Faces of the Naval Academy Essay Contest Second Honorable Mention
A kaleidoscope of friends, faces, and possible futures leads to one conclusion: We must keep this place.
Commentary relating to "architectural, philosophical, friends, future." So the essay contest invited, and so this shall be, skimping only on architecture, with a quick salute for the gray stone of Bancroft Hall, loveliest of facades.
Under way then, taking departure from the Academy of the early 1930s, an institution whose meaning I grasped at the time only dimly, but enjoyed much. With my dad assigned to the Executive Department and the family living in a cottage on Pythian Row, I roamed the Academy grounds freely in a boyhood idyll, drawn by the bold music of parades, crabbing from the sea walls, and attending football games in worshipful watch of the famed Buzz Borries and other stars of a legendary Navy team.
The boy of those memories grew up, became a midshipman, voyaged across the world, and eventually joined the ranks of that ambivalent and unendangered species, the defense contractor. From this receding vantage point, taking in reports of the Academy's travails, he finds himself wondering, along with many, if our grand old institution has not lost its way.
But time's lens can be tricky, blurring what is near and bringing in the distant past with deceptive clarity. As one looks back on a naval career, images appear unbidden, without weighting. I remember looking out from Formentor's Heights at the Sixth Fleet at anchor in Pollensa Bay. It was one of the Cold War's dark times, with the French and British Suez War having just ended humiliatingly while Soviet tanks were bloodily crushing Hungary's revolution. To many of us, the Sixth Fleet seemed to be sea power's embodiment of man's last best hope of freedom on earth. In a twinkling, however, that picture dissolves to trivial recall of a sunny foreign cafe and rivulets running down an icy pitcher of sangria. Certain memories, though, abide—warm and unfading. These are of esteemed fellow naval professionals.
Of all the elusive factors that influence people to stay in the Navy, one shines brightest: the quality of those with whom one serves. A young officer has an acute early need to be shipmates with an individual he can admire unreservedly—someone who by his competence and dedication and personality has the young officer thinking harder about the oft-perplexing, oft-overpowering colossus that is the U.S. Navy.
For me, Jim Grady was that man. Commanding the USS Sarsfield out of Key West—it was that brief period after World War II, before platform unions clanged the hatches shut against outsiders, when submariners were still skippering destroyers—Jim Grady had a beefy face burned from tropic suns, eyes crinkly narrowed from scanning many horizons, and a fund of apt war stories. His nickname was "Iron Man," yet—perhaps fearing his strength— when angered he merely grew redder while his manner grew deadly quiet. Yet humor too could bubble forth, with tolerance for all things human save phoniness.
Even in those early 1930s, Jim Grady's time as a midshipman, there was criticism of the Academy. Targeted were the alleged shortsightedness of its objectives, narrowness of focus, and so on. The Superintendent was Rear Admiral Thomas Hart, a naval officer whose toughness and intelligence carried him far. Of an age before public relations staffers, Admiral Hart prepared the reply himself. Concisely—in kinship with General Grant's superb memoirs that set the standard for the language of military responsibility—he reaffirmed the Academy's purpose and the rightness of its curriculum in preparing young men to serve as junior officers in the Fleet. And that—the admiral's voice conveyed no doubt—was that.
Fast forward 60 years. In this writer's lazy file of newspaper clippings—presumably the spur of yet one more unwritten letter to the editor meaning to straighten out something amiss in an untidy world—is one dated 20 September 1993:
Naval Academy Midshipman First Class Sean M. Fahey returns this fall with an extra honor, the Truman Scholarship, the first Naval Academy midshipman to receive the scholarship. He plans to attend Harvard or MIT next year to gain an MBA. He is majoring in systems engineering and will be Brigade Commander in the spring. Midshipman Fahey says: "My ultimate goal is to see how you can mix business and the discipline of the military to benefit communities."
