The U.S. Navy has long suffered an uneasy relationship with the public it serves. We are a fundamentally undemocratic institution, insular by nature, with a tradition and culture necessarily separate from the nation at large. John Paul Jones wrote: "Whilst the ships sent forth by the Congress may and must fight for the principles of . . . republican freedom, the ships themselves must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system of absolute despotism."1 The Navy, from its inception, has been "beyond the control or even the view of the citizens."2
For most of our history, this relationship served the Navy and the public well enough. Warships were the long arm of U.S. power, and the country needed commanding officers who could exercise that strength autonomously. This independence helped create the greatest navy in history, and gave prestige to a nation that would become a superpower. But as technology has evolved, so have society's expectations. Today, the autonomy so cherished by Navy leaders of generations past has the potential to undermine our most basic mission-to serve the public interest.
The U.S. military establishment is undergoing a transformation. Within this context, there is enormous potential for improving civil-military affairs, for bridging the much talked about civil-military divide. But first, Navy leaders must transform their own thinking. As an institution, we must cooperate more fully with the media; we must trust our sailors to teach Americans about their Navy; and we must view the American public as our ultimate authority.
The Media Are Not Enemies
In the United States, the media functions as a bridge between our martial culture and the civilian culture outside. Granted, there is some diffusion of ideas and values that the media do not control, but the most effective agent for teaching Americans about their military is the press. In theory, the Navy understands this. Our public affairs manual states: "The outcome of a free and independent press is an informed electorate, one which can make the necessary decisions to hold the government accountable."3 Yet, too often our relationship with the media turns adversarial, especially when public affairs officers (PAOs) become prejudicial toward specific news agencies.
The beauty of free, competitive journalism is that it regulates itself better than any government bureaucracy could hope to do. If news providers consistently misreport, their customers leave. Within the Navy, however, there are extreme biases against organizations perceived as too unmanageable. In a recent Proceedings interview, Joe Galloway summed up the problem: "Military people are control freaks. And the media are the hardest to control."4
National Public Radio (NPR) is a case in point. As an organization that prides itself on independent reporting, it faces terrific obstacles in airing viewpoints from Navy personnel—even promilitary perspectives—if Navy leaders cannot control the message. In early 2003, for example, I contributed a piece that praised the U.S. military for shouldering "an enormous burden for the rest of the world."5 In spite of the fact this commentary underwent a security-and-policy review, and was approved by my commanding officer, I was reprimanded by higher authorities for working with the wrong news organization.
The media are not enemies. NPR is not part of the axis of evil. On occasion the truth is sacrificed for the sake of a story, but prejudice on our part will never change that. Indeed, labeling news organizations as antimilitary only exacerbates existing divisions. The Americans who most need to hear about their Navy do not subscribe to Navy Times. They read The Washington Post, they watch CNN, and they listen to NPR. Educating our constituency demands we accept the media as potential allies.
Sailors Can be Trusted
During Operation Iraqi Freedom, embedded reporters gave Americans a soldier's-eye view of the war. For the military brass, such unfettered media access seemed like a dangerous gamble. But for the grunt in the trench, and for the American at home, the military's "image" needed no high-level spin. Our military is riding a wave of public support not seen in decades. Time magazine named the American Soldier as Person of the Year. He may not be a public relations professional, and the media may sometimes take advantage of his naivete, but even without the public relations polish, the U.S. soldier shines brightly.
Even the military's detractors credit unfiltered reporting with raising the military's public image. Robert Jennsen of Dissident Voice observed: "the embedded reporting system used in the Iraq war turned out to be a hit with the military and journalists alike."6 Greg Dyke, BBC's former director general, expressed "shock" at pro-military reporting from Iraq.7
Unfortunately, Navy Public Affairs seems to have missed the greatest lesson of embedded reporting: one sailor's story, however raw, can do more to broaden the public's appreciation than ten well-crafted press releases. Our carrier battle groups played a crucial role in achieving victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet stories about sailors were not as frequent or as flattering as they should have been. "Marines garnered a disproportionate share of coverage during the Gulf War, because the commander ... embedded journalists with front-line units and enabled them to file stories."8 The Navy, by contrast, "sailed over the horizon, out of sight and out of mind."9
Reporters assigned to ships talked about being "led everywhere by a group of public affairs officers." This was done, not to keep journalists safe, or to protect classified information, but to "monitor interviews" with sailors.10 Talking points sometimes are circulated, telling sailors what they should say, with exact quotes, if questioned by reporters. The intent is honorable, as PAOs try to protect the Navy from embarrassment. But the possibility that a sailor might say something stupid is far outweighed by the benefits of genuine reporting.
