. Size also dictated that the Marines have just three iconic bases—Camp Pendleton, California; Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. The two recruit training depots (boot camps) are the same two that have trained Marines for decades.

Over the same general time frame, the Navy has shifted and moved, expanded and contracted. The original major naval bases in Brooklyn, New York; Charlestown, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mare Island, California, are closed. While the lone current Navy boot camp, at Great Lakes, Illinois, was opened in 1905, recruit training was also conducted at San Diego, California, from 1923 to 1997, and Orlando, Florida, from 1968 to 1998. Concentration of the Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia; San Diego; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is a relatively recent development. Officer training is spread among the various warfare specialties, and ranges from Newport, Rhode Island (surface warfare); to Groton, Connecticut (submarines); to Pensacola, Florida (aviation).

The Changing Face of War

While smaller size and geographic concentration made Lejeune’s task easier, perhaps nothing has helped the Corps’ culture more than the “every Marine is a rifleman” attitude. It’s not a hollow statement. As other services became increasingly subdivided into specialties, the Corps retained the basic requirement that every Marine receive marksmanship training, and have the skills of a basic rifleman. That was instituted by Lejeune, and every conflict since has witnessed cases of Marines leaving their primary subspecialty and taking up a rifle to fight beside regular infantry in time of need. In today’s wars, even as the Marine Corps seeks to reestablish itself as the Navy’s expeditionary force, the idea that any Marine might be called on at any moment to grab a rifle and enter the fight remains a constant.

Over those same years, the Navy ended its reliance on sailing ships, moved from coal to black oil to refined diesel fuel to nuclear propulsion, witnessed the introduction of submarines, and saw the main battleforce ships grow from 15,000-ton battleships to 100,000-ton aircraft carriers. In fact, at the same time Lejeune was laying the foundation for today’s Corps, the Navy was establishing the basis for three navies, separated by operating space—above, on, or below the sea. Navy character and culture had its last chance at real coherency when “every Sailor was a Sailor,” but that idea began a slow death spiral in 1920 and finally was put to rest after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As the Navy looks ahead to the likely increase in unmanned and remote systems—its culture is likely once again to follow the changing face of war.

Independence in Command

While modern command is both less authoritative and authoritarian than it once was, the idea of independence in command is at the core of Navy culture. No other branch of the armed forces has a similar paradigm.

In more recent doctrine, that concept was even further enshrined by the concept of “command by negation.” The Composite Warfare Commander Concept arose in the mid-1960s when the complexity of the weapon systems and technology outpaced the ability to communicate. The Armed Forces Officer (2007 edition) sums up the concept of the culture of command and command by negation this way:

The captain, thus, is the sole word of authority aboard the ship, and every decision rests squarely on his shoulders. Even after electronics created the ability to “talk to the boss” around the clock, anywhere in the world, the habit of autonomous operations continues to reside in the naval forces. “Command by Negation,” a concept unique to naval command and control, allows a subordinate commander the freedom to operate as he or she sees best, keeping authorities informed of decisions taken, until the senior overrides a decision. The Navy is the only service that uses the acronym UNODIR ( UN less O therwise DIR ected) by which a commanding officer informs the boss of a proposed course of action, and only if the boss overrides it, will it not be taken. The subordinate is informing the boss, not asking permission.

As the ability to communicate allows seniors to reach ever deeper into the chain of command and approve or countermand the most banal order, there is an air of erosion around the concept of negation. Yet, I believe that reinvigorating the concept of command by negation— UNODIR—can be a stout bulwark against increased leadership intrusion.

Finding Common Ground

If the Navy is so large, so spread out, and so independent, is it really possible to create a common culture? Yes. That culture may not be as all-encompassing as that of the Marine Corps—but there’s no need for that, either.

Culture works within three elements—social structure, infrastructure, and superstructure. Social structure consists of rule-governed relationships—using rank, ratings, and warfare communities. Infrastructure normally relates to satisfying a community’s basic needs. In developing a Navy common culture, then, infrastructure will refer to the more common use of ships, aircraft, and bases. The superstructure is the set of common foundational beliefs that provide a shared sense of identity and worldview. Each element drives the other in a complicated M. C. Escheresque amalgam of cogs and gears; each is malleable if given enough time.

The modern social structure of the Navy has existed since the beginning of the age of steam. The separation of officers and enlisted predates even its founding, so in creating a common culture, we will accept the social structure as a given, and seek no change there. Changes to such a deeply ingrained social structure require significant time or a cataclysmic event. Attempts to force such change usually ignore collateral effects that may result in negative, or at least unanticipated, outcomes.

Similarly, the infrastructure must also be considered a given. Ships and aircraft take decades to design, build, and field, and remain in service decades more. During their service there may be changes in combat systems, communications, even propulsion, but the elements that contribute to culture—berthing and eating arrangements, living and working quarters—rarely change, if ever.

If an attempt is made to create common Navy culture it must be with the superstructure—the shared beliefs that provide a common worldview. Emblematic for the Marine Corps is the “every Marine is a rifleman” concept. For the Navy, then, why wouldn’t “Every Sailor a sailor” work?

Shaping a Sea-Based Culture

Despite the odd phrasing, repetitive word use, and reliance on a symbolic capital “S” when referring to uniformed members of the Navy, the fact is that not all Navy personnel see themselves as lowercase “s” sailors—people who go to sea on boats. A significant number of officers do not. They see a distinction between officer and sailor. Similarly, most Navy personnel do not serve in ships. Finally, within the Department of the Navy as an entity, there are almost 400,000 Sailors and almost 200,000 civilians. Cultural statements put in place in the past two decades have included that increasing number of civilian support staff within their text.

Yet, the sea is what makes the Navy, well—the Navy. Thus the sea and the traditions of the sea should be at the core of any cultural statement seeking to promote a common vision. To do so, Navy leadership should consider the following steps.

Fully embrace core values of honor, courage, and commitment, and the Navy Ethos —Each Chief of Naval Operations in recent decades has issued his own guidance to the Fleet. Likewise each commanding officer issues his or her own “command philosophy.” All those documents are as unique as the individuals who sign them, fully in keeping with the character of maritime command. What Navy leadership should do is encourage a shift away from “command philosophies” or “sailing directions” and move instead toward the collective concept of “Commander’s Intent.” The Commander’s Intent is enshrined in joint doctrine, is common to all services, and is akin to command philosophy, but is a document of planned action, while the philosophy is an explanatory leadership treatise. By moving toward an action-oriented document, each command will still retain independence, while at the same time moving toward a common culture.

In issuing a commander’s intent, each officer (including the CNO) should begin with the Core Values and Navy Ethos. If a planned action cannot be clearly and directly tied to those two ideals it should not be considered. Likewise, commanders must avoid semantic wrestling to force a favored program, project, or initiative in concert with those tenets.

Use sea-service legends/mythology to support various diversity-awareness months —This already is in place to a great extent, but I posit that the focus must shift: The themes in the Core Values and Navy Ethos must be present in each story and the contribution to the Navy must be highlighted; facts of race or ethnicity must shift below the surface. Admiral Grace Hopper, Captain Rosemary Mariner, and Commander Darlene Iskra are all women, which is why they are used as symbols for Women’s History Month. Their gender is a given and need not be highlighted. Similarly with Admirals Chung Hoon, J. P. Reason, and others: Their contribution to the Navy is what should be discussed, and often is. We just need to be better about it in speeches, news releases, and celebration.

Expand basic training to include sailing, knot-tying, and nautical mythology —This is more challenging as it requires some work in the infrastructure environment. Absent a few days of sail training at the Naval Academy, there is little small-boat exposure over the course of an officer’s career. For enlisted personnel who are not in the boatswain’s mate rating, there is no exposure beyond the rare small-boat transfer. It is probable that most Sailors have flown in a jetliner, but not that many have been in a small boat. Similarly, today very few know who Poseidon, Neptune, or Davy Jones are, or the stories behind tattoos of pigs and chickens. That lore must be included in accession training at boot camp and officer indoctrination programs, and then referenced throughout the year at Navy commands.

Have every new sailor or officer serve at least 18 months in a ship before shore duty —Just as not every Sailor sets foot in a small boat, a significant number never go to sea on board a ship. The unique component of the Navy is its ability to use ships at sea to project power, either at sea or deep inshore. By increasing the number of Sailors who go to sea, the Navy will nurture the nautical culture inherent to being in the Navy. No one in the Navy should leave an accession program and immediately report for permanent duty ashore.

Accept civilians as part of the Navy, but don’t alter the culture to always be inclusive —Both the Navy Ethos and Sailor’s Creed were rewritten to be more inclusive. The Sailor’s Creed, for example, changed “Bluejacket” to “Navy,” and in so doing lost some of its historical context. 2 Likewise, the Navy Ethos was written originally as a “warrior ethos” and was then altered to be more inclusive of Navy support staff and civilians. While civilians are an important part of the Navy, they should not be placed on the same field as uniformed Navy personnel. The Navy must remain the “main thing.” By placing Navy civilians on par with uniformed members the Navy sacrifices some of its uniqueness.

Rewrite the Navy Ethos and Sailor’s Creed to better reflect the historical nature and independence of Navy culture —The Ethos and Creed are a foundation to build on, yet they both also miss some critical historical basis and have too much “flavor of the month” in them. Just as the Pledge of Allegiance gradually changed over time, so must the Ethos and Creed. A blue-ribbon commission should be formed to review those documents and embed recurring reviews into the culture. More important than the review is the selection of the commission. If members are chosen for their pliability or penchant for remaining within the norms of naval service, then something will be forgotten, some creative leap will be lost, and the remainder of the service—that independent-minded sailor—will not see value in either. Naval skeptics, steeped in naval history and the traditions of the sea, should be sought and brought in to update the documents.

Determine the appropriate Navy analogue to “every Marine is a rifleman” —The commission also should try to develop a Navy version of the familiar Marine mantra. That will be difficult because a Sailor is so much more than a sailor. And face it: “Every Sailor a sailor” just doesn’t have much of a ring to it. For that task, as well as updating the Creed and Ethos, I defer to the aphorism that “all of us are smarter than one of us.”

A reader might incorrectly view all this as criticism of the Navy’s overall culture. In fact, the opposite is true. The Navy remains a place of independent thought and action, and I suspect it always shall be. Where Navy leadership runs afoul of its own culture is when that independence is forgotten and a monolithic obedience is sought. That desire for unquestioning obedience runs against the independent culture and creates friction. Sometimes it is good friction, but it is friction all the same. By understanding and capitalizing on the Navy’s unique and extant common culture, leadership can lessen the resistance to change and continue moving the Navy forward in time.

1. LTCOL James T. Dillon, USMC, “John A. Lejeune, The Marine Corps’ Greatest Strategic Leader,” U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project, 15 March 2008.


Captain Junge is a career surface warfare officer who commanded the USS Whidbey Island (LSD-41). He is currently a member of the faculty at the U.S. Naval War College.


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