That was a judgment I was to repeat a hundredfold over the next several days. I was in Washington for the first time since the early 1990s, when I was assigned to the Bureau of Personnel (BuPers), and I had forgotten that a Washington naval officer is a different breed from the seagoing version. My six-year absence serving in Yokosuka, Pascagoula, and Hawaii left me unprepared, and I felt as if I had just stepped off a bus from the provinces and barely spoke the language. I expect that I am not the only person in our nation to feel disconnected from Washington, but I was surprised to feel so out of touch during interactions with individuals wearing a Navy uniform. This culture shock prompted me to look at the uniqueness of the Washington Navy, and to contrast it with life in the Navy's best operational home port, Yokosuka, Japan.
I used to be fluent in Washingtonspeak. As the surface junior officer shore coordinator and surface assistant captain detailer, I became fully immersed in the inside-the-Beltway culture. During my tour in BuPers, events in Washington caused an upheaval in the Navy and had a dramatic effect on the personnel business. They established a climate that can best be characterized as "survival of the well connected." The political instincts developed by the survivors guide their decision making today, and the events of that period are worth a review.
The downsizing measures initiated by the Navy in the 1990s reduced opportunities for promotion and all career milestones from department head to major command, thereby gradually trimming personnel levels. Force strength formally was cut through such mechanisms as the selective early retirement board (SERB) and increased involuntary release from active duty (IRAD). Unfortunately, these force-cutting measures were not preceded, or even accompanied, by corresponding policy or career path changes. We eliminated officers but had no vision of a new force structure or how we would operate at our new force levels. The most illustrative example of this haphazard process is found in one of the Navy's reactions to the results of the SERB. Each year's board took a heavy toll on professor of naval science (PNS) captains at Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) units, regarding them as out of the mainstream, low-priority positions. But because these billets were categorized by the Navy as commanding officer equivalents, they always were at the top of the post-SERB fill list. We would then rip a captain out of say, Hawaii, and send him to Iowa State to replace a captain picked by the SERB, so that this new PNS could be picked by the following year's SERB.
Our people's confusion, and uneasiness, about how our program was supposed to work was heightened by the Navy's aggressive public relations effort to sell it. We called it rightsizing and announced that the Navy would not cut personnel or conduct reductions in force, as the other services would, and we continued to emphasize that BuPers would operate under a philosophy of "just say yes," and "break the rules." This public relations spin was at odds with reality: good officers had careers terminated; personnel served overseas without relief; and many officers were yanked on short notice from one duty station to another — all while we took public credit for enacting a downsizing plan that caused only "a few officers to retire early." (I don't believe that our leaders fully appreciate the long-term effect these measures had on wardrooms. When an officer at the peak of his career, for example the commanding officer of an Aegis cruiser, is forced to retire and in general treated shabbily, why should a junior officer aspire to command at sea?)
Because billet restructuring lagged downsizing, and no policies had been promulgated to guide personnel decision making, a lawless personnel "Wrestlemania" ensued, with Washington as the primary arena. The reduced opportunity for career milestones caused an unhealthy competition for the choice billet with the right sponsor. Politics, in particular sponsorship, played an increasingly important role. Officers competed fiercely to get the right job and just as strongly to avoid certain billets. Sponsorship could ward off the specter of duty in undesirable locations and provide critical aid in the fight to get a career-enhancing billet. With flag support you could avoid Korea; if you were the type to just go quietly, you went.
Accompanying personnel downsizing were a number of factors that served to increase the role of politics, and the importance of Washington, in our careers. One was an increase in the importance of the Washington budget wars. Each Navy branch fought hard to get its guy into influential positions to ensure that our future force would be shaped to reflect the correct lack of balance among communities. In addition, a career path that now called for joint duty for flag players added another ticket to be punched at the Pentagon, and it was a ticket that did not involve sea duty. Finally, one of the Navy's solutions to the screening crunch created by reduced opportunity at different career milestones was to shorten sea tour lengths.
These factors added to the rapidly growing perception among our officers that sea duty was just not as important as it used to be. We began to produce more officers who simply did the minimum time at sea so they could get back to Washington to do something really significant. One indication was the number of calls I received from captains who, after eight months in major command, said, "I've done all I need to do here. Find me a job in Washington that makes me a player."
