Prize Essay 1972
SECOND HONORABLE MENTION
Perhaps never again will a parade by bluejackets in downtown Long Beach—or any other American city—draw the crowds this one did in 1931. One never sees a uniform on the streets any more. Servicemen who were drafted or enlisted to escape the draft, are regarded as victims. Those who choose to be in, and stay in, are regarded as fools, knaves, or worse.
A civilian, removed by many miles and many years from any participation in, or contact with the Armed Services, coming suddenly upon the pages of the Proceedings, is struck by the feelings of alarm and dismay contained therein over the state of the Navy. The feeling is particularly sharp when one remembers the proud and pre-eminent Navy of not so long ago.
Through these articles and comments, with pride of place unquestionably belonging to the 1971 Prize Essay, runs a common theme. A complacent bureaucracy, huge and soft in its indecisiveness, timid in its resistance to change, and bland in its diffusion of responsibility, has given the Navy inferior ships, inferior weapons, and inferior planes at staggering costs. It has also done everything short of conscious positive action to ensure that its officers and men will leave the Service at the first possible moment. Meanwhile our existing fleet wears out and rusts out, with the specter of our continuing decay made more chilling by the presence on the oceans of a new, powerful, and truly modern Soviet fleet.
The various bills of particulars are too well known to be repeated here. Also, they can be far better stated and discussed by those in uniform.
However, there is a neglected element. It is the failure to give sufficient weight to the fact that an armed service is what it is because of the society that created it, and sustains it. Indeed, it is an extension of that society in special form.
The Royal Navy could never be identical with the French Navy, if for no other reason than that the British are not like the French. Likewise, Hitler’s Wehrmacht could never have been like the Red Army.
The faults and weaknesses of today’s Navy are children of the faults and weaknesses of today’s society, modified by the special conditions of the Service. Before we can hope to correct the Navy’s maladies, we must examine the ills afflicting the civilian world and understand how they came to be.
Our culture comes from the Renaissance, was modified by conditions in Northwest Europe, especially England, and underwent a sea change when it lodged in North America. Flowing from all this was a series of interrelated phenomena. There was an explosion of knowledge which resulted in what we call the Industrial Revolution, although it was much more than that. There was a political revolution leading to representative democracy, and there was a growth in humanism, more or less filling the void left by the decline of religion. Finally, there was the extraordinary chance to develop and exploit, undisturbed, a huge, rich, empty continent in the North Temperate Zone.
All this led to America’s present power and her present problems. We are so powerful, so confused, and so ineffective. Our country is wandering in a wasteland of its own making, and has yet to develop the wit or the will to travel towards more fruitful fields. Success can be more difficult to live with than failure. Power is far colder than weakness.
To deal with its affairs, society developed the organization, the group, the corporate body. These instrumentalities have evolved until they have acquired a life, an importance, and a purpose of their own. Our means have become ends in themselves. Our servants have become our masters.
The individual is under enormous pressure to belong to something, and in belonging he must conform to its codes, its mores, and its outward forms. While we speak of a free society where any person can do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else, we really do not like individuality.
This is as true of the young as it is of those of more mature years. The society of youth is every bit as dictatorial, full of foibles, and bound by iron as that of its elders; if anything, its pressures are at least as ferocious.
Along with this, there is a frowning upon individual decisions on matters of policy. Most corporate executives have very little freedom to decide and execute. It is almost superfluous to add that the same is true in government.
The whole Vietnam business has always been a product of group decisions, based upon other group decisions, which in turn act as foundation material for still more group decisions. The superiority of this process over individual decision-making is questionable, to say the least.
Owing to the highly corporate nature of our society, individual responsibility has been lost, as has freedom. Responsibility in public and private affairs is dissipated in unending honeycombs of structure. Since no one and everyone possesses it, the wrongdoer is never responsible, society is. Those who fail in the performance of their duties do so because pressures from unspecific persons above them, and unnamed colleagues around them, have collectively made them do what they do. It is remarkable not only that responsibility is forever shifted from the individual to the mazes of the organization, but also that the process is widely accepted with little qualm or comment.
It is not by accident that the dominance of the group occurs in the land where advertising and public relations have been developed to the fine and sophisticated arts they are. To develop and maintain adequate markets for our mass production, we must buy this, do that, and pour ourselves into the many molds these arts have created for us. We are commanded to obey the dictates of these media or else we will fall away into limbo and merit public scorn. No one must be different, for this is heresy.
