For a Navy that prides itself on being not only the largest and strongest but also the most modern in the world, we seem to have failed in only one field of endeavor, that of personnel management. Our personnel procurement is apparently satisfactory, although the reason it is satisfactory is not altogether to our credit. But when it comes to personnel retention, we have failed miserably. In short, we can get them but we cannot keep them.
The Navy today is manned by volunteers as it always has been, and I believe that because this is so we have not inquired too deeply into the reasons which motivated the recruit to volunteer in the first place. We have tended to believe that it was the call of the sea or the so-called romance of Navy life or the excellence of our recruiting service that fills our ranks with high quality, well educated young men, whereas the plain truth is that in these days of obligatory military service most eligible men volunteer in order to have a choice as to when they do their service and where. Thus, the appeal of naval life and the excellence of our recruiting service comes into play only after the fundamental choice of the timing of obligatory service has been made. It is important that we keep this basic truth in mind, for it indicates that many if not most of our volunteers had no intention of making the Navy a career in the first place, but rather chose the Navy as a place to spend their obligatory military service. In other words, even had we not reluctantly turned again to the draft in October of last year— after operating nine years without it—we could not have claimed to be a volunteer outfit. The draft aside, we are a semi-volunteer service at best.
From our failure to evaluate properly our procurement program stems, in part, our failure to appreciate fully the reasons why we are unable to persuade fine young men to stay in the Navy after their period of obligatory service is over. We have a tendency to think that if 100 young men enlist in the Navy today and only 20 re-enlist four years from now that something has happened during the four years to make the 80 change their minds about a career in the Navy. We look for the causes and we try to correct them. But could it not also be true that few of the absent 80 intended to stay in the Navy in the first place?
Today, as it has been for the past 20 years, the retention of able, highly trained young men has become an ever-increasing problem. Were we in the age of sail today, a high rate of personnel turnover would be undesirable but would be acceptable because the period of training would be short and the monetary cost of recruiting and training would be relatively low. Today, in the age of weapons of greatly increasing complexity, the period of training is long and the cost is large, so large in fact that a high rate of personnel turnover is not merely undesirable, it is all but financially prohibitive. These are the factors that have caused such grave concern in the military services and which recently may have prompted the Secretary of the Navy, Paul H. Nitze, to establish a Board of Personnel Retention.
That career military life is not considered desirable by the youth of our nation is easily established by quoting a few experts on the subject. On 22 October 1964, Secretary Nitze said, “In the Navy, only one out of every three officers and only one of every five enlisted men remain beyond their two to six years of obligated service. Last year (1963) we discharged a total of 81,000 ‘first-termers,’ and we had to replace them with new recruits. Under these circumstances, the magnitude of our training loss is sobering. I have used the Navy as an example; but the situation is the same, though the numbers vary, throughout the Department of Defense.”
On 22 December 1964, the Chief of the Bureau of Personnel stated “In fiscal year 1962, the first term re-enlistment rate was slightly over 28 per cent, the highest it had been since the end of the war. In fiscal 1963, the rate dropped to 25 per cent. In the year just ended, the rate dropped even lower to 22.5 per cent. Figures gathered so far this year indicate that the alarming decline is continuing. In plain English, we are retaining only one man in five who enlists in the Navy. In the critical, highly technical ratings the attrition is even more severe.” And as this is written, in 1965, the rate is reported at 17 per cent.
Statistics are sometimes hard to come by, but let us consider an Associated Press report of 4 March 1965: “The Navy said last year we lost 70,000 first enlistment men who met the standard for reenlistment, more than 12,000 of them electronic specialists.” A New York Times report of 14 March 1965, stated, “124 Naval officers out of a total of 493 specially selected for nuclear training in the last 19 months have resigned from the Navy, or have indicated their intention to resign.”
Let us ponder a moment over the following statement from an editorial from the last named source on the same date. “The Navy’s re-enlistment rate has fallen steadily ever since 1962. Now only one fifth of those eligible re-enlist, and voluntary first enlistments have decreased so materially that the Navy has been forced to quadruple the quota of Mental Group IV, those men with ‘insufficient aptitude to assimilate . . . training in most Navy technical ratings’.”
The same editorial went on to state that 71,000 Air Force personnel are forced to “moonlight” to make ends meet, but that need not concern us here at the moment.
From the above we clearly see that a serious situation exists in the Navy, and in the other Armed Services as well. And something is being done about it. In the March 1965 issue of Direction, an official Navy publication (NAVSOP-2470), three pages were devoted to statements by the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the Chief of Naval Personnel, in that order, who promised: better pay, better housing, better fringe benefits, less separation from families and the like for active duty personnel.
In early May 1965, Secretary Nitze issued an appeal to all officers and men whose period of service was expiring to extend their service by six months or even as little as three months and to volunteer for sea duty. It was reported that this unusual step was caused by the Dominican situation, but it achieved little.
A great many reasons have been given for this drastic falling off of career personnel. The President of the U. S. Navy League, in February 1965, pointed out that the Director of the Laboratories in the New York Naval Shipyard is a captain earning less than $12,000. His civilian assistant earns $24,175, and he has 150 other civilians under his command who earn more than he does. Of course this is so usual as to be commonplace.
The Chief of Naval Personnel in his lecture in Annapolis, Maryland, on 22 October 1964, gave several reasons to account for this serious loss of qualified officers and for the drastic decline in the re-enlistment rate, which included inadequate pay, poor living conditions for the men in barracks, inadequate or inferior housing for dependents or an inadequate housing allowance, loss of so-called fringe benefits such as restricted PX or commissary privileges, limitation of medical attention for dependents, long separations from family, long hours of work, inability to use accrued leave, loss of prestige for self and family and the like. The Chief of Naval Personnel asked for public awareness of these facts to the end that they might be corrected. But what the Chief of Naval Personnel did not explore is why the fifth man re-enlisted when he too had suffered all the hardships and privations of the four men who did not re-enlist.
I believe that we have spent so much time and effort trying to find out why the four men got out of the Navy that we have neglected the most proper and profitable study of why the fifth man re-enlisted in the Navy and why he joined the Navy in the first place. Yet, this is the important question. If we knew why we have hard core career officers and men in spite of all the benefits and blandishments of civilian life, real or imaginary, we would be a long way on the road to the solution of our problem. Of course, this will not be an easy research study. In the first place, I do not believe that, in general, Navy men are articulate, or if they are, that they can or will tell you what truly motivated them either to stay in the Navy or to get out. Just as I would not completely believe the man who said he got out because of poor pay when it was really because his wife wanted to be near her family, so also I would be hesitant to accept the answer of the man who stayed in “because he liked the sea.” That may well enough be true, but it also may be true that he likes the Navy because it is quieter at sea.
I have asked many knowledgeable officers and men both active and retired why the fifth man re-enlists and why the officer stays on after his obligated period of service is over. In general, the answers fall into two classes. The first is, “Why, he liked the Navy.” This, of course, begs the question. The second is, “He couldn’t get a good job on the outside.” If this last is true, which I do not believe, it means that we are only able to retain the worst instead of the best, in which case may Heaven protect the Navy and the United States of America.
I believe that the fifth man is just as able and is just as smart as the other four, but I believe that he sees the situation from a different point of view. I believe that in the main he joined the Navy and chose to make it his career because he believed that, in addition to being a professionally rewarding career, it offered comparative present security but absolute, future, honorable, adequate, and respected retirement. In other words, I feel that he chose to make the Navy his career because he believed that the greatest industrial and the largest insurance institution in the world, the Government of the United States of America, would fulfill its promises to him; that the government would give him the benefits which were in force when he first entered the service.
At this point it might be well if we briefly considered the question as to whether service life is a good life as we consider family life in America today. The root of the matter, I believe, lies in the fact that every honorable man wishes to work for his salt and to rise in his profession or trade, and every good woman wishes to hold her head up in the community. Today we vaguely call this status, and money is not the beginning or the end of it. I recall during the plague campaign in New Orleans 50 years ago, my father, who was in charge, had no difficulty recruiting all the fine, intelligent young men he needed to serve as “rodentologists.” But if he had called for “rat catchers” he could not have recruited a man.
The fact that splendid men and women will work for minimum pay and will endure great hardship if they have the respect of the community is well known. The recruiting appeals of the Peace Corps which offer nothing but hardship and subsistence wages is a present- day example. Robert Falcon Scott recruited his men for the South Pole trip through a three-line newspaper advertisement which promised nothing but suffering, hardship, and little chance of return. The country doctor, pastor, and school teacher of another day were poor in material blessings but were in the front row on the platform when the Governor visited the county seat. It was status, prestige, recognition, call it what you will, but take that away and you must pay more and more for less and less. You can repay a lifetime of service with a medal, so long as you do not cheapen the medal, yet that is precisely what we have been doing with the military services.