We also suffered considerable collateral damage from rightsizing. The credibility of senior leadership was strained by the short-sighted and contradictory manner in which we conducted this process. I have cited only two of what could be many examples. Simply stated, our people's faith in the system was eroded. Of note, the current generation of junior officers has been raised in the rightsizing environment, and they quickly learned the rules of the game. They have not been hesitant to voice their dissatisfaction with their lot in life, a development that occasionally has been labeled as whining by seniors. Valid or not, their willingness to voice their displeasure should not surprise us: the downsizing environment encouraged, and in fact demanded, that officers take care of number one.
The climate that developed in Washington in the early 1990s has flourished. For many, going to sea is important only as a means to an end — that end being continued career progression. In a perverse role reversal, sea duty now exists to support a Washington career path. Executive assistants, programmers, and budget analysts are not unique in Washington; they are bureaucrats in uniform. In our distorted system, however, these positions are revered and have become career goals for a large number of officers.
This careerist climate was especially apparent to me during my stay in Washington early this year, when I attended several events at the Surface Navy Symposium in Crystal City. I expected the symposium to be a surface Navy lovefest in which we would celebrate surface warfare and its accomplishments and revel in the thrill of going to sea. Instead, sailors and ships were mentioned primarily in antiseptic budgetary terms. The hot topics were resourcing and programming. I wanted to talk to someone about making the left turn into Yokosuka from Tokyo Wan or relive the experience of dodging oil rigs and fishing boats at night in the Gulf of Thailand. I instead heard endless self-promotion and discussions of what the next career move should be, who would be on the next flag list, and false commiseration over colleagues who had run afoul of the wrong flag officer. I frequently heard something along the lines of "I'm the EA to the most powerful person in the Pentagon, and we've just engaged the Secretary to formulate a network to establish symmetry to facilitate constructive engagement." Didn't John Wayne say that in In Harm's Way ?
When I escaped from Washington it was to command the Fife (DD-991), a destroyer home ported in Yokosuka, Japan. Sea duty on board ships in Yokosuka represents what is right with the Navy. The principles and values adhered to by the seagoing community reflect a true seagoing spirit and run counter to values held by many in Washington. Here is why this spirit is so special, and vital to the Navy.
Assignment on a Yokosuka ship is the Navy's most challenging and rewarding sea duty. The operations are real world, involving national responses to crises from Korea and Taiwan to the Arabian Gulf. Regularly scheduled exercises are equally challenging, ranging from interactions with foreign navies to major multiple battle group events. Operational readiness is paramount, and the peaks and valleys associated with stateside ships' deployment cycles are mercifully absent. (During four sea tours in Yokosuka, my first experience with refresher training or the tactical training strategy was one year into my commanding officer tour.) Forward-deployed naval forces, in both Yokosuka and Sasebo, are ready and operationally proficient as a matter of routine. I can't say it any better than a young lieutenant who reported to the Fife after a Mediterranean deployment on board an Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyer. During his first watch in a typical underway period, he observed enthusiastically, "This is great! You guys do real stuff over here." As we attempt to define fun in our junior officer retention efforts, I offer his comment in evidence.
As the Navy struggles to improve retention, a concept that is debated as vociferously as fun is quality of life. It is noteworthy that in examining Yokosuka's quality of life the defining and governing factors are not necessarily pay and time off. Rather, many of these factors — which I would label as part of operational quality of life — appear to be centered on a sense of purpose, mission accomplishment, and a spirit of adventure. Life revolves around achieving and maintaining readiness. Forward-deployed forces are rewarded by attaining that goal on a continual basis; the high operational tempo helps create a strong camaraderie in the wardroom, chief's mess, and mess decks. A strong body of behavioral research shows that individuals who achieve the highest job satisfaction are those who are trained well and accomplish the work for which they are trained. Doing "real stuff" at sea the right way equals high job satisfaction, and makes personnel willing to endure hardships that normally are not imposed on much of the Navy. I do not know whether retention statistics support my claims of increased job satisfaction, but I believe that a tremendous amount of warrior expertise is developed in those who serve in Yokosuka, and the ones who stay certainly are the right ones to keep.