Mass aggregations of people, money, and physical possessions have not given us courage to face today and tomorrow. We are terrified, not only of the results of our success, but also of success itself.
A feeling has grown up that it is wrong to be powerful, it is immoral to have achieved great things requiring intense intellectual or material effort, as our space program has, and that success itself is synonymous with evil.
A remarkable example of this is the changed feeling in certain circles towards Israel. When it was struggling to survive and provide the final home for the refugees who came to it, no praise was too high. When it succeeded so brilliantly in 1967 in its trial at arms, the attitude was completely reversed, and has remained so ever since. It is now considered wrong for Israel to win its wars.
Our centers of higher learning, of all places, have frequently fostered an attitude that great intellectual achievement is wrong. Understanding can only be reached by feeling and emotion. These only are the true and valid ways. Thinking is profoundly evil. This is the age of Aquarius.
The root cause of this is possibly owing to a perversion of a lofty humanism that, in its perversion, rejects the Puritan ethic of hard work. The peaks of achievement must be scaled no more. We must lose ourselves in a swamp of emotional lassitude that the young, the overindulged, and the unwashed call love.
The 20th century may be characterized in many ways. One way to consider it is as a century in revolt against the ethics and mores of its immediate predecessor. We like to think that this nation received its form in the 18th century, and so it did in matters of government. Yet, with all due respect to that marvelous era, in large degree, we are what we are because of Victoria and the 19th century. Its outlook, its prejudices, and its genius, were formed in a time when the world made its way much as it had for milleniums [sic] before.
The 19th century’s driving qualities powered the most incredible change in human affairs ever known, a change that is still going on. This process has been in being for the last 175 years, acquiring an ever-mounting acceleration in the last century. Within the life span of people now in their middle years the rate of change has become awesome.
In large degree, owing to a longing for more comfortable systems of thought, we have rejected the stern philosophy of our grandsires. For almost 75 years, we have been assaulting the last century, and the process of demolition is far advanced. Absolutes have given way to relative values, and we have become the children of permissiveness.
There is really no contradiction between the autocracy of the mass and permissiveness. The mass is governed by its majority, and the majority is enamored by the easier ways and softer teachings of modern thinking, which only our successes made possible. Stoicism is as dead in the present day as the Caesars of ancient Rome, and the only treason is the exhibition of real individuality and responsibility.
Another factor is also at work. Our brilliant and overwhelming material success reached a critical point in the 1950s. What resulted was a decade in which everything was bland and calm under a smiling sun. Material achievement for its own sake became an article of faith, indeed the only article of faith for a generation brought up in the Depression, and seared by World War II. Now that it had triumphed, it expressed itself in ever-growing suburbs which became the havens of all that is shallow and trite. It was a time epitomized by TV commercials which promised a better life in all respects because of the greater abundance of consumer products that industrial research developed. Should one want to trace the origins of the revolt of today’s youth, let him look to that decade.
Our world, then, is much awry. We are possessed with a sophistication that is not wisdom. We fail to understand that the relation of the individual to society in no way involves the chicken or the egg problem. The individual to be truly free, to really develop his capabilities, to enlarge, strengthen, and refine his character, must come first. When possessed with the insights that only his freedom can bring, he knows that he must voluntarily give up some of his lesser freedoms in order to retain and foster his greater ones. He realizes that everything must be paid for, and it is the wise, strong, disciplined, compassionate man, accepting his responsibilities, fulfilling his obligations, assuming the cost of whatever he believes to be worthwhile, who achieves the fullness of life and enjoys those greatest of rewards that only true freedom can bring.
How does all this concern the Navy? I believe it concerns it very much. Somewhere along the line, if the Navy is going to regain its pride, and its self-confidence, its belief that it is worthy of its mission, and its feeling that it is uniquely great, it must go back to the spirit that breathed life into it at its creation, and sustained it for most of its existence.
This spirit can live only when those in the Navy believe with the profoundest conviction that it is not primarily an organization, it is a Service. The Navy’s essence is such that our sea arm is truly served only by men who give of themselves freely and knowingly, and with no limits set on their giving. This they do, realizing that their service becomes part of a larger Service, and knowing that the spirit with which they present their gifts guarantees that the whole is greater than the sum of all its parts.