Across the clipping is my scrawl: What's this to do with becoming a naval officer? In this new world, presumably there's an answer. Not Admiral Hart's though, to be sure.
Faces? Fortunately, there are many—some famous, most obscure, all enriching this writer's life. The fondest recall is of Admiral Bill Kinsella, my host a while ago in Honolulu. As always that gallant gentleman is a gracious host, and we are gazing out from his lanai at a panoramic view from Diamond Head to Barbers Point, as the last rays of the sun are fading. Bill offers his worn binoculars—his proudest possession—to scan the horizon. The engraved brass metal plate on the binoculars reads, as I remember: "To That Midshipman of the B Squad Who Contributed Most to Navy Football." The gold of the Pacific cools to the deepening blue of evening. Across the face of the sea is a sense of the Pacific's immensity and settling over us is a fond sense too of why it irresistibly is our Navy's favorite ocean, lit with the pride of a battlefield won and never relinquished. Bill's thoughts seem far away as he scans that ocean that he did his own fair part to win. His reflective voice could be for himself alone: "Glad I served at that time, had the command I did."
And at that moment, with the words of that splendid warrior still softly reverberating, one feels ever so powerfully the lure of (presumably) better times.
Yet, even if we had a magic wand, would we wave it to recapture some fondly regarded past? The world rolls on, and if we must put up with its follies, no less are we inheritors of its benefits. The 1930s beckon golden to some, but most of America knew it as the Great Depression, when few shared in the vision of America's hope and lynchings were common. And who among us, even amid some of the nonsense inseparable from the various social revolutions of our times—sharing the lament that the so-called explosion in rights has been unaccompanied by similar zeal for responsibilities—has not warmed, say, to the incomparably greater opportunities available to our own daughters?
Societal change? Technological revolution? Nothing less expresses what has overtaken the United States in the 50 years since the end of World War II. Nor the U.S. Navy; battleships are gone and control of the seas is now settled by what flies through the air or hides beneath the waves, and the swiftness of modern conflict mandates that tactical decision rely ever more on the computer. And while some may pine for the ways of the Old Navy, there is no gainsaying that the post-World War II era has been witness to an unprecedented pace of fleet operations and unrelenting commitment that have no parallels except perhaps in the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Today's long deployments and painful family separations were a rarity for the Navy of the 1930s, its steaming hours rationed by a straitened economy that counted each barrel of oil.
Changes! Too many, too vast, too bewildering to try even to synopsize them. And yet our Naval Academy, inescapably, must remold itself to them. Arguably, not all compromise has been sure and wise; inarguably, most of our regrets stem from quarrel with the world itself. The Academy is democracy's institution, a composite of the electorate's wishes—for neither the virtues nor the faults of America make a convenient halt outside the Academy's Maryland Avenue gate.
Faces? They come crowding back. One won't forget Bill Leftwich, incomparable Marine and companion on the Academy's squash courts, destined to be Commandant had he not volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam. Not all are faces of old sea dogs either. Many are fair. On apple-crisp fall Sundays, one remembers the shining girls streaming out from Chapel—all the lovelier for being touched with the fine fleeting gravity of just-concluded reverence as they come down the steps, glancing about to catch some fond eye.
In weighing the future of grand institutions, only the long view serves. Yet it is acutely the American way to take the fitful lights of the present for eternal ones, enshrining the moments' buzz phrase as graven in stone. Early in this century, we waged "The War to End All Wars," and recently, in the wake of the Gulf War, a "New World Order" was heralded. That fine phrase, however—whatever fragile notions it encompassed—has been blown away by accelerating global disorder, resurgent conflicts reflaring along ancient lines of hostility, and disintegration of civilizations into savagery and human misery on a vast scale.
