How Are the Mighty Fallen

By Captain Kevin Eyer, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Further, many of those decisions were implemented as if they would evolve in some sort of vacuum, with no resonance beyond their immediate intent. Ultimately, of course, each of those changes became a sort of unruly horse, generating vexing and unanticipated first- and second-order effects over long periods of time.

This discussion, however, regards neither the material condition of the Fleet, nor how and why specific decisions were made. The conclusions of the Balisle Report suggest the origin for a new and troubling phenomenon that requires our attention. Today, more than ever before, captains of surface ships are being fired. Is this trend simply a hiccup, or is it yet another effect of past changes, only now unfolding into full, unanticipated flower?

Is this an Effect? Of What Cause?

As of this writing, 15 commanding officers were relieved 2010. Is this relatively large number an anomaly or does it suggest something more troubling? After all, since 2000, the average number of CO firings has been 13.2 per year, and we are now on pace to achieve the highest number of firings since 2003, when 26 were relieved. This question is especially worthy of examination for the surface community, because the disproportionate percentage of those relieved, 6 of 15, have been ship captains.

Does that seem like a lot? Six at mid-year? It is. And this was suggested when Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead, attempting to get ahead of any inchoate concern, pointed out in August that the number of COs fired only represented “roughly 1 percent” of all COs. He was trying to calm the waters, but the fact that he felt it necessary to do so sounded an alarm.

Was the CNO saying 1 percent of every command, regardless of type or size, in the Navy? Does that mean that there are 1,500 commands total? We do know that the 1 percent includes commands ranging from Naval Support Activity North Potomac to ships and submarines. But should all commands and sorts of commands be counted equal in our reckoning? Does broadest inclusion submerge and mask more telling numbers?

Yes. It does. Look at it this way: While the total number of ships in commission has continued to decline to what is now the smallest inventory of ships since 1916, the total number of ship COs being relieved is steadily increasing year by year. In short, the percentage of ship captains being relieved must be, and is, inevitably rising.

One can only suppose that the CNO’s remarks were motivated by the large number of line commanders being relieved in 2010. That, or he may have been prepping the battlefield in anticipation of questions on exactly why so many were being relieved. Indeed, in September, he specified that those COs being fired in 2010 were “complete idiots.” He was presumably referring to the why in that comment.

That characterization should be especially troubling, since those officers are, quite literally, the best we could make, sorted out over decades of the most command-competitive time in recent history. How could these SWO captains be so good, so groomed, so successful, so ferociously competitive and yet become idiotic at such a high rate?

Application of the Unchanging Standard

It is the 1980s. A commanding officer strikes his operation officer in the head with a phone handset that he has torn from the bulkhead. In another ship, one mandates that officers who displease him will wear bags over their heads until the captain is satisfied that they have been sufficiently chastened. Another is arrested multiple times for driving while intoxicated, and he is regularly drunk on duty. Those are not apocryphal cases. None was relieved. The metric for success at that time was “mission accomplishment.” We were in a Cold War that could go hot at any time. For better or worse, command was largely about substance rather than style.

Then, after 1989 and the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Navy fell into an unchallenged peace so profound that we could reflect deeply on topics considered to have been trivial in the past. Our best minds were turned loose to busily pursue previously “other” issues, while the government tried to find a new global strategy to inform our military’s mission. Then, this rising tide was immeasurably spurred by the 1991 “Tailhook” debacle, which set the stage for dramatic social change. We had no enemies except, it seems, ourselves. Overnight, everything was on the table.

So has the metric for success as a commanding officer changed since the 1980s? Certainly. Mission accomplishment took a distant back seat to myriad other considerations because we could suddenly afford it. Has the “standard,” which the CNO assured us in August will continue to be enforced, changed? No. But when you change the variables, new results are assured.

The so-called zero-defects mentality that emerged in the mid-1990s greatly expanded what might be measured against the unchanging standard of perfection. Beginning in the 1990s, a DUI became a death penalty for officers seeking command. You could be a superb warrior, but if your Sailor was arrested in Japan, you were humiliated. COs were scourged if they didn’t meet unrealistic retention goals. An overweight captain was doomed, regardless of any other consideration. What changed was what , on any given day, would be measured against the standard of perfection.

While no electronic records related to CO firings exist before 2000, the San Diego Union Tribune has quoted sources in the Naval Personnel Command saying “nearly every commander fired 50 years ago got into trouble for running the ship aground or hitting a pier.”

Mission accomplishment got the standard of perfection applied to it in the past. Not so much today. According to the same source, “changing social standards mean more wires to trip over.” Indeed, there are captains in command now who have professionally survived collisions at sea and failures to pass major inspections. Those are metrics against which we are currently not willing to fully apply the standard, for whatever reason.

But we are absolutely willing to apply the standard of perfection when it comes to a captain’s handling of his mixed-gender crew.

Crossing the Rubicon

Perhaps we have been selecting the wrong people for command at sea. Have we recently chosen commanders unfit to handle the challenges of the modern Navy? Should we now be conducting a more intensive moral or other “scrub” prior to selection?

First, it does seem evident that we have been selecting a few people for command who should not have been. In several celebrated cases, it is now abundantly clear that the evidence of their unsuitability for command existed glaringly and early on. Everyone knew. Beyond that, we are now more frequently getting COs who have, on average, far less time at sea. More time in Washington, much less time with ships and Sailors. Which begs the question of why those clearly unsuited to command are thrust into it. What causes the evidence to be so grossly discounted? If some larger political imperative is involved in this considered ignorance, what might it be? Can we be trusted to know?

In the end, the most important thing that “the system” can ever do regarding selection is to trust the judgment of a commander regarding his officers, as captured in their finess reports. It is inevitably a mistake for detailers and boards and politically or personally driven senior officers to second-guess those ultimately responsible captains. Are captains ever wrong? Of course. However, in the vast majority of cases they may be demonstrated to have been spot-on. After all, these commanders understand the standard, having successfully adhered to it for many years. After all, only their judging is based on the closest daily observation in the most stressing circumstances. Who can second-guess these captains, and why?

As for those COs being relieved for errors in handling mixed-gender environments, apparently the problem is easily solved. The CNO has suggested that the solution for this sort of misconduct lies in officers getting “strong counseling” as they go along “to keep them on track.” And this was vital for those approaching command, since with the heady heights of command, “you get an inflated opinion of yourself, and an inflated opinion can cause you to believe that maybe you can transcend the norms of behavior and the standards of the institution.” It’s that simple.

The Flayed Bull

To think that our increasingly interconnected society stops at the waterline is silly. In 1983 when a ship deployed, it maintained one ship-to-shore voice circuit. One. Today, our connectivity has risen to a point where we actually have invented elaborate procedures designed to clamp down our Sailors’ massive and immediate ability to connect with the shore.

At the same time, this interconnectedness has led to a much greater awareness of and interest in exactly how a CO behaves, minute to minute. In 1983, if a captain behaved poorly while deployed, no one really knew outside of the ship. Now, with unlimited access resulting from unlimited communications, senior officers not only know, but feel that this knowledge imposes responsibility on them.

Concurrently, we have worked to ensure that every Sailor knows exactly how to report a perceived offense with electronic ease. And they can report these misconducts via e-mail, phone, chat, Skype, text, or Twitter to their congressman, a variety of hotlines, or almost any authority figure. We now have a situation in which accusations can be instant and anonymous. And if those accusations involve a commanding officer, they are treated with utmost gravity. According to an official in the office of Commander, Naval Surface Forces, every hotline complaint against every CO is investigated.

Of course, the possibility exists that the system will decide that there is no merit in the charge(s) and decline further investigation. This, however, seldom happens. To dismiss a charge without proper surety is a risk not often considered to be worth taking. Dismissing charges against a captain without full examination is a lot of responsibility for a senior officer to shoulder, and the Navy is, these days, a very risk-averse organization. So if any merit is deemed to attach to the charge, investigators are sent forth.

Unfortunately, those investigators are neither trained nor are they necessarily familiar with the sort of command they are investigating. Further, they typically arrive with some sort of “guidance,” either spoken or divined, regarding the handling of the case. So they are often determined to find evidence of something—a “where-there’s-smoke-there-must-be-fire” approach. Even the CO who survives this adversarial, presumption-of-guilt inquisition is sometimes left a scorched shell of his or her former self. Can such treatment of our captains be good for the ship?

In the end, we have increasingly put our ship captains into positions of exquisite vulnerability. Between dramatically opening the aperture of what is to be measured against perfection and putting them in the position of having to navigate the rocks and shoals of mixed-gender life, along with unlimited connectivity for our crews and a terribly sensitized and reactive political situation, is it any wonder that COs live in the crosshairs?

How to Get Fired This Year

According to the aforementioned official from the office of Commander, Naval Surface Forces, captains get relieved for two primary reasons—operational misconduct or personal misconduct. This is borne out in the cases of the six ship captains so far relieved as of this writing. Two were relieved for engaging in “inappropriate or “unduly familiar” relationships, two for shiphandling mishaps, one for abuse of crew, and the last for an assortment of charges including sexual harassment and simple assault.

There are a number of commonly held misconceptions regarding why captains get fired from ships. In terms of operational misconduct, there is actually no risk of firing associated with warfighting incompetence. This might seem counterintuitive, since the mission of the Navy is to “conduct prompt and sustained combat operations at sea.” Also surprising, captains do not get fired for INSURV (inspection and survey of vessels) failure, or for that matter, any other kind of material inspection. In the past five years—a period of historically poor INSURV performance—only one ship CO has been fired for such a failure.

You can still sometimes get fired for collision or grounding. Not always, but sometimes. It seems evident, from a historical perspective, that a certain number of accidents are considered to be the cost of doing business on the high seas. We are saddened but not shocked when a collision happens. Professionals don’t consider those COs to be idiotic, either. They know that it’s a risky proposition with millions of variables.

As for personal misconduct, one might also think that a given number of COs, for example, are fired for alcohol-related incidents. Again, this is untrue. Even if alcohol is cited as a contributing factor, it is almost never the central issue.