When Americans see the real military, warts and all, they respond favorably. Sailors do not need PAOs to act as interpreters. Navy Public Affairs does have a role to play in explaining policy and in acting as "liaison between the press and the subject matter."11 Beyond that, they should filter less and facilitate more. This Navy belongs to the American public, and they deserve to know it better.
The Public Deserves to Know
Americans can handle unfiltered news. It is called the truth. The mission of Navy Public Affairs is to "continually and vigorously operate as a public trust."12 That trust is compromised when commanders and PAOs care more about protecting the Navy's image than serving the public interest. Too often, the default reaction to potentially embarrassing news is to sanitize and stonewall. When the USS Greeneville (SSN-772) collided with a Japanese fishing vessel, killing nine Japanese, the American public had to wait too long for answers.13 To be sure, the "right to know" does not cover everything. Information that might aid our enemies should be withheld. But when security is used merely to avoid scandal, the public loses faith.
Sometimes, the truth is not flattering. The Navy is by no means a perfect institution, and pretending it is, is tantamount to lying. Besides, the public is savvy enough to know better. So when a reporter asks a young sailor, "So how do you like [being at sea]?"14 should that sailor not be honest? Why keep the public from hearing that deployments sometimes "suck"?15 The more PAOs try to manage our image, the more distorted that image becomes.
The most egregious betrayal of public trust occurs when bad news is suppressed as a way to defend policy. Vietnam taught us this: wars that lose popular approval are wars we do not win. As a result, Navy Public Affairs sometimes assumes the role of cheerleader, promoting stories that increase popular support and burying those that might damage it. Censorship can be subtle, as when reporters are misled regarding numbers of wounded.16 But it is not the military's job to win public approval for its missions. During the Vietnam War, the armed forces lost popular support because they were seen not just as the instruments for implementing policies, but also as accomplices in protecting them.
Recently, comedian and activist Al Franken toured Iraq with the USO (he did not visit any Navy ships). By all accounts, the soldiers loved him. And Franken, though an ardent critic of the war, praised the military unabashedly. The ghosts of Vietnam may not be completely exorcised, but Americans can love their military even if some of them loathe some of its assignments. Still, too many of our leaders fear that missions will fail if a majority of Americans reject them. So be it. Billy Mitchell said it best: "Changes in military systems come about only through the pressure of public opinion or disaster in war."17 God willing, the wisdom of an informed public will save us from tragedy.
1 John Paul Jones, in a letter to the Naval Committee of Congress, 14 September 1776.
2 Buckner F. Melton Jr., A Hanging Offense (New York: Free Press, 2003), p. 48.
3 Secretary of the Navy Instruction 5720.44A, para. 0101a.
4 Joe Galloway, interview with Fred L. Schultz, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2002, p. 52.
5 Kenneth Harbaugh. "Commentary: A Force for Good," on all Things Considered, National Public Radio, 14 March 2003, at www.npr.org.
6 Robert Jennsen, "Embedded Reporters Viewpoint Misses Main Point of War," Dissident Voice, 16 june 2003, at www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles5/ Jensen_Inbeds.htm [accessed 23 August 2003],
7 John Plunkett, "CNN Star Reporter Attacks War Coverage," Guardian Unlimited (online), 16 September 2003, at http://media.guardian.co.uk/ iraqandthemedia/story/0,12823,1043342,00.html.
8 Andrew B Davis, "Marine Corps and Navy Prepare Journalists for War," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2003, p. 76.
9 Galloway interview, p. 52.
10 Interview on board USS John C. Stennis, aired on This American Life, Public Radio International, 3 March 2002, at www.thislife.org.
11 Capt. Aishea Bakker-Poe, USMC, "In My Own Words," Navy League Online Magazine, September 2003, at www.Navyleague.org/sea_power/ sep_03_56.php.
12 Secretary of the Navy Instruction 5720.44A, para. 0301c.
13 Panel Discussion: "What is the Public's Right to Know?" U.S. Naval Institute 127th Annual Meeting and 11th Annapolis Seminar, Annapolis, MD, 25 April 2001.
14 Interview on board John C. Stennis.
15 Interview on board John C. Stennis.
16 Daniel Zwerdling, "Measuring Costs of Iraq War," aired on all Things Considered, National Public Radio, 7 January 2004, at www.npr.org/features/ feature.php?wfld=1587762.
17 Billy Mitchell, quoted in Isaac Don Levine, Mitchell: Pioneer of Air Power (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958), p. 317.
Lieutenant Harbaugh teaches Naval Science at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. His articles have won first honorable mention in both the 2001 Arleigh Burke Essay Contest (on the civil-military divide) and the 2000 Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest.