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The nature and environment of the naval profession imbue sailors with a unique combination of qualities and loyalties. YVorkin with these odd birds in the joint environment, soldiers and airmen soon will learn that the apparently eccentric and traditional are really just professionalism soaked in salt water.
A soldier should be sworn to the patient endurance of hardships, like the ancient knights, and it is not the least of these necessary hardships to have to serve with sailors.
—attributed to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Fall Montgomery
Viscount of El Alamein
As Field Marshal Montgomery made clear, sailors often are the despair of their airmen and soldier brethren. They speak a separate language; they ask different questions—and give different answers; they hold odd things dear; they are a clannish lot; and they insist on being in charge—and give special preference to those who are. Their lives are defined by a succession of “cruises,” and they are an annoying amalgam of tradition and brashness. How do we account for the differences among warriors—and, of the three types, why are sailors so different? Even those sailors who are also airmen are different from their airmen colleagues. Indeed, even those sailors who are also soldiers—and called Marines—are different from their soldier comrades-in-arms. The answers to these questions must have their roots in the environment in which sailors live and fight.
The soldier shapes his environment by altering its contours, exploiting the terrain, dominating it with firepower, or, when all else fails, by moving to another en- tain contact with the larger world, no day off to get away from the pressure of work, no presence and comfort of family. In large measure, he is stuck—alone along with his shipmates—and at the mercy of the elements.
The airman conquers his environment; the sailor survives it. The soldier shapes and exploits his environment; the sailor must adjust to it. The soldier depends on “combined arms”; the sailor must rely on himself and the world defined by his ship. The soldier may advance or retreat; the sailor must stand and fight. In modern times, even the release of surrender is beyond the reach of the sailor; he fights and dies with his ship—even if it is a blazing wreck or sinking beneath his feet.
These forces imbue the sailor with a unique combination of qualities: self-reliance, a special respect and regard for the person who is in charge of his vessel, and absolute accountability. The captain is out in front (not back at headquarters) and must confront the enemy—and he is just as exposed as the most junior of his sailors. There is no rear or “back at the base” or zone of the interior for a vessel in combat; admirals and seamen alike share the risk of facing the enemy’s fire or an angry sea.
The limited confines of a warship—even a very large one—force close associations among its inhabitants. There is no place to hide. A shipmate’s strengths and weaknesses are soon uncovered and known to all. The captain’s professional skill is in full view every day. A bungled moor-
vironment. The airman is a gravity-defying acrobat. Air is a medium for freedom and self-expression. From his vantage point high above his brethren, he places great emphasis on superiority and control. The sailor, on the other hand, is constantly in the presence of and lives amid a force greater than himself. He always feels the weather in the roll, pitch, yaw, and heave of his vessel. Once at sea, it is no easy matter to return to shore. There is no “shore power,” no run to the grocery store, no telephone for obtaining advice, no daily mail service or newspaper to main- ing, a confused response to emergency situations, or equivocation in dealing with problems in the crew simply cannot be hidden from subordinates by an unfortunate captain.
Similarly, the captain who displays a certain dash in his approach to his profession, takes care of his sailors, and does not accept slipshod performance is immediately the hero of all. In short, because of the close living conditions on board ship, the poor sailor is soon found out. He cannot hide or run away, he cannot decline to perform—as some airmen do when “downing” an aircraft on a preflight inspection—and he cannot blame it on some faraway staff.
A sailor must be prepared for the vicissitudes of nature and the enemy. Consequently, he puts great store in readiness and forehandedness. He prepares for the unlikely and even the impossible. To his soldier and airmen brethren, he seems very conservative. He likes pelican hooks rather than fancy mechanical devices to drop his anchor. The im-
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portant things simply must work, and therefore must be simple. He finds masts useful appendages—even long after the age of sail—for extending his horizon and for providing a place for hanging some of his most useful equipment. He has accepted nylon lines, but he still has a special place in his heart for first-rate manila.
He has accepted gas turbines to power some vessels, but there remains a special place in his heart for steam. Indeed, his veins seem to be filled with steam—to prepare his hot meal, to convert sea water to drinking water, to warm him against the elements, and in some cases to send his embarked aircraft aloft. Almost all warships from submarine to aircraft carrier have steam in their systems to support life on board. Not surprisingly, it is the rare naval officer who cannot, from memory, still diagram the steam cycle pounded into him in his marine engineering classes during his midshipman years.
Because the ship is such an entity unto itself, the sailor places a great deal of importance on carving out the maximum scope for independent action relative to other ships and commands. He resents interference by others (including seniors) in telling him how to carry out his assigned task. He is happiest when his is the only ship from horizon to horizon. Having a senior ship in company denies him some peace of mind. He constantly scrutinizes the flagship for imperfections, tries to anticipate its next orders, and is resigned to its follies. It is “his” ship against the environment, the enemy, and even sister ships. There is no greater competition on earth than that existing between ships in the same squadron or sailing in company. Loyalty to ship, as to loyalty to squadron or task force, ls as 10 to 1. A soldier will have a division association to relive and enshrine past achievements, but a sailor will remember only his ship—and in many cases, a particular cruise in that ship. It rarely occurs to a sailor to form a Task Force 94 Association or a Third Fleet Association.
Sailors, like their airmen and soldier brethren, grouse a lot, but a sailor rarely condemns his ship or shipmates. Grousing is largely directed at others—chicken regs, impossibly long deployments, sheer boredom, or a mission that is perceived as unnecessary. A common saying holds that the two best ships in the Navy are the one you just left and the one you are going to, although most sailors resent even veiled criticism of their ship by outsiders. Fights ashore between the crews of different ships have become a relative rarity, but they still occur—often because of some slur against one of the ships represented. The sailor’s penchant for looking inward to his ship fosters a special relationship among shipmates. Shipmates cannot be avoided—there is no room. They must be accepted as they are or shaped to fit the ship’s personality. Some animosities are always present—providing fertile ground for the authors of Moby Dick, The Caine Mutiny, and The Sand Pebbles—but the overriding theme is the common experience in confronting danger, enduring boredom, sharing thoughts on long watches, and helping others.' A bond is formed that lasts a lifetime. A senior officer or petty officer will always remember his first ship: the names of his messmates (and their foibles), his seniors and juniors, and what they shared. A shipmate is a person with special stature and forms part of a lasting bond to the service. There is no more emotional experience for a sailor outside marriage, family, and assuming or relinquishing command, than a reunion with old shipmates.
This experience duplicated over many ships in a career generates a sense of loyalty to individuals, ships, and the service that is unique among the fighting services. To the sailor, the soldier’s and airman’s organizational entities appear to be an alfa-numeric soup—a set of interchangeable parts that are constantly in a state of flux. Unit numbers and sizes change, people are transferred rapidly and often, the unit does not have a name as much as a number, and so on. The sailor’s ship has a name—of a place, a person, an event, or sometimes (to show the sailor has a sense of humor) animal life.
What is more, that name as often as not has been assigned to an earlier ship with a distinguished history of its own. The sailor values this connection to the past and sees himself as just as capable as his predecessors. Today’s sailor has something to prove to himself and to his naval ancestors.
This connection with his past is often derided by nonsailors as a counterproductive fixation on tradition. The sailor does not see tradition as a handicap; he sees it as a sheet anchor to depend upon. The sailor, by the nature of his profession, is always coming on new situations in different places. He looks for a guide—what has worked in the past, the state of mind that has led to survival and vic-
Sailors have a bond with their foreign counterparts that is unique among warriors. They face the same perils and respond to them in the same way. Airman and soldiers have no counterpart to naval reviews or the exchanging of calls and other courtesies among ships of different nations in foreign ports.
tory. Thus, we have Dewey at Manila Bay “damning the torpedoes” just as Farragut did at Mobile Bay—and being conscious of the comparison. Nelson’s “blind eye,” his “band of brothers,” his attitude of “if I had taken ten sail and let one escape, I would not have considered it a victory” echo down through the years to our own day.
But tradition is not simply a guide to action; it is a form of loyalty to service and a reaffirmation of a sailor’s place as the latest in a long line of heroes. Naval customs and ceremonies reinforce the sense of belonging and continuity. A change of command, a retirement ceremony, or a taking of the oath of office all are intended to be and are seen as special occasions in which the Navy community expresses confidence in and appreciation for its own. The honoree’s bond with ship and service are confirmed in the presence of friends, relatives, and shipmates.
The term “hidebound” seems to be applied to naval officers more than to the officers of the other services. A sailor is reluctant to give up what has served him well in the past. Cutlass drill on board ship continued into the 1920s.
Liberty lists and liberty cards (which controlled a sailor’s
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access to the gangway) continued into the early 1970s. Even today, officers check out with their department heads and department heads check out with the executive officer before going ashore. The captain’s arrival and departure on board is the occasion of ceremonies both large and small—raising or lowering the third repeater on a signal halyard and informing the executive officer or command duty officer, who then meets his captain at the gangway and accompanies him to his cabin, makes appropriate log entries, and extends other small courtesies. The arrival of a commodore or flag officer is enough to move even the most lethargic ship to a frenzy of preparation and last- minute attention to detail.
These ceremonies and traditions seem quaint to the soldier, airman, and civilian. But to the sailor they are part of the lifeblood of his professional experience: he knows what is expected and where honor and recognition are due. But the sailor also knows that the unexpected lies just around the next headland, and he prizes those who can combine tradition with innovation. He does indeed strike a balance between the two poles of foolishness: those who think because it is old it must be good, and those who think because it is new it is better. True, he leans to the former, but he recognizes the value of the new. Radar, the gas turbine, the airplane, nuclear propulsion, and satellite communications have revolutionized the world in which he lives. But the sea is still there. Ships are still damaged or sunk by the sea, lives are still lost to the sea, ships still meet one another unintentionally on a sea unmarked by highways and traffic signs. This unforgiving environment still shapes the sailor’s world.
Instant communications and intrusive seniors and their zealous staff officers have eroded the captain’s scope for independent action and his authority. No longer will a captain in the U.S. Navy take it on his own authority to bombard a foreign city that insults the U.S. flag or to undertake a major diplomatic demarche. But a captain, encountering refugees on the high seas, or facing ominous
weather, or (during the Cold War) facing a potential opponent with poor sea manners, still has to make major decisions on his own. He must not hazard his ship in peacetime, yet he must be prepared to go in harm’s way in wartime. The captain is keenly aware of the tradeoffs between caution and
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aggressiveness, between training his officers and not letting them get his command in trouble, and between observing the rules and knowing when they must be broken, all the while being prepared to defend his actions before higher authority. There is still nothing in the soldier’s or airman’s experience to compare with running a ship aground or colliding with another vessel.
In a less dramatic dimension, there are few challenges that compare with those faced by a lieutenant commander or commander skipper whose ship is calling at a foreign port where courtesies must be exchanged with local authorities, vendors must be dealt with, aggrieved foreign citizens assuaged, an obstreperous liberty party returned to the paths of righteousness, and the ship made ready for its next voyage. The captain of a ship in a foreign port carries more responsibility on behalf of the United States than any other person of similar seniority in government. And in most cases, he must rely on his own good judgment and the traditions that have guided naval life for generations. He may not be Commordore Matthew Perry opening Japan, but he is an on-scene representative of the power and dignity of the United States in a changing
Japanese Kongo Class AEGIS Destroyers • Turkish Track IIA Class Frigates • USN Ticonderoga Class AEGIS Cruisers • Japanese Murasame Class Destroyers
ROYAL CANADIAN NAVY
world. If he fumbles or is unlucky, he can do his country serious damage.
