There are few topics more conducive to written or oral exposition by admirers of the Navy than the traditions and customs of the service. From the precepts of the famous letter attributed to John Paul Jones to the bases for the new U. S. Navy Regulations even now being written in some air-conditioned office somewhere on Constitution Avenue, page upon page has been devoted to descriptions and detailed analyses of each of our treasured heirlooms. To prove the value of these, thirteenth century philosophers as well as flag officers still on active duty have been widely quoted. Lectures requiring weeks of preparation and books published only after years of interesting but arduous research have dealt with present day symbols of past triumphs. These works have been learned, extensive, and popular in their time. It is felt, however, that there has come a time for another treatment of this subject. Certain truths lose nothing in their frequent reiteration, and one need be neither philosopher nor admiral to express more than a passing interest in his heritage.
Somewhere in the citation that accompanies all awards there is usually a statement that the recipient has conducted himself in accordance with the highest traditions of the naval service. These words have been used about persons who have successfully commanded forces in major invasions; they have also commended the performance of less glamorous duties. The details of the particular act of heroism or routine devotion are always described, to be sure, but the fact that the duty performed was considered to be equal to the highest standards of the Navy is saved for the last and most important place in the citation. It is the greatest compliment that can be paid; it is the most cherished commendation of all. The admiral with his Distinguished Service Medal, the more junior officer with the star-spangled blue pendant around his neck, and the seaman wearing the green ribbon with the vertical white stripes are all proud that they have met the requirements of tradition.
It should be noted that compliance either with the provisions of regulations or with any of the doctrine in official publications is not sufficient in itself for recognition. It is expected that all personnel will become familiar with them and will obey. No credit is given for this obedience, and indeed disciplinary action is usually taken against those who fail to offer it. The provisions of these documents, however, are rules and formal dictates: “The commander shall . . .”; “No enlisted person shall . . . ”; “The covers of switches shall...” They are routine items, fit for close study and automatic observance. We either know them or we do not. We either pass the test, or the selection, or we fail. There they are, in the book. Growl you may, but go you must.
The entire world has now entered an uncertain period in which each of us is trying to apply to his daily living the lessons brought home in the past decade. The status quo of all persons and institutions was upset by the war—not just the modus vivendi of naval personnel, but that of the five-year-old, of the businessman, and of the old lady, as well. Thus it is that our armed forces, in their present work of rewriting rules and tactical publications, are simply conforming to the pattern of the rest of the shaken world. The fact that one can find some use for last year’s toys, that some government control seems to be necessary, and that three servants are not, after all, essential, will naturally influence the tomorrows of those who experienced yesterday. By the same token, the fact that ships can be refueled at sea, that task forces can operate within the range of enemy land-based aircraft, and that a single plane can carry the equivalent of twenty boxcars full of high explosive will be reflected in the revision of old doctrines.
So far as is known, all the reviewing now being done in the Navy is limited to those details affected by the necessary changes in organization, administration, and operations which have taken place since Pearl Harbor. When this gigantic work by the technicians has been completed, we shall have carefully outlined for us proper methods for the procurement, installation, and operation of all our new push-buttons. The beans and bullets of the Navy will have been provided for. Will customs and traditions receive their share of this concentrated research and documentation?
Certainly there will be additions to the list of distinguished American naval officers now engraved on the amphitheater of the Arlington cemetery. Just as certainly will some now mute, inglorious Mahan compile the record of the achievements of our newest naval heroes. It is not our purpose here to compare “Take her down” with “Don’t give up the ship,” or “Pass the ammunition” with “Damn the torpedoes.” These chapters in naval history will duly be written by the proper scholars and carved in memory with the passing of time. To the considerable source of inspiration now revered by every officer and man will be added more thrilling beacons to light future generations along the course. It is desired, however, to focus attention on the necessity for bringing to the foreground once more some of the ideals by which Navy men have lived and died for centuries. Before this is done, we should consider some of the reasons for the fact that these have slipped into the background during the last hectic years.
