First Honorable, Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
When I was growing up, my family lived on a military base, where my father was a senior noncommissioned officer. I was just nine when my father told me that all officers, commissioned and noncommissioned, were expected to have something called "honor.”
While I was enrolled in college, I became interested in U.S. military history. I read books about great military leaders, accounts of wrenching personal sacrifice. I read stories of courage and fear, about unbreakable bonds of friendship forged in the terrible crucible of war. I read about Douglas MacArthur and "duty, honor, country,” about Chesty Puller and the 1st Marines on Guadalcanal, and about “31-Knot” Arleigh Burke and the Admiral’s Revolt. I read about the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir and about the fire on board the Forrestal (CV-59), when men raced into a deadly inferno to save their shipmates. I read about Jeremiah Denton and James Stockdale, triumphing over their incredible ordeals in the filthy, pain- ridden stench of the Hoa Lo prison. These were stories of honor.
When I got out of college, I was commissioned as an ensign in the Naval Reserve. I remember how proud I was to wear the uniform, to be a member of that officer community I had admired since my childhood. I wore the same rank my American heroes once had worn. Arleigh Burke, James Stockdale—these guys had honor.
A short time into my Navy career, U.S. military forces came home from Desert Storm. I remember how good it felt to see the yellow ribbons, the parades, and the pride in our people who had done the job in such spectacular fashion. It was said at the time that America’s sailors, soldiers, and airmen were our country’s finest citizens, that we had honor.
Then something began to happen, especially in the Navy: Tailhook; Navy officers, sailors, and Marines brought up on charges of rape, adultery, sexual harassment, misappropriation of funds, abuse, and insensitive comments; congressional inquiries; investigations; and a “good order and discipline” stand down.
What is going on? Are these recent, highly publicized incidents of questionable conduct indicative of an intrinsic flaw in the institution? Or are they merely a passing phenomenon? Have they just become more noticeable in today’s politically correct, post-Cold War environment? Are they worth the price we are paying in bad publicity and short- circuited careers? Must we accept this kind of behavior as the price of maintaining the warrior spirit, or should we purge it as soon as it comes to light?
Sailors have lined up on both sides of the issue, some arguing that a vital part of Navy tradition has become a convenient target of political correctness. Others argue that it is morally necessary to separate from among us those who commit certain acts of misconduct, that we must be true to the Navy’s new core values of honor, commitment, and courage. After the Tailhook incident, “tradition” was removed from the list ostensibly because some of the events leading up to that public fiasco were considered naval traditions, encouraged among junior aviators by their seniors since World War II.
What does the term core values mean? Hyrum Smith of the Franklin Quest Corporation defines it best: Imagine yourself on top of one of the two World Trade Center towers in New York. There is an I-beam stretched between the two towers, and a person is standing on the other tower holding something- What could that person be holding that would prompt you to cross the I-beam, 110 stories in the air? Would a million dollars be enough to get you across? Two million? Ten million? What if that person were holding fame, job security, or health? Typically, most people are not convinced. Would you cross if that person were holding and threatening to drop your child? The response is universal: Yes. That is a core value.
Are the Navy’s core values worth crossing the I-beam? We are familiar with examples of these core values in the context of warfare; our history is filled with stories about brave men and women who have shown honor, commitment, and courage by sacrificing their lives for then comrades and their country. Rarely do we hear about these core values in a peacetime context, but honor, commitment, and courage are as fundamental to our moral authority to exist in peacetime as they are to our will and capability to win wars.
Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the material as three to one.”1 Carl von Clausewitz spoke of moral authority in the context of military virtue: “An Army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory . . . which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the honour of its arms; such an Army is imbued with the true military spirit.”2 Clausewitz’s treatise On War largely is a discussion of the bond of trust between a nation’s population and its military, which provides that nation’s moral will to wage wars successfully. The Navy’s 1993 statement on core values alludes to the same bond between Americans and their Navy.
General Bernard Rogers, U.S. Army Chief of Staff in the late 1970s, wrote a letter to his generals concerning the loss of military virtue in Vietnam and its effect on the Army. In it, he notes.
Our ability to share in the effort of protecting and defending our Nation’s vital interests depends in large measure on public perceptions of the integrity of our Officer Corps. If the American people cannot trust our word, if they cannot rely on our conduct, we can hardly expect them to trust us with the lives of their sons and daughters. ... It seems to be that we have tended toward a toleration of those officers who would violate our ethical and professional standards. If we are to have the confidence of the public—and an Officer Corps worthy of the name—we must recapture our sense of indignation. We must treat those persons who disgrace our good name with the disapproval they deserve. ... You are, by the very fact of your commission, the conscience of the Army. I expect you—and every officer in the United States Army—to act like it. Ensure that those officers subordinate to you understand what is expected of them.”3
General Douglas MacArthur, in his farewell address to West Point cadets in 1962, spoke of the Army’s core values: duty, honor, country.
Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points. The unbelievers will say they are but words, slogans. But.. . they build your basic character, they mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense. They teach you to be an officer and a gentleman. The code of those words perpetuate embraces of the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics or philosophies. . . . Yours is the profession of arms—the very obsession of your public service must be Duty, Honor, Country.
Generals Rogers and MacArthur believed that the Army’s core values were vital to the very survival of our nation. Military officers are entrusted by the American people to defend their way of life through the Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Each officer swears this oath; it has legal, binding authority. The Code of Conduct, a corollary to this oath, states that we are prepared to give our lives to protect the American way of life. It is that serious.
General S. L. A. Marshall did a study after World War II to find out what prompted soldiers to commit great acts of courage in the face of death. His findings, published in Men Against Fire, are striking: most undertook great deeds of courage, not out of an abstract patriotism, but out of loyalty to the soldiers in their immediate fighting units. They felt it better to risk death or injury than to let down their buddies in the fight. Personal honor motivated commitment and courage, prompting action in the face of adversity.
This raises an important issue, perhaps best illustrated by the old Sunday School challenge, “If you'd die for your Lord, why don't you live for him?” When we swore the oath of office, each of us raised our right hands and pledged to die for our country if necessary. But does that mean honor, commitment, and courage are virtues to be taken out and dusted off only when the war tocsin sounds? Does it mean that because we may have to die, we should allow ourselves certain breaches of conduct? How do our core values apply in peacetime? As Clausewitz noted, if we are not at war, we are preparing for war. It is our job. We are building and maintaining military virtue, forging that bond of trust with our subordinates and the American people.
There are examples of honor in peacetime. They are stories of a fork in the road, branching to an easy way and a hard way. The way of honor generally is the hard way. It may lead to attacks, denigration, and mockery. Each of the following examples demonstrates the price of honor. Although honor has a price, it also is an investment, eventually bringing a return of trust from our shipmates and the American public.
General Harold K. Johnson, Chief of Staff of the Army during the early days of the Vietnam War, had personal misgivings about President Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the war. General Johnson remembers “the day I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the president and tell him, ‘You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out your door.’” The General changed his mind at the last minute and decided to stay, to try and work the system from the inside. Of his failure to act, Johnson says, “I am now going to my grave with that lapse in moral courage.”4
During the summer of 1995, Commander Donnie Cochran decided to stand down the Blue Angels rather than risk losing aircraft and pilots to accidents. Immediately, cries went up about his ability to command this highly visible unit. Anonymous accusations were made in the context of race, Cochran being the first African-American to command the Blue Angels, even to the point of calling the issue an "embarrassment to the Navy." But Cochran stood firm: “I am not satisfied with the fact we have had to cancel some shows, but it’s more important to do the right thing than it is to take unnecessary chances.”5 Commander Cochran demonstrated honor, courage, and commitment by refusing to let his standards be compromised by "the show must go on” or anonymous comments about race or his flying ability.
During the Vietnam War, the majority of U.S. pilots shot down and taken prisoner in the North were taken to the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. Many were interrogated and tortured in the “knobby room,” named for the plaster knobs placed on the walls to absorb the pilots’ screams. On their first night at the prison, the pilots usually were tied up and forced into a painful, contorted sitting position on the floor, tortured, interrogated, and then left alone to think about the consequences of their crimes against North Vietnam. During their time alone, however, they could look up at the bottom of the interrogator’s table, where an American pilot had carved into the wood the five-by-five "tap code" matrix of the English alphabet. A message carved underneath read “All American Prisoners, Learn This Code!”6 The pilot who carved that message showed courage and commitment to his fellow POWs, risking further torture or even death to give them a way to connect to the underground American communications network in the prison. That is honor.
What do these examples mean to Navy officers today? They mean that our core values are a moral compass, always pointing toward the true direction of conduct and standards, no matter how intense the cultural or political storm swirling about. They are applicable in peacetime as well as war. These core values are the same ones that John Paul Jones, David Farragut, James Stockdale, and the sailors of the Stark drew upon in their times of trial and destiny. As naval officers, we should embrace the Navy’s core values as our own personal standards.
We, as Navy officers, must ingrain the core values of honor, commitment, and courage into every facet of our lives. They cannot be abstractions, buzzwords, or punch lines at parties. Two examples can guide us in our efforts. One is a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal. Reverend Jeffrey Metzger of the Promise Keepers movement, when asked how their success in changing men’s lives could be transferred to broader social and political change, replied, “I think political change comes one person at a time. The only appropriate place to start is with the individual. . . . You change the man, you change the family. You change the family, you change the community. You change the community . . . you change the nation.”7 To paraphrase, you change an officer, you change a division, a department, a ship, a squadron, a battle group, a fleet—you change the Navy.
The second example is another saying from Sunday School: Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny. It happens one step at a time, one day at a time. Each of us must think about these core values, meditate on them, act on them, make them a habit, and eventually make them part of our characters. Then we will change the Navy and strengthen the moral bonds that tie us to our sailors and the American people.
The bottom line is this: We owe it to the young people who join the Navy looking for a higher set of standards. We owe it to the sailors who depend on us, their leaders, in peacetime as well as in war. We owe it to their parents to take seriously the trust they have placed in us as leaders of their children and keepers of the nation’s constitutional freedoms. We owe our forebears, who showed us the way. We owe them honor.
1 Harry G. Summers, Jr„ On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War (N.Y.: Dell, 1992), p. 56.
2 Carl von Clausewitz, On War. ed. A. Rapoport. trans. J. J. Graham (N.Y.: Dorset Press, 1991), p. 255.
3 Summers, pp. 55-56.
4 Summers, p. 54.
5 Ernest Blazar, Navy Times, 23 October 1995, online edition.
6 Jim and Sybil Stockdale, In Love and War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 250.
7 The Wall Street Journal, 28 December 1995.
Lieutenant Mayhew is a practice manager with Oracle Corporation’s Strategic Services Group in El Segundo, California, directing Oracle's Center for Corporate Excellence, and a Selected Reserve Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer assigned to Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division Support Unit 0276 at China Lake, California.