Navy men will be denied the rewards of true service if they must be part of an armed force wherein the chief doctrine is to put one’s good appearance in the eyes of others first. They will also be denied this if responsibility is never fixed on an individual, if the Navy has a policy that a good public image is at least as important as battle readiness. Also, the Navy will dissipate its vital spirit if it believes that somehow human nature has changed, that men do not respond to the old challenges, do not hold the old loyalties, that they have lost beyond recall the old pride, and that the old warrior virtues are no more.
Being old enough to remember a time when the Armed Forces had only volunteers, and the draft was something that had existed only in two previous wars, I miss the feeling of pride and respect Americans generally had in the Armed Forces. Civilians then concerned themselves very little with the Services, and few had any wish to join up, but there was a certain latent feeling sadly lacking today. The Navy received much more of this than the Army, although the description of an Army officer as a West Pointer carried with it the connotation of high regard.
In those pre-World War II days, the civilian attitude towards the Navy, though sometimes grudgingly given, was based on the knowledge that those who served had foregone, by their own free choice, the rewards of civilian life, in order to defend their country. Today the aura has vanished. Something very fine has been lost, and it must, I repeat, it must, be regained.
Before World War II, the Services were rarely in people’s minds, but today, and I believe this is one of the most interesting phenomenons of our time, they are never mentioned. The more-than-casual observer of the American scene cannot escape the feeling that this is owing to what is, in no small measure, a conscious act of will. They have been, in a word, deliberately, “turned off.” What makes it even more interesting is that this is not confined to the young. Their elders have equally excised such thoughts.
This process of blanking out the Services is very recent. It has arisen because of over three decades of involvement in war and rumors of war, helping other countries and receiving little thanks, the whole Vietnam tragedy, atrocities, drugs, casualties, taxes, inflation, waste in procurement, governmental deceit, the glaring unfairness of the draft, and many more things.
One never sees a uniform on the streets any more. Servicemen do not wear them. Those who were drafted or enlisted to escape the draft, are regarded as victims. Those who choose to be in, and stay in, are regarded as fools, knaves, or worse.
Additionally, the Navy shares in the general distrust of government. As a civil service employee of New York State, the author knows that government at all levels has fallen from favor. The only possible exceptions are those of the lowest level, the town and the village. Big Business, which perhaps is another form of government, is a companion target for public distrust.
The aimlessness, the loss of confidence in our institutions, and in our future, the growing damage to the environment, the unsolved problems of hunger, poverty, and race, and the increasingly will-o’-the-wisp quality of the American Dream have produced a turning inwards by Americans that is almost tangible. They have largely ceased to care about the world beyond our immediate shores.
Talk of Russia’s new intercontinental missiles, its ABM system, and the ever-increasing power and reach of its navy move them not at all. In their minds the pitcher has been carried to the well once too often. The Establishment has abused the trust of the citizenry, and has been exposed, in not one, but in many shabby performances.
The Navy, it seems to me, faces a number of tasks. Besides internal reform, best left to its professionals, such as ship and weapon procurement, it has duties lying outside itself.
It is probably going to be a much smaller Service than it is now. People are tired of government spending and may very likely make this known in no uncertain terms to their elected representatives in Congress. In 1971, the citizens of New York State gave a most explicit example of this to the Governor and the State Legislature. If this is so, the Navy must, and without delay, tell its civilian superiors that it can no longer keep watch and ward over the world’s oceans. Out friends and allies must be told that their navies will have to grow larger and assume their fair share of the burden.
It must also stop this perennial game of oneupmanship with its sister Services. We, the public, have to pay for it, and it appeals to us not. It should stop worrying about its public image and concentrate on being a Navy. How refreshing it would be if the Navy, on making a mistake, would admit it, and openly try to do better the next time.
Having no access to the inner councils of government, I do not know how the Navy’s leadership regards Vietnam, but it has always seemed strange to me in all the talk about this war, its immorality, waste, the Domino Theory, and all the rest, the outstanding strategic fact of all has never been mentioned. However important Southeast Asia may be to us, do we secure it at the cost of disastrous damage to our main base? The Continental United States is our base of bases, the center and source of our power. This war has brought about a division and rebellion in this country that only the Civil War era surpassed. How can the defense of Southeast Asia be justified at this price? What kind of civilian and military leadership have we had if this has not been accurately assessed?
