The discussion about whether to express one's views on purely professional matters on the pages of the Proceedings or some other professional journal seems superfluous and a waste of time. We live in a free society, and we should be able to say what we want. This apparently is not true, as witnessed by so-called political correctness in academia, the press, and politics. These ills in our society seem to be increasingly infecting our military with "professional correctness." Differences of view, especially if put on paper, are often considered acts of betrayal and disloyalty to not only the high authority but also the specific service or U.S. military as whole. Yet, to thrive and prosper, any institution or organization needs a healthy dose of open and sometimes even brutally frank criticism.
History provides both good and bad examples of military institutions' willingness to allow open debate among their rank and file. The theories of Vice Admiral Theophile Aube and other adherents of what became known as the Young School were imposed on the French Navy from above and without any consideration of the opposing views. As a consequence, the Young School's influence was responsible for faulty naval doctrine and misdirected construction programs and personnel policies. In contrast, the U.S. Navy's doctrine on the employment of aircraft carriers evolved after much debate and practical experimentation at sea. Those who equate constructive criticism with disloyalty would be well advised to read records on the U.S. Navy's fleet problems in the late 1920s and the 1930s. (For details, see Francis L. Keith, "Steps toward Naval Readiness. An Examination of United States Fleet Problems, 1923-1930" [College Park, MD: University of Maryland, 8 December 1976]). These fleet experiments were successful because the performance of even the highest officers was subjected to vigorous criticism (including self-criticism).
The U.S. military and the U.S. Navy are undergoing significant transformation in many of their most important activities. Network-centric warfare is touted as the very bedrock of this transformation. The Navy has embraced the "Sea Power 21" vision. It is also embarked on the construction of a new family of ships designed for operations in the littorals. These and other issues need to be vigorously debated in an open professional forum. The high-ranking officers and academics should not be the only ones debating these critical issues. The input of many junior officers serving with the fleet is badly needed to get different points of view. More important, opposing views are badly needed. No one should feel or be intimidated or be concerned for his or her career when writing for Proceedings. It is nothing less than a scandal if such feelings prevail among large numbers of naval officers.
A small group of people-no matter how visionary or how well educated-should not dominate or even worse stifle discussion. In fact, it is in their interest to hear opposing views. Without intense and open debate, some good ideas might never be known, much less adopted. The weak points and vulnerabilities of concepts should be identified early in the process so timely and proper measures to minimize or neutralize those vulnerabilities are taken in time of peace. In addition, open debate leads to consensus, which is inherently more lasting than if the solution is imposed from above.
Retired Navy Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski, director of the Office of Force Transformation, has said his biggest concern is that "we will attempt to pursue the one best way. This would be a grave error. We don't want one best warfighting concept. We want to have alternative, competing concepts with continuing debate" (from "Transformation Trends" [Washington, D.C.: Office of Force Transformation, Department of Defense, 13 January 2003], p. 1). secretary of the Navy Gordon England included among his principles of leadership to be forthright, honest, and direct with every person and in every circumstance. These views of our highest-ranking officials should be taken as they are. Let us continue debating various professional issues-but without fear, rancor, or personal attacks. Otherwise, sooner or later, a heavy price will be paid.
Dr. Vego is Professor of Operations, Joint Military Operations Department, at the Naval War College.