Fundamentally, the failure of the United States and the original colonies before them to maintain an adequate and prepared military defense in times of peace stems from the English and American tradition of downgrading the military and making them subservient in all things, in all ways, and at all times to the civilian. Surely by this time the people of the United States have full assurance that the military are equally patriotic and the civilian has certainly seen that never in practice has the military questioned the authority of the civilian. So now perchance the civilian branch can forget the fears of the founding fathers of “The man on horseback,” at least to the extent of giving equal pay and equal recognition for equal work. Or possibly for not quite equal work, for as the Chief of Naval Operations said on 27 October 1964, “Cold War deployments have exacted the inevitable price tag—the Navy alone has lost more than 6,000 pilots and air crewmen in operational accidents during the 18 years of Cold War operations.” This does not include the loss of the submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) and her crew.
As we have seen, four out of five young men do not find a Navy career attractive. The reasons usually given are poor pay, long hours, long separations, and the like. But to these must be added lack of recognition by their countrymen. When a Navy man steps ashore he too often becomes a second class citizen, and the appellation of “Navy Wife” is frequently used not to honor but to degrade. If the man in uniform was received with but one one-hundredth the enthusiasm that is now given to pop singers and bongo beaters by the American people, our personnel problems in the Navy would be over and Congress could consider deficiencies of pay and housing with no sense of urgency. But as the American people are not likely to forego one of their most expensive and damaging forms of diversion, that of sticking pins in the military balloon, we must turn from unprofitable speculations as to why four out of five men leave the service and examine that fifth man who, beset on all sides, still loves the service and makes it a career. For him at least the service is rewarding. There is comradeship, the sense of accomplishment and of service. If his countrymen but held him in a little higher esteem in so called times of peace, his lot would be well nigh ideal. Our problem is really to keep him and to find more like him.
At this point I think we might well digress a moment to speak of the law and of contracts. The law under which an officer or an enlisted man lives almost all his adult life is naval law, and that law states that the “customs and traditions of the service” are law and are binding when (1) they are of long duration, (2) they are universal in application, and (3) they are not contrary to good order and discipline. Thus the naval man, possibly erroneously, believes that the U. S. government is bound by the same code of ethics, of morals, and of conduct that it has prescribed for its servants, for let us not forget that all Navy Regulations are there either by the direction of Congress or by congressional approval.
As to contracts, it is true that every officer and man signs a contract, but this contract is for the benefit of the government. There is nothing in the contract which specifically says what the government will do for him. But there is such a thing as an implied contract and an implied warranty. And this is what the fifth man believes and in which he puts his trust. He believes that the benefits which were in force when he enlisted and the benefits which may be granted in addition during his period of service will be his when he has completed his part of the bargain and hai honorably served his time. What we are saying is that the fifth man is the man who believes the promises of the recruiting posters, the recruiting literature, the Navy Department, and the Department of Defense. He is that rare individual who “is more to be prized than diamonds and rubies,” he is the man who has faith. He is the hard core of the Navy, the backbone of the Service, the ultimate man behind the gun, and he is the first man who will suffer if the recruiting poster promises are not fulfilled to the letter.
It should not be necessary for citizens in this country to remind our government, that is to say our elected public officials, that the strength of our government, our credit and our honor require that we collectively keep our word and fulfill our promises. Yet, unfortunately, this reminder must be made—or expediency and slipshod ethics take over. Listen to Justice Hugo Black of the Supreme Court speaking on 18 January 1965, “The contract clause was included in the same section of the Constitution which forbids States to pass bills of attainder or ex post facto laws. All three of these provisions reflect the strong belief of the framers of the Constitution that men should not have to act at their peril, fearing always that the state might change its mind and alter the legal consequences of their past acts so as to take away their lives, their liberty or their property. James Madison explained that the people were ‘weary of the fluctuating policy’ of state legislatures and wanted it made clear that under the new government men could safely rely on states to keep faith with those who justifiably relied on their promises.”
In the light of this we may well note part of an article in the Journal of the Armed Forces of 6 February 1965: “It will be catastrophic to military morale in the Active and Reserve Force if retirement rules again are changed in the middle of the game,” and also, “If there are to be changes in the retired military system the revised rules must provide that privileges and rights now in force will not be changed to the detriment of Armed Forces members. There has been too much of that in recent years.”
As Mr. Justice Black said in his dissenting opinion in the case of The Tuscaroras in 1960, in which Chief Justice Earl Warren and Mr. Justice William O. Douglas joined, “Great nations like great men should keep their word.”
Now, on the one hand from a solely patriotic point of view, we are loathe to question the acts of the government, while on the other hand our practical and legal sense tells us that all men are fallible and that the government is composed of men and not of angels. Thus, it is appropriate to our discussion to question whether the Navy, the Department of Defense, and the Congress can or will fulfill their obligations, implied or real, to the men now in the military services active or retired.