The Navy, although not directly affected by it, should regard the draft as Vietnam’s twin cancer. It is no wonder that Service discipline is undermined. The draft should be used only in a general war, and Vietnam should properly have been treated as a third-rate conflict. In retrospect, we were very successful with a volunteer system until 1940, and our Services produced distinguished leaders from Decatur to Spruance, and from Winfield Scott to Bradley. We won our wars. We did remarkably well.
The Services will have to find the courage to tell the President, the Congress, and the American people that they exist only to defend this country in time of war. They must state that war is like no other human activity. It places charges and burdens on its practitioners that no other calling does, and it demands an obedience from them that is unique. To do this, its discipline must be fair, it must be humane, it must be intelligent, but above all, it must be supreme. By all means the martinet of no purpose but his own should be stamped out. There is no place for the thoughtless leader, the sadist, or the one who saddles blame on his subordinates while refusing it for himself. Yet when all is said and done, there can only be a discipline where command is exercised without hindrance, while the commander subjects himself to the letter and spirit of that discipline even more than he subjects his subordinates to it.
As long as we have this divisive war, and as long as we have this terribly unfair draft, which violates every American concept of freedom and fair play, the Navy cannot have that discipline. Such a discipline can only be imposed on men who freely choose to submit to it. When most of our young manhood can escape military service, and only the unfortunates without means to further their education or careers are tapped, any Service can only have a watered-down version of true discipline or invite revolt.
What the Navy must do, as the Army and Air Force must do, is insist that the old dispensation return. This would be a rare act of moral courage, but the basic strengths of the old Articles for the Government of the United States Navy call out for revival. The time for this will be when Vietnam and the draft are only unpleasant memories, but there is no alternative.
The author served in the U. S. Army from 1942 to 1945. The Army at that time was under the Articles of War, whose vintage was that of the Navy’s Articles. As an enlisted man, who never rose beyond PFC, it was my opinion then, as it is now, that the clamor that arose about Army discipline, and eventually resulted in the abolition of the Articles, missed the mark. The trouble lay not in them, but in the failure to abide by their spirit. It seemed that in cases of wrongdoing, the lower the rank, the harsher the punishment. I believed then, and I believe now, that the reverse should be true, and I believe this is what those Articles really said.
You, gentlemen of the Navy, face challenges and problems that will tax you to the utmost. You must rehabilitate the Navy from within, dealing with some matters that are of professional concern in the narrow sense of that term, and some that are more basic, arising out of the nature of our current society. With the former the public is unconcerned, and with the latter it is either content or indifferent. You will have few allies.
You must tell the country and its government that the Navy has to stand down from its quarter-century-old commitments. It has to return to port for repairs and refitting. You must face the prospect of America’s allies, and America’s diplomacy, taking the place of much of America’s naval might.
Most important of all, the thoughts and desires of an American society made sick by the excesses of its practices must be eschewed. You will have to prove by your actions, forsaking the easy path of publicity, and becoming once again, “The Silent Service,” the rightness in striving for the old truths of honor, justice, humanity, devotion to duty, and sacrifice.
The officer corps of the Navy faces a most difficult and lengthy task. It is charged with the revitalization of the spirit as well as the material of the Navy. This requires a deliberate and conscious course of action that is entirely contrary to what is so popular today. Something high, proud, and compelling must permeate the Service. The virtues of an older and simpler time demand recall and nourishment. Against a background of the most intense indifference by the people you serve and protect, it will not be easy to state by word and deed that responsibility and duty rest on the obverse side of the coin of freedom.
Fortunately, no public mood lasts forever. In their own good time the American people will climb out of the slough they are now in, and will view the world with eyes unclouded by its diseased and polluted air. Their common sense has served this country well in the past, and it will do so again. The nation’s safety will be seen to repose where it always has been, on blue water.
It may even be that the Navy, by being true to itself, will not only provide the sure shield of the nation, but also will do much by its example to steer this country into the calm waters of maturity and sane thinking. Should this come to pass, you will have served your country even beyond the call of duty.
Mr. Seymour is Senior Planner, New York State Office of Planning Services. He is a resident of Buffalo, New York, and a graduate of the University of Buffalo, where he majored in history and government. Mr. Seymour has been in the investment and printing business, and was formerly with the New York State Employment Service as an employment interviewer. He served as an enlisted man in the U. S. Army from May 1942 to October 1945.