A sense of pride and accomplishment and an attitude of service to the fleet pervades the Yokosuka shore establishment. This has created a unique and special operational, personal, and family quality of life. There are many elements of the shore infrastructure that contribute to such a positive environment, but I will mention only the most impressive features. The Naval Ship Repair Facility is legendary for its ability to take the most urgent work order and make its accomplishment seem routine. This makes life better for the ships and their crews, and therefore increases quality time at home for sailors in a demanding environment. The various service and support activities are equally stellar. Despite being constrained by money, space, and cultural limitations, they all manage to provide superior service. These support activities, from the personnel support detachment, to the Family Service Center and Morale, Welfare, and Recreation, are infected with the spirit of customer service. They make sure that the fleet is supported and that Navy families and single sailors are taken care of, and they carry out this mission enthusiastically. The system — whether medical care, housing maintenance, or schools — works. It is tough to quantify such factors in retention surveys or measures of combat readiness, but they matter.
Living in a foreign culture also is great fun, which also matters. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Residing either on base or off base has its hardships, and some Navy families never fully adjust, but most do and thoroughly enjoy it. The vast majority I have spoken with were thrilled with the opportunity to explore the Japanese and neighboring cultures. Although on-base residency may not sound glamorous, it was as I always imagined life in a small town to be. The bond among families generated by arduous but fulfilling sea duty, a supportive and energized shore establishment, and the excitement inherent in residing overseas makes this small town very special.
But what relevance does all this have to today's Navy? Why spend so much time detailing the flaws of Washington and the virtues of Yokosuka? These two cities represent the worst and the best of the Navy, respectively, and as we examine their pluses and minuses we can perhaps determine how we have progressed, or regressed, over time and discern our future.
Yokosuka delivers all that the Navy advertises: adventure at sea and ashore and a close-knit environment in which the Navy takes care of its own. I so strongly emphasized the favorable shore establishment and family life in Yokosuka because I believe it is this environment that bonds people to the Navy and makes us a unique service. There is a certain seagoing spirit present on board ship and ashore, a quality that is difficult to define for those who have not experienced it. It is why people choose the Navy lifestyle over anything the civilian community has to offer.
Washington, on the other hand, is notorious for its political intrigue, and it is a common theme in America's heartland that our government is disconnected and out of touch with the people. I submit that our Navy's representatives in Washington are now out of touch with the Navy's heartland, typified by Yokosuka and other seagoing environments, and are guilty of practicing bureaucratic politics as they seek to preserve and enhance their own careers. In the January Proceedings former Secretary of the Navy James Webb discusses a change in the military ethos that can occur when leadership fails. He states that this fundamental shift results "not because of decisions taken by senior leaders so much as from their inaction." He cites the influence of outside pressures that lead to this inaction. Although the gradual, numbing acquiescence to external influences that Mr. Webb notes partially accounts for the 300-ship Navy and declining readiness and retention, the self-interest and careerism displayed by our leadership are as much at fault. Whether co-opted by Washington's bureaucracy, frightened by Tailhook inquisitions, or scrambling to stay competitive during downsizing, their inaction partially was caused by their instincts for self-preservation in the environment I have described as "Survivial of the Well Connected." They have strayed from and sacrificed what should be their guiding principle — the seagoing spirit embodied by ships and sailors.
The character traits of the Washington naval officer that I criticize are no longer confined to Washington; they have, through excessive inbreeding, begun to spread throughout the fleet. Captain Bill Doud, in his November Perspective column, cites the tendency of an increasing number of surface warfare officers to prioritize attaining career building blocks (ticket punches) over going to sea. This mind-set has become so prevalent that BuPers's May/June Perspective was, in the words of Rear Admiral Hinkle, devoted entirely to "why serving at sea is important to your future and tomorrow's Navy." If we find it necessary to explain why sea duty is important, then we truly have lost focus.
