The words “ ... in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service” are a part of every award made to U. S. Navy men for valiance, courage, outstanding performance, or heroism. Since the beginning of the now classic unification controversy, it has been argued that the one-service concept would result in a loss of these motivating traditions and deny to our fighting men the inspirational spark or esprit de corps that so often is the difference between dedicated action and just doing the job. The heritages of sea power have been as important to naval officers as the heritage of democratic action is to the American people. Having been deeply rooted in the spirit of John Paul Jones, George Dewey, “Bull” Halsey, and all the others, these traditions have operated to establish a separate and distinct Navy image. Our literature is now full of powerful entreaties to maintain, re-establish, or reaffirm this Navy image through high echelon leadership. But through all this there is a vein of sincere inquiry which suggests that the changing sociology within the defense establishment, with its joint staffs, overlapping of functions, and unified commands, labels us as parochial to insist on a distinct Navy image. In this era, when America has such a vital role in world leadership, it is often insisted that we must emphasize the national image. There can be no doubt that we must have a national image; and that there really is one— for good or for bad—does not seem open to serious question. It has many faces: “The Ugly American,” the Peace Corps, the tourist, the GI, and so many others. But the matter of a Navy image is more involved and closer to our vested interest.
It is possible that we cherish the idea of a Navy image more from emotion and nostalgia than from reasoning, and we should ask ourselves some practical questions. If we desire to restore the Navy image (assuming that it is lost), what is it we would be restoring? Aside from the uniform, is there anything that distinguishes the naval officer from the officer of other military services? Did the Farraguts, the Perrys, and the Nimitzes have in common a trait or characteristic peculiar to their nautical environment? If so, let us reflect and consider what this trait or traits might be. The naval officer of yore is classically dedicated, trustworthy, mature, remarkably self-possessed, and self-sufficient. These qualities offer a clue, but if I wanted to put it in two words. I would say that the difference between the character of the naval officer and other military officers lies in the degree to which he displays responsible initiative. This is a characteristic or trait which has been thrust upon him by a long historical background of reliance upon innate initiative, acquired through protracted periods at sea, physically separated from the watchful eye of his seniors.
Many of us were drawn to the sea service by fascinating stories of naval captains who were given sealed orders which were not to be opened until 200 miles at sea. There was no Op-Order; it was too late to do your homework and ask a lot of unnecessary questions; you were on your own—relying solely on background and initiative.
As midshipmen 20-odd years ago, we were impressed with the idea that if there was one difference between a Navy man and an Army man (and we were conditioned to notice the difference), it was that the Navy man, regardless of rank, had some authority to make decisions, exercise initiative, and not buck every little question up to the captain or the colonel. It used to be part of the tradition that Navy Regulations were a crutch for the mediocre officer. Any naval officer worth his salt could get along on basic knowledge of the sea and his men, combined with forehandedness and initiative.
If the image has tarnished, then perhaps it is because we have lost sight of its characteristics. In these changing times, we may be guilty of having de-emphasized initiative or of trying to substitute something else. To counter the debilitating effects of the demobilization following World War II, we saw a need to rekindle the strong spirit of leadership that had carried us through this conflict. Leadership has a broad spectrum which among other things must encompass initiative, but in the Fifties we began to interpret leadership primarily in terms of a new trait— supervision. Supervision indeed became almost a fad, a panacea for the internal troubles of our times. Supervision was a psychological outgrowth of these times and its evolution is interesting. It is the by-product of communications, socio/psychology, inflation, technological advance, the hump, and several other factors. To trace its origin, we should go back to 20 years World War II.
World War II produced a remarkable number of individual heroes, persons with a can-do spirit that advertised Yankee ingenuity in every corner of the globe. It was a war which embodied great tragedy and comedy, pathos and humor.
As we forget the hardship and remember the sea stories, we realize that World War II was probably the last truly personal war we will ever fight as free-wheeling individuals. We improvised and orchestrated as we went along. There were great slogans such as “The impossible, we do immediately; miracles take a little longer,” “Sighted sub—sank same” (note that he didn’t ask permission), and “Am proceeding at 31 knots.” (Future war Op-Orders undoubtedly will prescribe speed of advance.)
This was the heyday of initiative. A fact which sometimes led unfortunately to irresponsible excesses. The popular art of resupply by “midnight requisition,” which in time of war had kept many an operating unit on the line, gradually came into disrepute, since in peacetime it played havoc with any type of efficient system. Suddenly the entrepreneurs of the sea service were outcast relics of last year’s war. If the new logistic support system was to be allowed to work, it had to be supervised.
At the end of World War II, everyone settled into the doldrums. We went through a period in which the fire of combat had gone out and, though there were still tasks to accomplish, there was no enthusiasm to do them. Those who went through this period cannot help but feel that the quality of performance from both the officer corps and the enlisted ranks dropped alarmingly. Not until the Korean War and later did the quality of performance begin to improve.
As part of the sociological revolution that overtook the country after World War II, the Navy of this postwar period produced a dichotomy of archetypes—a leadership group of dedicated sincere officers and a very weak group whose members stayed on after the war for a lack of any real purpose. This was the setting for the birth of officer supervision.
Many otherwise excellent officers found to their dismay that it was necessary to oversupervise a large number of their junior officers. It started through the fact that a very real part of the officer corps could not be relied upon to carry out effectively their responsibilities. From there it was virtually inevitable that it should spread like a disease or habit. Unconsciously, seniors began to breath too closely down the necks of even their most trustworthy juniors.
They even invented a ploy which has come to be known as “shotgunning”; telling two or three persons to do the same thing, hoping that maybe one of them will carry out the orders. Leadership in its darkest hour fell back upon such supervisory tactics as the requiring of endless progress reports, SITREPS and other time-consuming reminders invariably justified under the guise of “keeping the boss informed.”
Several other factors of course contributed to the excesses of supervision. Two are closely related—technological advance and inflation. The initial investment, maintenance, and repair costs of our modern naval and military equipment increased so astronomically that commanders and commanding officers found themselves in the unfortunate position of not being able to afford to trust anyone without over-zealous supervision. Squadron commanding officers shuddered to discover that they had the custody and responsibility for 14 jet aircraft that cost over a million dollars each and that had to be flown daily by young naval aviator officers only recently graduated from cadet status. They were understandingly apprehensive about the care and feeding of these birds. Right or wrong, they too often substituted the yoke and chains of pervasive supervision in place of leadership and the inculcation of responsible initiative.
A third factor is a psychological one with a more subtle relationship to supervision. This is “the hump” with its paucity of promotion opportunities. The belief is prevalent that it would take only about one untoward incident within command and that would be all for the commanding officer. For many, the only obvious way to tighten up the unit and avoid these incidents was to rely on what often became heavy-handed, initiative-stifling supervision.
The concept of supervision per se certainly should not be totally condemned. It can and should be an excellent tool of leadership, but its proper use is generally misunderstood.
Even though we tend today to minimize the differences between officers and enlisted men, and though we stress leadership heavily at both levels, there is still an inherent gulf between them that is best characterized by the fact that one supervises the other. We recognize this relationship in our enlisted evaluation sheet which calls for a grade indicating the degree to which he “works well with minimum supervision.” The deeper implication of course is that as an enlisted man grows in the development of officer-like qualities, he throws off the yoke of supervision for the privilege of responsibility. We encourage this and then break down the system through the heresy of officer supervision.
The abuses of supervision have become so widespread that they now extend far beyond the minor annoyances accompanying the “in command” aspect of the problem.
Squadron commanders spend a disproportionate amount of their time in conferences reporting to their CAG, and the air group commanders in turn are all too frequent visitors at the Fleet Air Headquarters. All this is done in the name of keeping the commander informed, but it is too often simply over- protective supervision. And our modern advances “aid and abet.” The helicopter permits the CruDesFlot Commander to assemble his commanding officers every Sunday after church for a little “skull practice.” Supervision? Not necessarily, but at least such sessions are in the pattern.
What is the danger in supervision and how is it related to initiative? The great danger is not the obvious one that supervision can become a habit and create a dependency which grows to the point where independent action is impossible. This is an important part of it and certainly contributes to the degredation of initiative; but the major concern is the fact that too close supervision removes the responsibility for decision. Consider possibly from your own experience the officer who was an outstanding executive officer, a thorough administrator, and excellent shiphandler, who never hesitated to make decisions or to use imagination and drive. He was fine with the commanding officer present giving his nod of approval at just the right time. But when he himself became commanding officer and had to assume the responsibility for all decisions it was another matter. This change of role has reduced many otherwise dynamic officers into confidence-shaken men of indecision; who now as commanding officers pass their decisions on up the line to the group or force level.
Communications is guilty of playing a part in the perversion of supervision. In great use today, along with the message SITREP mentioned earlier, is the use of “UNODIR.” Properly employed, of course, UNODIR (unless otherwise directed, I intend to) is a remarkably effective tool of the outstanding officer with true initiative. As a time-saver in bypassing the double step of asking and receiving permission, it should be strongly encouraged. Unfortunately, too often it is a device to avoid responsibility for a decision and when it is countenanced in this context, it is supervision in one of its subtler, more initiative-inhibiting forms.
One may well argue the point that there is no great fault in supervision. Indeed modern communications and rapid transportation combined with the proper methods of supervision make it possible to ensure the application of top executive level (and hopefully the best) thinking to any given situation. It provides a direct method by which we may avoid costly mistakes, achieve receptive avenues for the exchange of ideas, and promulgate command policy. But there are several things wrong with this line of reasoning and eventually, no matter how well intended supervision is, it must stifle initiative. For one thing, rapidity of communication and the sheer volume of directive correspondence ensure that the unit level commander will not have time to think for himself.
It has become literally possible for a ship’s commanding officer to be so burdened with instructional trivia that he has neither time nor leeway for excursions into the heady realm of independent action. Eventually, from lack of practice, he is unable to apply his own reasoning to any given situation.
Supervision is sometimes accepted as a magic word and indeed properly administered, it is a keystone of successful management. We have discussed its relevant application as the tool of junior officers interrelating with their enlisted men. There is another area of naval management that desperately needs the sobering influence of responsible supervision. This is at the weapons systems development level in Washington. The technical bureaus and material development effort at the headquarters level are so compartmentized that co-ordination of effort is only possible through strong responsible supervision. An example may be cited in the hero program (Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance). For years the Fleet has been plagued with the incompatibility of some electrically fuzed weapons and shipboard electronic emitters. Ordnance and rocket motors are usually fuzed by electroexplosive devices (EED) which under certain conditions may be actuated spuriously by the energy from nearby radio or radar transmitters. A practice rocket fires from the wing of an aircraft sitting on the deck of a carrier and the plane captain is accused of having turned on the wrong switches. Actually, the fault is more likely a lack of supervision at the time of rocket motor development to satisfy the requirement that it could operate safely in the electronic environments to which it would be exposed. On the other hand, perhaps there was no strong knowledgeable supervision to ensure that we did not develop, buy, and install electronic emitters whose characteristics and power exceeded the inherent resistance of exposed ordnance—or possibly even created personnel hazards. Fortunately, these problems are coming to resolution but only after the application of some very high level attention.
The supervision of systems development is absolutely vital. In consideration of any new proposal, we must ensure that there is a program set up to manage adequately its progress.
The next pitfall of misapplied supervision at the command level is the inhibiting effect it may have on the development of a normal line of replacement in the hierarchy of leadership. We can observe this quite dramatically in the strongly authoritarian governments of the world. When control and supervision is domineering or complete, there is no chance for the emergence of the imaginative leadership and creative initiative so essential at the seat of government. There always is a dearth of talent to succeed to the head of such states. Sometimes this growth is restrained through fear and jealousy, but even more often it is simply the enervating result of the lack of opportunity for prospective heirs to practice command leadership. Examples of note that could be cited are the reigns and administrations of Synghman Rhee, Chiang Kai-Shek, Juan Perón, Franco, and to some extent, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The difference in leadership development between an atmosphere of close supervision and one in which individual initiative is encouraged, may be illustrated by an example comparing two quite different types of fighter squadrons in a typical Navy Air Group. Because of the variance in the mission and weapon system characteristics, the tactical doctrine and supervision habits between day and night squadrons are quite different. In the day fighter squadron, the pilots fly normally in sections or divisions of two and four aircraft each and they receive close personal guidance under the watchful eye of the flight or division leader. These pilots develop eventually into competent aviators and naval officers, but often their growth and promotion into leadership roles as division leaders and squadron department heads is quite slow.
On the other hand, consider the night fighter squadron with its different mode of operation. These pilots perforce must operate alone; for all practical purposes, removed from “parental” supervision. They are uniquely akin to the old-time naval officers with sealed orders. Off on a mission, flying singly, they must rely on background, training, and initiative. In this situation there exists a real challenge to leadership. The commanding officer cannot fall back on supervision. He must be certain that they are trained and endowed with a sure sense of responsibility and trustworthiness. These young and embryonic officers are required to launch into the night, through all weather, cope with the vagaries of both elements and machine, and bring a million-and-a-half- dollar airplane back safely to the carrier, hours later. These lads become real pros in short order. They must in order to carry out their tasks. Both they and the Navy reap other tangible dividends. The initiative they learn in the air is transferred to their collateral duties as administrators, as division officers, and in establishing a sense of purpose to the supervision that they exercise over the crew. These are mature officers, ready for accelerated advancement to positions of increasing responsibility. They have grown up having to rely on initiative, not supervision, and there will never be a vacuum of leadership in this squadron. As the senior officers are transferred and move on, the positions of responsibility are almost automatically filled in a natural succession to command.
It used to be one of the privileged axioms of leadership that the commander would tell his commanding officers what to do but not how to do it. It was assumed that they knew how and would carry out orders and instructions. It might be necessary to improvise a little, but this was initiative and no one pressed too closely for the details. This was the Navy image: officers trained to command; in ships operating independently far from home base, in aircraft in lone battles with the elements and the enemy, and in submarines out of touch in the lonely silence beneath the sea. The only dependence these officers had was upon self and a trained crew.
The difference in images between the services becomes apparent when we compare this to the environment in which our land armies usually operate. The platoon, company, battalion, brigade, and division are pyramided into relatively close physical contact. Here supervision is less onerous and almost impossible to avoid. The military soldier image, as distinguished from the naval, is unswerving obedience and tenacity of purpose.
Before continuing, we should summarize some of the disadvantages associated with the practice of focusing initiative and choice of action at only the highest levels and depending upon supervision to carry out desired courses of action. These are:
Too much dependence upon the correctness of a small nucleus of staff officers who, while generally competent and effective, may be subject to misinterpretation, arrogance, caprice, or myopia.
Inhibition of the development of replacement leadership, creating vacuums upon the retirement or incapacitation of strong seniors.
Restriction of the maturing process in junior officers.
Reduction of the possible number of solutions that may be brought to bear on any situation because answers are being directed downward from a single source rather than boiling up from many.
On the other hand, there is the case that can be made for responsible supervision. Weapon sophistication and cost demand it, and vastly improved communications systems make it possible. Are these considerations integrating us unconsciously into a co-ordinated single service and usurping our need for a Navy image? If we surrender to the expediency of supervision, what will be our future source of officers richly endowed with initiative and the capacity for creative, imaginative thought and action? In many ways the case for the “non-puppet” may be stronger today than ever before.
Coming increasingly into positions of eligibility for high command are a group of outstanding naval officers who spent their formative years in the make-do atmosphere of World War II. Now they have been nurtured by the technological revolution in weaponry and are inheriting fantastic new “instruments of national policy” such as the nuclear- powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, the nuclear Polaris submarines, the nuclear guided missile cruiser Long Beach, and the intricate complexes of aircraft and ships that make up the amphibious and antisubmarine forces. These units are linked to each other or associated forces and fleet commanders by a vast communications network ranging from ultra high frequency (UFH) to the new and vital tool of command, single side band radio (SSB). To accomplish their mission, which is to spread the deterrent power of the Navy to all corners of the world, these components must range farther, and deploy more loosely than ever before. They stand dispersed and poised to counter all threats; from the horror of nuclear holocaust to the malignant scab of small scale insurgency.
These are forces which for all their communications are so complicated and diversified that they cannot be completely or satisfactorily directed from “headquarters.” Unfortunately, many of the fine group of officers who command these units are often cruelly disillusioned as they try to operate under the shackles and excesses of supervision too frequently based on insecurity.
At a recent meeting of the Ship haracteristics Board deliberating on the design of a new aircraft carrier, it was suggested that in view of the facilities being provided elsewhere in the ship it would not be necessary to include a flag bridge. Instant objection was raised. The point was strongly made that if the division commander was not provided with his own bridge, he would be up with the captain —ostensibly observing but actually supervising and second-guessing. It is indicative of the inroads that the cult of supervision has made on our times that it is felt necessary to provide a flag bridge just to keep the staff from minding the ship’s business.
Not long ago the captain and executive officer of a carrier were duly relieved and reassigned together as chief of staff and operations officer of a division staff destined to ride the same CVA. I have no doubt that the individuals involved, being outstanding officers, made the most of an unfortunate situation but the point of interest in the telling is that the universal reaction of responsible Navy men to the thought of this assignment has been one of incredulity that the Navy could thoughtlessly create a situation that would so obviously invite “that’s-not-the-way-I’d-have- done-it” supervision.
As we stand today on the threshold of the space age, there is an ever-expanding need for initiative at all levels of command. Men and units will increasingly encounter situations that have not been anticipated in the war rooms of the large staffs. They must be prepared through daily drill and application to exercise the initiative that was so vital to the "man-of-war’s man” in the early days of "line-of-sight” flag hoist communications. The carrier skipper of today may find himself in command of a detached unit in support of the landing of a small counter insurgency force. He has communications but no precedent, and this is hardly the time or place to “staff” a problem that requires action now.
Communications or not, there is certainly an obvious parallel between the space ship captains of tomorrow and the Captain Cooks of yesterday.
The recently imposed Cuban quarantine is certainly a splendid example of a situation whose handling would call for an outstanding display of diplomacy, judgment, tact, and initiative from the officers involved regardless of grade.
We all intuitively rebel against certain aspects of supervision particularly when it is overbearing and unnecessary. We recognize that lack of dependency on it is a virtue as we noted in the enlisted man who is graded according to his ability to perform effectively without it. And no one would deny the ultimate horror we experience in contemplation of the total supervision of “1984” when “Big Brother” is always watching.
None of this is intended to minimize the role of supervision. Its proper use today is most vital for all of the reasons earlier cited and particularly because of the catastrophic consequences of its lack under certain circumstances. As part of the price we pay for progress, we must accept the terrible responsibility for weapons and equipment that are almost prohibitively expensive and which are so devastating in their effect that it would be the height of folly not to ensure foolproof supervisory control of their use.
This thesis has not dealt with the pros and cons of unification as such, although one of its purposes has been to examine the threat of unification to the traditional image of the sea service. More pertinent than this has been the attempt to define the Navy image in order to determine whether it should be preserved or allowed to perish in favor of the less parochial national image. Identification has been primarily in terms of the traits and characteristics of responsible initiative as contrasted to oppressive supervision. The importance of the argument is in relation to the future of the defense establishment. What traits will be most valuable in the Navy or service man of tomorrow? It takes little imagination to conceive that the space age will restore the environment of loneliness and adventure that spawned our great sea traditions of initiative and independence.
We feel strongly that rather than surrender the Navy image, we should expand its application. The future will see a revolutionary change in the traditional employment of ground forces with their close-knit platoon, company, and battalion relationships. Air drops and the thin deployment of integral but isolated troops are expected to stay a pace ahead of the capability of communications alone to effect command supervision.
There is ample witness to this in an observation relayed from the guerrilla fighting in South East Asia, stating in effect:
There is too much rigidity of command; i.e., battalion and company commanders are not given leeway to be flexible and hit targets of opportunity. Lower echelon commanders dare not embark on operations not approved by regimental and division commanders. We should work for a situation . . . where junior commanders get the glory and seniors the blame (reverse of present). This will stimulate initiative and aggressive spirit.
We must conclude that the Navy image can not be allowed to expire, but must be reasserted, and if indeed the events of the future should indicate that our national interests are best served by some degree of unification, then the Navy image of responsible initiative should qualify in large part as the model for a new national service image.
It is the challenge of command to walk the tightrope between too much supervision and the premature assignment of unmanageable responsibility. A commander in dealing with his subordinates must instill a clear picture of what is required. He must assess at what point in each officer’s development he is ready to assume the responsibility for carrying out the purpose of command, and then he must cut the umbilical cord and trust him. From this point on, supervision is intuitive. It is exercised through assessment of results, interpretation of rf torts, and analysis of personal reactions. For some commanders this is hard, for others it is impossible, but there is no other way to inculcate effective initiative. Each subordinate must be led to understand that he is expected to carry out his tasks without constant overseeing. More importantly, since he is allowed the luxury of being on his own, he must be prepared to assume responsibility for the consequences of his actions—along with his commanding officer. He must understand how to supervise his men and yet “back off” when he sees emergent qualities of leadership that should be fostered not stifled.
As the British would say, “It’s a sticky wicket,” for as we have pointed out, the results of failure may approach the cosmic. But in the cause of liberty the rewards are worth the risk and the effort. The encouragement of responsible initiative in our armed forces could be our greatest secret weapon. It is alien to the ken of our enemy; it is at the heart of what separates the East and the West, the free and the slave; and it is potentially the key ingredient of the elixir of freedom.