In fact, by far the main reason captains are being fired is for charges connected to fraternization, sexual misconduct, or reasons connected to either of these. That includes the commonly employed justification “inappropriate relationship”—however that is defined.

And apparently a captain can be fired for just this sort of thing, even if he is completely unaware that the violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice are occurring in his ship. The commanding officer of a destroyer was relieved recently not because he was personally involved in any misconduct and not even because he was aware of misconduct and failed to act. Instead, it was discovered that, unbeknownst to him, a number of chief petty officers were engaged in inappropriate relationships with enlisted women in his ship. What was in the mind of his interlocutors is not clear. If he was not guilty of a specific violation of the UCMJ, then he must have been relieved by way of his seniors’ “loss of confidence” in him.

The main problem with loss of confidence is that it seems to be largely a catch-all, wildly inconsistent device by which the Navy makes examples of given commanders. No administrative proceedings are even required prior to relief. Someone just decides. In the recent past, two SWO captains collided with dhows in the Persian Gulf, yet they did not suffer loss of confidence on the part of their seniors. Another makes sexist comments in the heat of the moment, and he is relieved post-haste. Fair?

But nothing leads to a loss of confidence as swiftly as a “bad command climate.” What is a bad command climate, exactly? Ships have good days and bad days. How much badness of command climate is necessary to get fired? How is it measured? Over how long a period? Who is measuring it, and what are they basing their measurement on?

Apparently, in at least one case, if there are nine people in a command who are having inappropriate relations, that is enough of a bad command climate to lead to a loss of confidence. There is little doubt that every ship with a fully integrated crew will have nine people engaged in some level of inappropriate relationship at one time or another. To expect otherwise is to become detached from reality.

So, How Are the Mighty Fallen?

Yes, sometimes the Navy selects the wrong candidates for command. Yes, the advent of total connectivity plays in the trend of firing. The zero-defects mentality is alive and well, and those who sit in judgment of our captains are terribly risk-averse. And yes, it is evident that Navy leadership is determined to make women-at-sea into a success story, and anything that gets in the way is deemed to be disposable, including our captains.

This is not to say that this is anything other than fair, sensible, good, reasonable, inevitable, necessary, or just. On the other hand, is it something that should be openly and soberly considered? Is the cost necessary in order to get the benefit? After all, half our COs are being fired for issues related to male/female relationships in their ships.

Casual observers—those who have never served in a fully integrated ship’s company—seem convinced that men and women can serve together in ships with utter disregard for one another’s sex. That sounds ridiculous, because it is. It only sounds sensible to people so determined to make something work that they are able to discount fundamental human nature. Simply put, you cannot put men and women in a small box, send them away for extended periods of isolated time, and expect them not to interact with one another. They’re like magnets being put into a box and shaken—they stick. It is what has kept our species going for 250,000 years.

There are two possible outcomes here. First, we can continue to enforce the standard, ratcheting up the pressure on captains and ships to asymptomatic levels. At least a standard is set and enforced, and the CNO himself has said that “you’re not going to change the standard, just because the number may be getting high.” A scorched-earth policy is supportable as long as it is consistently applied without passion or favoritism. There will be losses, but those losses will grow to be accepted, just as collision and grounding are now.

The second, more likely scenario is that the Navy will grow weary of these embarrassments and find another path. While that may seem inconsistent (and it is), it is also more realistic. Time has a way of altering perception, and this hemorrhaging of COs makes us look embarrassingly unprofessional.

Cause and Effect

Given the trend in 2010 and liberally counting commissioned cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and amphibs at 150 units, that means that 4 percent of ship captains will have been fired. That is not 1 perceent. More telling, if one only includes mixed-gender crews in the calculus, it is certain that the numbers are even more glaring.

The end of the Cold War set the stage for a wide-open-to-change era in the Navy. Certainly, the first key change, post-Tailhook, took place when CNO Admiral Frank Kelso mandated that women go to sea in our combatants. Then, in 2000, CNO Admiral Vern Clark (a SWO) decided that a major effort needed to be undertaken to create the resources necessary to remediate 50 years’ worth of underfunding in the Navy’s real-property accounts. The strategy chosen to effect this effort was to increasingly model Navy practices on more “efficient” industrial models and practices—change upon change, leading to unanticipated effects. One of those is that our surface fleet is in trouble. Another—and one that was certainly unanticipated—is that our captains are failing to handle the challenge presented by mixed-gender crews.

In the end, it all comes down, as Vice Admiral Balisle suggested, to causes and their unanticipated effects. It may seem like an excellent, timely, or even an unavoidable idea to integrate a ship. It may be the right time to integrate a submarine. It might even be the time, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen (another SWO) suggests, to do away with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But to do so without the full and conscious awareness that there will be a cost, potentially high, at a variety of levels, is to abdicate responsibility.


Captain Eyer retired from the Navy in 2009. He commanded the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), Shiloh (CG-67), and Thomas S. Gates (CG-51). He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings .


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