It so happens that we have an answer readily at hand. On 24 November 1964, the Department of Justice, that is to say the United States, filed a motion to dismiss in the suit of Charles Andrews et al. This suit is entirely germane, for Charles Andrews is a retired naval officer who has, with 2,500 other retired officers of the military services, sued to recover certain sums which he claims were illegally withheld from him by reason of the pay acts of 1958 and 1963 which abrogated the principle of 100 years standing which tied retired pay to a percentage of active duty pay. In effect, he claims that the government has evaded a contractual obligation, and if the government is bound by custom and tradition it would appear that lie is correct. In the motion to dismiss, the contention of the government is that public servants other than the President of the United States and the judiciary have no vested rights but are subject to the will of the legislature, that is to say of Congress.
Bluntly, this means that no officer or man, active or retired, in any of the seven uniformed services can expect that any promises or commitments made to him have any value. It means that no matter what recommendations the various newly appointed boards on personnel may submit, they will be, if ad opted, good for this day and this trip only. Tomorrow the ticket may or may not be valid, and none of the promises of the Navy Department and of the Department of Defense will make it any different, for the Executive Branch of the government has clearly stated that so far as they are concerned the Legislative Branch of the government can change the rules of the game at any time for any reason and no one can do anything about it.
How did we get into this predicament? In 1958, the Department of Defense felt and the Congress agreed that it was necessary to raise service pay. This would of course raise the cost of running the Department of Defense. Thus, if the defense budget was not increased, an economy had to be effected somewhere. One way would be to reduce the amount of “hardware” purchased, which was of course unacceptable. Another way, among others, was not to increase proportionately the pay of retired personnel. A morale problem here would have little effect. This was done and, over a period of five years and four months, the Department of Defense saved an estimated 34 million dollars at the expense of retired personnel. That this broke a precedent of 100 years standing apparently was given no consideration. This figure of 34 million spread over 64 months is most interesting when we consider that by all accounts the recent shipping strike is estimated to have cost 67 million dollars per day for 32 days. Yet, our giant economy was able to take the shipping strike in its stride.
Department of Defense officials when testifying about budget matters never fail to refer to the rising cost of retired pay which is expected to rise for the next ten years. In the next fiscal year, retired pay will amount to $1.5 billion. One way to relieve the Department of Defense of this non-productive expense would be to transfer retired officers to another agency for pay purposes when the Department of Defense certifies them as no longer having any military potential by reason of age or physical disability.
At this time while the Department of Defense is eyeing the ever-mounting cost of retired pay with a view to its reduction, other branches of the government are considering ways by which the income of the entire nation can be raised. It has been said that we are able to produce unlimited wealth today and that the only problem is one of distribution. That these steps will involve grave changes in manners and outlook is admitted, but we are on our way. If this be true, the problem of our ever-mounting cost of personnel may in the end reduce itself into a mere matter of bookkeeping. But this is in the future. Our present problem is one of integrity and this we must not lose now, while planning for a utopian tomorrow.
I feel that a great many officers and men no longer believe that the Navy Department can keep its promises, real or implied, to its men, and their faith that the Navy will fight for its own in the clinches has been sadly impaired. While this makes the conduct of the four previously mentioned men quite understandable, it also places the fifth man among the angels. Yet, while he may not be concerned while on active duty, this is the very man who will be penalized when the overall retirement bill becomes greater than it is convenient for the Department of Defense to take up in its budget.
There are many indications that this point has already been reached, and the pay bill of 1958 is but one straw in the wind. It may be convenient today, as a matter of expediency, to alleviate the depressing housing and the like on the basis of supplying as good warehousing for men as we do for airplanes, in the hope of retaining one or two more of the four men who get out. In brief, to spend a little money now to cut down on training and recruiting costs, to show an over-all saving which can be directed into hardware without increasing the total budget. But sooner or later you will face the problem of that fifth man. Will the commitments to him be honored or will he be wholly at the will of the Defense Department and the Congress and wholly dependent on their sense of expediency?
Eventually the problem may solve itself. I say this in view of the large number of retirement plans both public and private now in force and the growing tendency among our people toward early retirement, often enforced, in both public and private life. But in the meantime we should not penalize the fifth man.
Above all we should keep faith with our people. We should keep our promises. We should not in the name of expediency circumvent our legal and moral obligations to our people. In truth, the honor of our country and of the Navy is involved, and it is a matter of honor, for the officers and men have fulfilled their part of the bargain. Once we break faith with our people and they realize it—and the youngsters are smarter these days—our fighting strength is halved or quartered, for as has been so often said, “the spiritual is to the material as three to one.”
The moral, then is, “Find out, if we can, why the fifth man stays in the Navy. But even more important, whatever the cost, keep faith, with him against the world.”