At the U.S. Naval Academy, some surface warfare officer (SWO) instructors on their final active duty tours are not helping students. As they are the face of the SWO community to midshipmen, what they have to say about surface warfare culture is accepted as truth. And what midshipmen are hearing is that the community is rife with “SWO daggers,” “SWOs who eat their young,” and “officers who step on each other to get ahead.” Hearing such comments as plebes, midshipmen believe them and form negative first impressions of the surface warfare community. However, this portrait of the surface warfare community is inaccurate, and the situation can be changed.
In the main, SWOs are hardworking, dedicated, and highly skilled. It is time to restore this community’s reputation and make it more appealing to midshipmen.
The Problem at the Academy
One instructor informed his advanced navigation class: “I have three months left in the Navy . . . I do not care about this class.” The overall message is clear: Go SWO and you will be miserable, your peers will put you down, and you will be stabbed in the back. As they give their students the impression they are counting the hours in this “easy” shore tour before they can separate, unmotivated SWO navigation instructors are primarily responsible for the current optics problem.
“If you go SWO you might as well not graduate,” one midshipman opined to me. For many, he said, SWO appears to be what is left when you are not “good enough” for another community. This student had been affected by what is known as social undermining. In displaying a poor attitude about his own warfare community, the SWO instructor corroded the student’s ability to maintain a positive impression of the surface warfare community.1 But the problem is even more serious: by exposing midshipmen to only the negative aspects of the SWO community—coupled with a visible lack of enthusiasm—these officers are undermining the entire surface warfare community. One study has shown that “supervisor undermining was uniquely associated with higher turnover [exit] hazard.”2 According to this study, the first 90 days in an organization are critical to establishing a firm foundation for positive relationships. When midshipmen are taught by SWO instructors who undermine their own community, it is difficult for them to form their own connection with it, thus negatively affecting its very future.
A better course of action would be for the Navy to assign to the Academy SWOs who plan to continue on active duty after their instructor tour. Because they would have a stake in the community, they would be enthusiastic and effective teachers, and would represent the community well. They might not deny the existence of daggers, bad shipmates, or negative command climates, but they also would convey the good things that SWOs do. Motivated instructors shed light on the opportunities—for education, leadership, and life experiences—that are available only in the surface warfare community. The Naval Academy desperately needs more of these officers.
The Problem in the Fleet
Poorly executed summer training also damages the surface warfare community’s reputation. Every midshipman goes on a summer cruise, usually on a ship. Among midshipmen who report having had a bad experience, most cited a lack of purpose and involvement. While on board, they were not paired with a running mate who taught them their role on the ship and involved them in daily tasks. One recalled that his enlisted running mate “Sat me in a corner and gave me a book . . . I spent that month staring at a wall, and it was terrible.”3 Another described his summer cruise as his “Worst experience, hands down, at the Naval Academy.”4 Both reported feeling like observers, there only to watch for four weeks. Further aggravating their negative impression, these midshipmen did not have enough knowledge of day-to-day ship operations even to appreciate what they were experiencing. This is how bad navigation classes, compounded by bad experiences on summer cruises, can deal a crippling blow to the surface warfare community’s reputation among midshipmen.
An early experience impacts the trajectory of midshipmen’s careers at the Naval Academy, with many deciding they dislike surface ships. As a result, they pivot to avoid having to select surface warfare as a career.
Ways To Improve USNA SWO Culture
Some may argue that midshipmen do not get enough exposure to everything the surface fleet has to offer, but with all the training, classes, and SWOs at the Academy, this is not the case. There is enough exposure and interaction with the SWO community to build an interest in it, but only if that exposure is, on balance, positive. As psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky explain: “When equal measures of good and bad [memories] are present . . . effects of bad ones outweigh those of the good ones.”5 Thus, the negative memories associated with surface warfare will outweigh the good memories even if equal in number. For most midshipmen, this adds up to a negative impression of surface warfare.
To correct the situation, the surface warfare community should focus on improving what it already has. Do not send officers leaving the Navy to the Academy to instruct midshipmen. Sitting through a class with an instructor who is no longer interested in what he is teaching, who has no stake in the future of the community, is excruciating. On the other hand, motivated instructors who are at the Academy for a few years before returning to the fleet are invested in their classes and in developing competent officers. These are the men and women who should be sent as instructors to bring up the next generation of leaders. They will ensure that the first 90 days of exposure to the surface warfare community form a positive experience for midshipmen.6
Modifying the summer training cruise to pair midshipmen with appropriate running mates and give them appropriate tasks also will build interest in the community. Students with a purpose are far more motivated during the cruise and have more opportunity to learn about enlisted members and their roles on the ship.
Like their Marine Corps counterparts on the yard, SWOs must take active steps to get midshipmen excited and interested in the surface warfare community. Compared with the Marine presence on the yard, the SWOs are severely lacking. The Marines hold a military occupational specialty (MOS) mixer once a semester and also fly in helicopters for static display on Hospital Point. This gives midshipmen the chance to interact with Marine officers and enlisted members from off the yard from many backgrounds. Midshipmen can even join a Marine Corps–focused extracurricular activity called the Semper Fi Society. The organization hosts monthly speakers and physical training events, and participating midshipmen improve their chances for service selection into the Marine Corps. SWOs on the yard should hold “SWOcials” that, just like MOS mixers, are fun for midshipmen and make them feel comfortable in the community. By taking a page from the Marine Corps’ book and bringing in speakers once a semester, SWOs assigned to the Academy would generate more interest in their community among midshipmen.
An existing SWO community asset is the Academy’s yard patrol (YP) squadron. It advertises itself as the premier SWO organization on the yard—but this is not enough. In the Class of 2019, only one of five first-class midshipmen in the YP squadron commissioned into the surface warfare community. Thus, even within the organization dedicated to turning out SWOs, there is only a 20 percent success rate in selling the community to midshipmen. If the YP squadron were to become more vocal about what it does, it would attract more interest.
Surface warfare officers are highly skilled, hardworking, and dedicated to protecting the United States, and they should be viewed that way at the Naval Academy. Improving and fine-tuning Academy programs can restore the reputation of the community, making it a service selection option of choice.
1. Michelle K. Fuccy, Daniel C. Ganster, and Milan Pagon, “Social Undermining in the Workplace,” The Academy of Management Journal 45, no. 2 (2002): 331–51.
2. John Kammemeyer-Mueller et al., “Support, Undermining, and Newcomer Socialization: Fitting in During the First 90 Days,” The Academy of Management Journal 56, no. 4 (2013): 1104–24.
3. Author’s interview with Jacob Santer, U.S. Naval Academy, 26 February 2019.
4. Author’s interview with Andrew Obst, U.S. Naval Academy, 27 February 2019.
5. Roy F. Baumeister et al., “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 4 (2001): 323.
6. Ebbe B. Ebbesen, Glenn L. Kjos, and Vladimir Konečni, “Spatial Ecology: Its Effects on the Choice of Friends and Enemies,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 12, no. 6 (November 1976): 505–18.