Even as the cyclic lessons of history warn us to prepare for unending, unimaginable, and awesome change, new powers will flex their muscles, economic giants will arise, and demented tyrannies will pop up ever and anon to challenge our patience, if not always our might. Old alliances will crumble, "littoral" and other words of fleeting fashion will come and go, and we will rediscover time and again that formidable naval forces, spread thin across those vast blue ocean waters must prevail in the best interests of the United States. To keep alive and visible to the unknowing that sense of the indispensability of sea power, the warm breathing knowledge of naval his tory, its strategies and its traditions, to inculcate into new generations the memory of great naval leaders, their deeds and their ideals, one looks only to the Naval Academy.
Nothing would be more shortsighted than to surrender to the bean counters and let the colleges take the prime role in providing our fleet's young officers—even as this former destroyer driver yields to no one in his admiration for the NROTC graduates. They brought—and bring—talent, diversity, hustle, and fine technical education. At all costs, retain the NROTC. The Academy needs the competition.
But colleges and universities are not places for the professional sailors to call home. They cannot be sea power's strong beating heart of continuity. Nor will NROTC necessarily always be there. Antimilitarism may sweep campuses anew, and who can be confident which, and how many, of those institutions will stand fast against the next surge of that mindless tide?
Faces? One last one. . . .
Waiting in front of my hotel, I spot the familiar figure of Jim Stockdale—white-haired, grizzled, in khaki shorts and T-shirt and old sneaks. We chat a few minutes about nothing memorable, and he continues his jog toward Coronado's beach. Jog, of course, tells it wrong, for his pace is only such as one of his legs, a stiffened ruin of torture and seven years of endurance as a prisoner of war, permits. One grows older, and—sadly—heroes are fewer. All the more heartening, then, was this chance encounter with an unambiguous hero, born of stuff before the advent of situational ethics and moral relativism and kindred mush. Before, too, our tendency to bureaucratize honor, refashioning it into something called an Honor System, replete with committees and whatnot, procedure all but smothering the ideal. He is a man who takes us back to the beautiful simplicity of the word standing alone.
Said I would pass on architecture. Belay that. It's Homecoming and I am drawn to the hubbub of the world's largest cocktail party. Dahlgren Hall is antique, cavernous, drafty, and acoustically incorrect, an affront to all things sleekly modern. Keep it! Touch not a bolt of its great ribs of steel that have arched over so many good things. No matter either that the delight of reunion and a thousand whoops of greeting make conversation nothing but shouts and engulfing crowds an obstacle course. But if the mob scene becomes too much, just drift down toward the blue-and-gold signs designating older classes, where actuarial processes have thinned numbers and chairs are set for those not able to stand for long.
It is less frantic here, almost peaceable. But laughter still booms and smiles welcome. Those once young women of the shining hair and the jewel eyes who long ago came down those chapel steps are here as well, beautiful still. Like their mates, they'll go down with all flags flying. And if that Old Navy had its encrustations of barnacles, it had much more that was bang-on right. Through unpromising years it kept room for the Freddy Warders, the Wade McCluskeys, the Mush Mortons, the incomparable leadership of a Nimitz—men who never lost sight of what war was going to be about.
So, listen. A message through all this roar of reunion.
It is hard to detect at first, but they've got something, these old grads. One thing is obvious: a great and noble war under their belts. But there is something else, too. Mixed with pride and remembrance, beyond the short horizons of man's seeing, is the sense that terrible wars at sea can come again and the United States best be glad for every corpuscle of esprit de corps it can rouse.
For the future then, not for some irrecapturable past, we need this happy boisterous noise. And to make sure that exultant roar of affirmation does not flag:
Keep this place.
Captain Smith, U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1946, retired in 1971 after a quarter of a century of active duty. His tours included command of the Wilkinson (DL-5) and many years in test and evaluation of new weapon systems, with particular emphasis on antisubmarine and mine warfare. He presently is senior vice president of Summit Research Corporation. He has written extensively on defense and foreign policy matters and on four occasions has been awarded prizes in the U.S. Naval Institute's annual essay contests.