There has been a tremendous revolution in the naval establishment since the outbreak of war. Quite aside from the thousands of changes in the Standard Stock Catalog, the officers and men handling these new planes, rockets, and radars are different, too. Many of the Old Guard have simply sailed away, and their places have been taken by new and younger men, with new and younger ideas. In addition, not an inconsiderable number of people now on active duty have been indoctrinated and trained under the stress of war. Fifteen years from now, the majority of naval personnel will know the Navy only as it was during and since World War II. During the war itself, the training of personnel was far from the usual naval indoctrination, and it was most inadequate. It was outstanding in that it did produce the manpower necessary to win the war, and it was commensurate with one of the Navy’s most valuable axioms, “The best you can with what you have”; but the fact remains that it did not breed a generation imbued with undying admiration for the Blue and Gold. The usual course at the Naval Academy was shortened by one fourth, and those who took it were only a small proportion of the Navy’s officers. The others who made up the commissioned corps were put into uniform and either allowed overnight to practice their specialties, or in two or three months were taught their trades and then ordered to sea. Enlisted men were launched almost as abruptly into their war service. It is little wonder, with the enemy looking down our throats, that we could not spend time on curricula other than technical.
The little indoctrination that was attempted was usually unsuccessful and almost always unpopular with the new Minute Men, who had given up their civilian liberties only because they realized that what was needed now was hits-per-gun-per-minute. Americans have never taken kindly to a regimented life, and this aversion cannot be overcome by being mustered to listen to three lectures on the Articles for the Government of the Navy. Knowing that three months would see the student handling a communications watch afloat made him more than a little impatient with a reading assignment on who makes what calls on whom, and when. Consequently, his indoctrination, if he had any at all, was, like a little learning, a dangerous thing.
Naval personnel with that background do not now, quite naturally, want to go back for more of the same boot training they found so distasteful in 1941. If they are now out of the service, they never will find out what they missed, and they will forever growl at what they consider the artificialities of service life. Their complaints will be against something they never properly understood in the first place.
We, none of us, however, like or respect that which we do not comprehend. We may fear it, but we cannot be expected to conform to it willingly. Therefore it appears that if we desire not to lose in our Navy the old love and respect for tradition that once were held by everyone, we must start with knowledge. There are literally scores of pamphlets and books on the origins of our traditions, and there are still available thousands of officers and men who are well qualified to speak on them authoritatively and in a most entertaining fashion. A thorough background in this lore should be one of the professional requirements for personnel of all grades. The new apprentice seaman who is publicly and severely reprimanded for failing to salute a vice admiral may, it is true, have thoughts of disrespect and even mutiny on his mind. It is possible, however, that he has never been taught how to salute properly, and it is more than probable that he has never before seen three stars all at once. We should be wise, first of all, to see that he knows.
Once there is the certainty that all naval personnel know what tradition demands, the second stage is reached: an insistence on compliance. It has been usual, in the past six years, to condone lack of military courtesy on the grounds that there was a war to win— that the transgressor was probably good at his electronics or cooking even though he obviously was not very well grounded in the finer points of Navy life. This insistence that he toe the mark must be widespread, and it must come only after the instruction stage has been completed. It will do little good, as was proven in the war, for some high echelon to issue from time to time the familiar word that “a laxity in military courtesy has been noticed, and all subordinate commands will henceforth ...” All hands must be taught first, and then all hands must be required to comply. The officer or man who is allowed a certain leeway by nine of the seniors he deals with will feel only resentment when he is jacked up by the tenth. All ten must know what is right, and then all ten must require it of all the juniors with whom they come in contact.
It may be demonstrated to those who have suffered a poor indoctrination that all the customs and traditions of our Navy have come down to us today because they contribute to at least one of four factors: respect for God; respect for country; respect for authority; and respect for man himself. There are few instances indeed of traditions which are revered just for their own sakes as the arbitrary whims of some dictatorial person now long deceased. Many traditions are viewed by the critical eye of the non-conformist in that light, it is true, but the fact remains that there is an excellent reason for all our written and unwritten laws. All these contribute, in addition, to the attainment of one objective without which no organization of any kind can function smoothly and efficiently. This fact has been stated and restated many times by so many authorities that it need not be labored here. That objective is discipline.
The young but mature men who reported for duty undergoing flight training at Pensacola during the war had but one thought in their minds: a desire to fly for Uncle Sam. They were alert in their squadron areas, and they boned on their ground school subjects with all the industry they had. They were, however, totally out of sympathy with the mission of the rest of their training—the routine bracing they received during the odd hours they had to spend in the Cadet Regiment. They resented bitterly being placed on report for “Wastebasket, Adrift,” “Out of Uniform, Cap not squared,” or the typical “Washmirror, Dirty.” Customs like not smoking on the street while in uniform were also stressed. When the officer-in-charge of this phase of their training—and an outstanding officer he was—gave his periodic indoctrination lecture, however, they all felt somewhat enlightened. He would explain the whole system as follows:
“It would perhaps be more valuable to us and more pleasant for you if we could direct the responsibilities of aviation cadets from mirrors and wastebaskets to hangars and planes. We must, however, be convinced that you will perform the duties of room orderly before we can entrust you with the responsibility of plane captain. Before we authorize you to lead others, furthermore, you must prove to us that you are good followers. So take care of the jobs of today as thoroughly and conscientiously as you can, and you will progress to more important ones tomorrow.” This line of reasoning was something that even the most intractable cadet could follow, but it took a restatement by the man’s flight instructor to clinch it. The latter’s comment went something like this:
“When we tell the Regular Navy flight students to fly at five thousand feet, that is where they will be. We know it. When you kids are given altitudes, we know that if you like it better three hundred feet above that, you’ll probably cruise on up. Maybe you’d better get the word.”
Almost invariably it was the cadet with the fewest reports for Regiment Delinquencies who passed his ground school subjects most quickly and his regular flight checks the most readily, and who received his wings the soonest. For want of a shoe the battle was lost? If that seems farfetched, if that was slavish and unnecessary spit-and- polish, and if a taut ship is merely a nineteenth century flourish, then let us admit that our traditions are artificial and do away with them!
It would appear that our heritage of respect for God and for country is in no way threatened. There has been no temptation to fly the Church Pennant on the same halyard with Baker, and the national ensign still receives just as much deference as she ever has. To be sure, it has been impossible many times in the past five years to “cause divine service to be performed on Sunday,” but this fact is by no means an indication that the Navy is being steered along a course set by an antichrist. Colors have been flown at the dip whenever Death has paid his call, and the significance of this symbol has not been diminished in any of us. This respect for God, who has all mariners in His care, has if anything been augmented during the troublous war years.
Nor has respect for the flag, the symbol of our country, been diluted with the preoccupation of warmaking. The smallest unit of the Navy drilled on two-blocking the jack and shifting the colors at precisely the right moment, even before condition sound teams were organized. The greenest or the busiest ensign halted for a second as his foot touched the deck to pay his respects to the colors. These, and other similar traditions, still seem to be as strong in us as ever. Respect for seniority and for the man himself, however, may be a source of concern if the Navy allows itself to be influenced by certain reactions now making themselves known in the postwar world.
The new trend toward social equality, though at first glance revolutionary, is not so new as it may appear to be. It has been apparent before in the armed forces of other countries and in our own. The Russian army that so disgraced itself in the Finland campaign in the past war was one from which badges of rank, social distinctions, and salutes had been purged. It was not until the war against Germany had begun so inauspiciously that discipline was hurriedly resorted to in order to prevent disaster. Just a year or so ago the Russian leaders ordered even stricter lines to be drawn, in the belief that such a measure would contribute “to the still greater might of the Soviet State.” We can all remember the clampdown that was necessary in our own army shortly before the war when officers and men were overly democratic on the maneuvers in Louisiana. General Jonathan Wainwright in August, 1946, stated that there was such a thing as going too far with democracy in the army. He claimed that association on equal terms “would be the surest way in the world of breaking down discipline. And without discipline, no army is any good.” It is difficult to understand how any military leader or any civilian thinker could disagree.
The advocates of a democratic regime for armed forces would do well to re-examine the history of the performance of American volunteers in all wars up to and including the Civil War. It was not until after the Battle of Bull Run, as a matter of record, that the United States took Congressional action to control the administration of volunteer troops. In Washington’s time the militia voted on whether they should fight or not, on the selection of their own officers, and on when their own enlistments should expire. When the British took the nation’s capital, in the War of 1812, the American forces at Bladensburg consisted of over five thousand democratic militia and one thousand regulars. They were put to flight by fifteen hundred British regulars, who were not, as far as we know now, concerned with the social inequalities of their officers and men. The militia in the Mexican War elected their own leaders, and we are not surprised that the latter cared more to hold their offices than they did to lead their constituents into danger or discomfort. In the Civil War, it took the Congress but one month after Bull Run to realize that the democratic processes followed in the volunteer troops would probably cause defeat. At that time, law was made to provide for the selection of officers according to merit. From that time to this, democratic principles have been followed in conscription only; once enrolled, all personnel have been subject to the same autocracy which is innately distasteful to civilian America but which has three times allowed that same body to enjoy victory.
