Naval officers are an ethical lot. Altruistic and motivated toward the good, they do their best to do their jobs well. But they are drifting slowly from base course, letting naval culture evolve away from what it could and should be.
Faced with tension between competing values, we naval officers tend toward choices that suit us personally or as a military service rather than doing what's best for our mission and our nation. We are losing our intellectual balance in four ways.
We are right to believe passionately that naval power is necessary for this island nation. But do we go too far?
Consider the national security process and our response to it. Starting with an informed view of the world, our political leaders develop national policies to protect our country and our values, choosing strategic themes such as containment, confrontation, and alliances. From these policies we craft a role for the armed forces and evolve strategies—military and naval—that define our mission and the tools we need in its execution.
But we in the Navy have become like the tailor who says: "You want a blue suit? Step under the blue light." You want a naval strategy? Our answer never varies. Regardless of need or policy, we will find a strategic twist that allows us to argue for more naval force structure, and always from the same list of ship types. What we call naval strategy reflects the entrenched power of the Navy's three dominant communities. We invariably find the right sophistry to distill the demands of the outside world into an argument for more of the best carrier air, surface warships, and attack submarines we can design, with other needs unsupported—the arsenal ship comes to mind.
The Navy we keep pushing for under this guise of lofty strategy might not work well in the new world environment, and the opportunity costs of these big-ticket items might be naval missions not covered and other military needs starved for resources. But these are neat toys; they are the ones we like to play with, and we want them.
Is it good to fight for naval power? Perhaps, but in the real world of changing threats and bounded resources, we may be too successful to serve our national interest in the best way. With no competitors in blue water and no real threat to freedom of the sea, the cost of a "good" Navy as we desire it may be the weakening of a better overall military contribution to our national defense posture.
We insist on Navy above all else, which makes us constant advocates of a military solution that, however great for us in naval uniform, might not be best for our nation. We do this because we are loyal. Loyalty is a powerful tool and crucial element of professionalism. But we have our loyalties wrong—what motivates us as naval officers is exactly backward in its ranking of goals and institutions.
At the top of our loyalty ladder is our warfare community. Each of us belongs to a powerful union that insists on absolute allegiance. One must be mentally beyond the reach and physically outside the grasp of one's warfare specialty to safely contemplate solutions that do not put that community's interests first.
The same is true of loyalty to the Navy itself, the next loyalty down the list. Again, great pain awaits the naval officer who pushes for the non-Navy solution to strategic needs or force-structure development. From the Chief of Naval Operations down to the lowliest ensign, loyalty to the naval service is demanded ahead of fidelities to anything outside the Navy.
So where does that leave loyalty to our nation? Unfortunately, it comes in last on our list. And yet our oath of office says nothing about our branch of service or warfare community, instead asking our solemn commitment to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." Our oath's promise to the nation should make each of us question putting higher loyalty to its subordinate institution—the Navy—no matter how easily and naturally this might come to us.
Our loyalties are upside down. National commitment must come first. Then we must find the intellectual courage to place our overall military role ahead of what seems best for our Navy and to prefer the best Navy solutions above the desires of the community whose warfare pin we wear.
Increasingly and sadly, we are most loyal to our careers. Careers are not bad—if we are to grow our talent from the bottom, we need career concepts. And it is good for individuals to know what is preferred conduct, especially in terms of the difficult and essential mission of sea duty.
But we have inflated simple career planning to such a dimension that attaining career milestones has become more important than practicing the profession. In an otherwise risk-filled occupation, our current system rewards conformity and kills those who err, even once. The officers who challenge assumptions, especially the brave ones who flash the boldness so prized in war, lose out to those who quietly punch tickets—in the current Navy, the meek truly do inherit the earth.
We have tipped the scale from selfless professionalism toward a self-serving careerism fed by dictums from detailers who are only slightly wiser than their constituents—if that. We are following the counsel of perfection, and because of this, we needlessly and senselessly throw away talent, experience, and deep commitment—everyday shoving into a backwater or out the door splendid officers who did not win the beauty contest.