I have observed the ticket-punching phenomena, and it has been commented on frequently in speeches and in print. It also has, of course, driven the attitude of our selection boards. The importance of Washington duty and similar high-profile assignments frequently outweighs good performance in hard jobs at sea. Sea duty simply qualifies one to play the game; performance in Washington will make your career. The problem cited by Captain Doud and addressed by BuPers is not the result of a sudden plague of self-centered officers: it is that we all have learned what it takes to make it and get picked by the next selection and promotion boards.
Obviously, therefore, change in our culture must include selection board reform. If we want our people to realize sea duty is important, we must show it through boards. We must examine the quality of our officers' sea duty with the goal of rewarding those who consistently perform well in hard jobs and attain broad seagoing and warfare experience. Washington duty and glamorous sea assignments do not necessarily equate to warfare expertise, a quality that must be sought by all boards. Try considering only at-sea fitness reports, not shore duty, in selection boards (not promotion boards). In addition, stop cutting sea tours short in favor of prestigious shore assignments. It sends the wrong message.
Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig recently urged that boards look less for flawless records and instead seek the "best qualified" officers. The Chief of Naval Operations stressed that duty in forward-deployed naval forces "can make an important difference on selection boards." Despite these pronouncements, I am not convinced that we recognize that we may consistently be picking the wrong type of officer in our boards. Style remains king over substance. Washington assignments can be stylish. Hard sea duty, particularly an overseas assignment, usually is not. This is okay if what we want is naval officers who can maneuver capably in Washington — sea duty need only serve as a prerequisite for choice billets. I do not believe, however, that we fully recognize the hazards inherent in the current system. Shipboard leaders who view a crew as a means to achieve their personal goals, and adopt a short-term, look-good-at-all-costs operating style, have negative payoffs in readiness and retention, and erode our warfighting spirit and expertise.
This particular aspect can be summarized by a comment a flag officer made in trying to dissuade me from seeking command in Yokosuka. He stated that "officers in Yokosuka get forgotten." He could only view Yokosuka duty through his Washington perspective: not as something challenging, rewarding, and important, but as something that a real Washington player would not risk.
There are those who would argue that my indictment of Washington and praise of Yokosuka are simplistic and naïve. Rarely can issues be defined as absolutely as I have done. I know that in Washington we have dynamic and capable officers who are planning and programming our future Navy. I don't underestimate the importance or the difficulty of this mission. In Yokosuka, we have had plenty of good officers who have not been forgotten. As in other home ports, we also have had commanding officers, executive officers, and department heads who see their ships and crews as means to a self-serving end and adhere to a style-over-substance philosophy. Speaking in general terms, however, the Navy's seagoing tradition has its roots in Yokosuka. The spirit of adventure lives, and that is what we should be about. By contrast, Washington represents what we need to fix. The two cities truly are the best and worst of what we are today.
It is possible that what I have described here is just evolution. We of course are not the Navy that we were decades or even five years ago, and maybe we don't need to be. Perhaps maintaining a qualified force of technocrats in Washington is, or will be, the key to fleet combat readiness. Improved technology, especially in communications, means that commanding officers no longer are as autonomous as Commodore Perry was. Maybe we can afford to keep our talent in Washington and micromanage our reduced manning ships to ensure that cruise missiles arrive in Belgrade or Baghdad when they have to.
I look at pictures of both my grandfathers and of my father in their Navy uniforms and wonder if they felt this way about the direction their Navy was headed. I suspect that they did, but they did not witness the shift of power, and emphasis, from the fleet to Washington as we have. I really don't believe that we have evolved — a term that implies advancement — to this condition, but rather that what we have witnessed is actually devolution. We need places such as Yokosuka to remind us how things are supposed to be and what attracted us to this business in the first place.
We cannot make all our home ports mirror images of Yokosuka, but we can attempt to replicate the positive points. Make sea duty challenging but meaningful. Make the shore establishment responsive and enthusiastic. Take care of individuals and families, do not just establish programs that pretend to. Make selection boards reward sea duty. Finally, we must restore the adventure by emphasizing the thrill of our profession. We all should like going to sea. Prove that what we do is special and good by taking pleasure in our accomplishments and pride in our uniqueness. Take a good look at life on the outskirts of our empire for clues on how to progress.
Captain Wooldridge is on the staff of U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Pacific. He has the "best view in town": Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, and the battleship Missouri .