In 2008, the U.S. Naval Institute published the Proceedings article “Read, Think, Write, and Publish,” by Admiral James Stavridis. While Admiral Stavridis acknowledges that there is some “perceived career risk” to offering professional opinions in writing, he suggests that this risk is perhaps fictive and that one should speak plainly and publicly regarding one’s sincere convictions. From the admiral’s perspective, if the thought is couched responsibly and sensibly, “even the most controversial articles are respected as attempts to contribute and are respected as such.”
I disagree. While it is true that a junior officer may be safe in expressing iconoclastic views, a senior officer author may be courting disaster in doing the same. A junior person’s perspectives may be dismissed as uninformed by experience. A senior officer, on the other hand, is not so easily dismissed. He or she may possess informed, legitimate, and cogent concerns, which may call into question the organization’s stated views and judgments on a given topic. This sort of disruption is not welcomed by the Navy.
In 1977, Proceedings published Commander Robert E. Mumford’s “Get Off My Back, Sir!” In this contribution, Commander Mumford recommended less micromanagement of commanding officers. In 1987, in “The Surface Navy Is Not Ready,” Captain John Byron raised many unpleasant issues that would haunt the surface force for decades. In 1989, Commander David Carlson questioned the notion that the USS Vincennes (CG-49) mistakenly shot down an Iranian Airbus mainly as a result of “fog of war.” Instead, he believed the Aegis cruiser’s crew was looking for a fight. In 1995 in “Reflections on a Naval Career,” former naval officer and later Secretary of Defense staffer Larry DiRita used satire to call the Navy to task for driving to be too politically correct. In all of these cases, the authors were well-informed, responsible, sensible, courageous, and addressing important topics. Also, in every case, many four-star Navy leaders reacted poorly. The Chicago Tribune (8 September 1989) captured a truth when it said, regarding Carlson’s piece: “You can do all the independent thinking you want, just no independent talking.”
These author officers are to be admired. They each displayed moral courage to call the baby ugly when the baby was, in fact, ugly. They did so knowing their leadership likely would be less than grateful. Whether you agreed with what they said or not, they risked their careers to speak their minds. Had a few well-placed surface warfare officers who saw that things were going badly awry during the early part of this century done the same, recent disasters might have been averted.
Nevertheless, all of us should be grateful for one thing: the U.S. Naval Institute. Not only does it exist, but it is governed by the sort of persons who are determined to provide a real and open discussion in which divergent views may be presented. These people have no editorial agenda. In one issue, they publish a contribution by a naval professional who suggests the aircraft carrier is dead. In the next, Proceedings readers are treated to an impassioned explanation of why it is not so. The Naval Institute apparently trusts that its readers are capable of sorting wheat from chaff, and the considered opinion of an O-1 is treated with the same esteem as an O-10’s. Most important, the Naval Institute invites authors sensibly and intelligently to rock the boat for the good of the boat.
There simply is no other publication, in any other service or organization, such as the Proceedings. Authors of the naval profession should all be grateful, and we should all be courageous enough to speak our own truths to power.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three Aegis cruisers: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).