These qualities are shared across navies. Sailors have a special bond with their foreign counterparts. They face the same perils and respond to them in the same way. They share the same reverence for tradition and ceremony. In many cases, even the sources of tradition are the same. Much current naval tradition across the world’s navies can be traced back to the Royal Navy during the age of fighting sail. There is no airman’s or soldier’s counterpart to naval reviews, or tall ships gatherings, or exchanging of calls and other courtesies among ships of different nations in foreign ports.
Warships visiting a foreign port normally follow not only the practices of the host state, but also the desires of the senior commander present, regardless of country of origin. Warships of different states passing at sea exchange courtesies and are quick to render assistance to one another when needed. There is a bond among sailors that appears unique among warriors of different nationalities. Except for a few reprehensible lapses (particularly during World War II, where survivors of naval battles sometimes were machine gunned in the water or taken on board and tortured to obtain information), victorious combatants have gone to great risk to rescue (and treat compassionately) defeated survivors who otherwise surely would have fallen victim to the sea. The U.S. naval officer who admonished his shipmates not to cheer their victory “because those fellows are dying” displayed a common gallantry that would appear eccentric to landlubbers. William Golding once observed:
The Navy’s a very gentlemanly business. You fire at the horizon to sink a ship and then you pull people out of the water and say, “Frightfully sorry, old chap.”2
Thus, the sailor is the way he is because of his demanding environment. He relies on tradition, his ship-
Sailors display a common gallantry, even to their foes. Victorious combatants have gone to great risk to rescue (and treat compassionately) defeated survivors who otherwise surely would have fallen victim to the sea. Here, a Canadian rating grips a German prisoner in a effort to help him on board HMCS St. Catharines during the battle of the North Atlantic.
mates, his forehandedness, and his professionalism to confront the demands of his natural environment and the enemy. He is unit- rather than staff-oriented. He is operations- rather than plans-oriented, because survival comes before the imperatives of defeating the enemy. He demands some scope for independent authority because he is often alone—seniors at distant remove cannot know what he must do. These attributes define a sailor who is practical, who is aware of his roots and his limitations, who knows that he must depend upon his shipmates and they upon him, and who demands loyalty and accountability. That such a comrade-in-arms can often be prickly and eccentric—as Field Marshal Montgomery recognized—is often a burden for others to bear. But the formidable Monty, when further reflecting on his experience during World War II, observed:
As C.-in-C. of the armies of the British Empire in Western Europe, I would like today to salute you [Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham] and the Royal Navy. . . . Throughout our long journey from Egypt to the Baltic, any success achieved by the British Armies has been made possible only by the magnificient support given us by the Royal Navy. . . .
I want to thank you and all those gallant sailors who have supported us with such valour. We soldiers owe the Royal Navy a debt of gratitude and we will never forget it.3
As we enter the era of jointness, sailors likely will have to make some concessions to their airmen and soldier comrades-in-arms. But the unique nature of the naval profession and its unique environment are certain to make a deep and lasting impression on the form and content of joint planning and operations. Soldiers and airmen will learn that the apparently eccentric and traditional are really professionalism soaked in salt water.
'Often overlooked in this dramatic fiction is the bond between shipmates facing the pursuit of a deadly sea monster, isolation deep in a foreign and hostile land, or a lethal storm at sea. The focus on the captain (or authority) in these works underlines his key position in the life of a vessel at sea. The nearest analog to soldiering is the eccentric commanding officer of a frontier fort deep in Indian territory. Note the common features of a hostile environment, isolation, and deep personal bonding among the fort’s (ship’s) inhabitants.
Tames Charlton, ed., The Military Quotation Book (New York: St. Martins, 1990), p. 76.
’Field Marshal Bernard Fall Montgomery, The Memoirs of Field-Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G. (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 306-307.
Admiral Winnefeld, a retired naval officer, is a senior staff member of the RAND Corporation. A frequent contributor to Proceedings, he is coauthor of Joint Air Operation: Pursuit of Unity in Command and Control, 1942-1991 (Naval Institute Press, 1993) and A League of Airmen: U.S. Air Power in the Gulf War (Rand, 1994).