Familiarity breeds the opposite of respect. Before trying to legislate familiarity, furthermore, it might be well to ask who wants it. What makes anyone think that Judy O’Grady and the Colonel’s Lady want to spend their after-hours together? Does the bank president ask the elevator man over for dinner and an evening of bridge? Is the ensign, Naval Academy 1947, interested in the Old Man’s tales of the Midshipman Corps of 1917? If the seaman and the captain like to play golf or cards, or to drink, each may and does. The fact that they do not usually indulge their pastimes in the same places is often the result of the difference between their ages and pay checks and not because of regulations or traditions “which discourage or forbid social association of (sailors) of similar likes and tastes, because of military rank.”
The reactionary spirit, manifest in those who have agitated for the desirability of social equality in terms of off-the-post association, has even prompted the recommendation to abolish one of the oldest traditions in military lore—the salute. Whether this gesture originated from the raising of the vizor, the shielding of the eyes from brilliance, or merely the sign of lack of armament is not here important. What is of significance, however, is the fact that soldiers and sailors down through the years have used some form of the hand salute as a token of their membership in the ancient and honorable profession of arms. Like the complicated grip exchanged by fraternity brothers, it indicates identity with the group. Possibly, as has been recently claimed, the enlisted man or the junior officer feels that for him to be required to initiate this courtesy is to admit servility or inferiority. It is a pity he never saw the Commander in Chief, U. S. Fleet, render a meticulous salute to the two- striped Officer of the Deck before respectfully requesting “Permission to come on board, Sir.” Does it not seem more likely that it should be a privilege to be authorized to use the same gesture as the ranking member? Yet already the salute is on the way out.
An interesting fact in this connection is that until recently officers and men convicted by court martial were forbidden the privilege of saluting entirely. It is a source for conjecture, furthermore, what the hue and cry would be if it were decreed that out of deference to their rank, seniors should render the salute first, or that officers only would be allowed to render the honor. There can be little doubt that complaints of discrimination would be raised, and the “caste system” castigated anew. Respect for authority and for the dignity of man has been considered by those who would abolish our traditions, but it has been misconstrued.
A man’s respect for his group, and for himself and the part he plays in it, is not deepened if the badges and ceremonies peculiar to the organization are removed from his use. The Navy men who recently expressed a dislike of the proposed substitute for the familiar jumper and Navy pants attest that they prefer the distinctive uniform which has clothed so many heroes in the past to a suit that can easily be mistaken for the outfit of the filling station attendant. To try to bolster a man’s ego by calling him a sailor rather than an enlisted man is to insult his intelligence and to cause him to wonder if, after all, his job as a radioman, a coxswain, or a chief quartermaster is as important as he had believed.
There have been civilian-soldiers who have realized the fundamental concept of the necessity of respect. General Andrew Jack- son and Colonel William Donovan were civilians in uniform, they were believers in the power of tradition and discipline, and they were great leaders. The usual American civilian with military experience, however, is totally unlike either of the exceptions just mentioned. He, on the other hand, is and always has been vehement in his objections to what he calls the artificialities of service life. After each of the World Wars, there has been a concerted drive on the part of discharged personnel to do away with what they disliked, and misunderstood, about life in their country’s uniform. This reaction is natural for citizens of an individualistic and democratic nation like ours, but it has no place in the organizations maintained to protect that nation from all enemies.
So far, the Navy has resisted the persuasiveness of these spurious arguments. So far, the Navy has appreciated the necessity for adherence to tradition. So far, the Navy has heeded the requirement of what a famous history teacher once called the consciousness of kind: “the recollection of glorious deeds done together in the past, and the hope for more deeds to come.” That factor, that recollection, is the distinguishing characteristic of a great nation. So far, it has also been an important feature of the United States Navy. It is, after all, only another name for proper regard for the highest.traditions.