It is horribly wasteful. We have yielded far too much power too easily abused to a brain-dead up-or-out personnel system that perfectly spots credentials but otherwise is blind to potential and to the spirit of an officer. The unforgiving career constraints that we impose on ourselves make just trying to be a good naval officer difficult and dangerous
It has not always been so. Life histories of memorable naval leaders—such as Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, and Rear Admiral Richard O'Kane—show that most would have come to grief early in their careers under today's rarified career rules. But because the earlier rules looked past small errors for bigger potential, these great officers could grow by pushing themselves to do what was best for the Navy and our nation.
We instead have learned to cover our asses and avoid chance. Already serving in the most tradition-bound of the military services, we have become even more reluctant to rock the boat because, seeing risk takers and speakers of truth derailed, we lack the courage to change the system. Are conformity and timidity career enhancing? Sure. Are they good for our profession? Not in the least—and it is time to change the rules.
Relationship to America
Sociologists describe two forms of social capital in groups such as our Navy. One is bonding social capital that enables internal adhesion and conformity. The other is bridging social capital that exchanges benefits between the group and outsiders. Our Navy is rich with the bonding variety, but our bridging to the society that surrounds us is badly atrophied. We have adopted an arms-length approach to the nation we protect, closing ranks as a know-it-all elite. We see our naval-officer culture and our military values as superior to those of the people we serve. As a result, our Navy drifts as a closed society in this most open of nations.
Our reluctance to engage the American society around us stems from self-imposed separation. We have isolated ourselves even as we have become more political, translating our duty to the Constitution into support of one political party's vision and establishing a right-wing internal wisdom about political matters that excludes other points of view. We have come to suspect any who think differently from us, even though they may be the majority in America. It is not clear that we need or should have political views, but because those we do possess are so limited, our ability to understand society's contrary priorities and opinions is impaired and we have become suspicious of the values of the nation we serve. We love our country, but we are not always sure we like it.
But as conservative as we are in our politics, when it comes to our own creature comforts, we embrace an arrangement of military benefits that is nothing less than socialized welfare. In our natural response to this archaic and unnecessary system, we tend to huddle in military enclaves—old-fashioned company towns, really—that add little of lasting value to our quality of life but that do ensure that we will have scant interplay with the inner workings of civil society. The result of this deliberate segregation is that we are so immersed in our own subculture and so certain of our narrow views that we do not see the richness and good quality of the nation outside the fence, or realize that our understanding of it is inadequate and imprecise.
Our self-chosen isolation risks some harm to our Navy. Having a distorted image of how our political system works and mistrusting its leaders placed over us, we are guilty of a continued desire to substitute our military judgment for civilian control. Two things are clear: the Constitution demands that we obey our civilian leaders, and the people always win. If our intellectual isolation takes us much farther from a cheerful acceptance of the decisions of our civilian superiors and the judgments coming from our political system, the power of the people will bring us to heel and we will become more constrained as we struggle to perform our mission.
Trust in our elected leaders is not a sermon we should be hearing—it is our disdainful attitude that makes it relevant. But consider: the alternative to constitutional control is no control at all, a revolutionary injury to our system that, in placing military values ahead of society's, would pervert our oath of office completely. This is dangerous to our Navy and could become deadly for our nation. The way to end the political arrogance that has led us to this brink is to remove the societal isolation of our closed military lifestyle and the hubris it engenders. It is time we reconnected with America. It is, after all, the people's Navy, and our job is to protect citizens, not perfect them.
Restoring the Balance
Our strategies, our loyalties, our professional values, and our relationship to the people we serve all need tuning. However, the adjustments will not come easily. The problems have become woven into the Navy culture, the most hardened and change-resistant aspect of any institution. But there is hope: the Navy is our culture. Ultimately, we define it, and we can bring it under control.
As we do so, a couple cautions. One is that we are not alone—the imbalances cited are found in all the military services. Second, other institutions, notably Congress, are implicated. So we must accept that we are not capable of complete improvement unilaterally. Rather than seeking an immediate and total fix, we should be satisfied with two near-term outcomes: a heightened awareness that we have let our Navy culture lose its poise, and a willing embrace of reforms that will redress this.
The ultimate cure for the cultural imperfections of our present-day Navy is a return to the roots of our profession. In his farewell to the Navy, Admiral Arleigh Burke spoke fondly of "the fun and the zest of going to sea." If we can recover that spirit and reclaim the intellectual courage and independence of thought that made Admiral Burke and leaders like him great, we will put our Navy back in balance.