I am uncomfortable with the adulations “warrior” and “warfighter” being applied too freely to the naval profession. As General William T. Sherman rightly said, “War is hell,” but the terms warrior and warfighter risk romanticizing and glamorizing war.
Further, while the imagery of warrior and warfighter reflects courage and professionalism, the terms can mistakenly imply a certain superiority that may not be justified in practice. No matter how skilled our military has been, World War II is the only kinetic war the United States has decisively won over the past 75 years. Korea was a draw at best. We lost in Vietnam. Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, and the 78-day Kosovo bombing were not world wars.
The Taliban was routed in 2001 and Iraq (a second time) in 2003. And the nation remains engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the global war on terror. Fortunately, the most important conflict since 1945, the Cold War, ended peacefully, without a titanic military conflict. Strategists—not warriors or war-fighters—were a major reason, although the latter helped provide the best deterrent, a strong military and a strong nation.
Of course, militaries and navies are meant to fight and to win wars. And maintaining the warfighting ethos as part of the military culture is crucial. But, here, history since Pearl Harbor offers a useful context.
In an age dominated by aviation, the Navy has usually fought at long range. The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal was an exception. So, too, were naval aviators and Marines at war in Korea and “brown water sailors” in Vietnam. SEALs served in dangerous missions. While no shots were fired in anger, the U.S. submarine force waged a silent and risky cat-and-mouse game with the Soviets, often venturing deep into enemy waters.
But the last time Big Navy was fully at war was at Okinawa in 1945. The last ship lost to the enemy was the unarmed surveillance ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2), seized in international waters in January 1968 by North Korea. A few others have been damaged by mines, missile attack, and a devastating terrorist bombing. The last major U.S. naval raid was conducted by then–Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral James Holloway III in a four-ship strike against the port of Haiphong as part of Operation Linebacker against North Vietnam in August 1972.
Title X of the National Security Act of 1947 as amended directs the services to “be prepared for prompt sustained operations incident to combat.” Yet, if the aim of the current National Defense Strategy is to deter, and—if war comes—defeat China or Russia in a war that could entail the use of existentially threatening thermonuclear weapons, who will be the warriors and warfighters?
In any case, only a relatively small percentage of the U.S. military actually experiences the hell of war up close. But if we drop “warrior” and “war-fighter” as synonyms for “service member,” what do we call the majority of ships’ companies, logisticians, and combat service support personnel; maintenance personnel; drone and space systems operators, intelligence officers; and the many others—as well as senior commanders in Washington or higher headquarters—far away from actual combat, who are as essential to success as those in proximity to the enemy? What should they be called?
General George C. Marshall had it right with his highest expression of praise: “soldier, scholar, and statesman.” General Omar Bradley preferred being called a “soldier’s soldier.” It is difficult to imagine the great admirals of World War II—Ernest King, William Leahy, Chester Nimitz, Raymond Spruance—embracing being called warriors or war-fighters. The same applies to more-junior officers and enlisted heroes.
The Navy has an equivalent to Marshall’s preference. As John Paul Jones argued in a different context, being capable mariners is insufficient. Officers must be “a great deal more.” In that context, the traditional salutation of sailor (as well as Marine, soldier, and airman) expresses what is a great deal more than being only warriors and warfighters.
Many years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of traveling to the keel-laying ceremony for the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) at Bath Ironworks, Maine, with the ship’s namesake, one of the greatest admirals in U.S. history. Two feisty vice admirals, both decorated for valor in Vietnam, were masters of ceremony: Joseph “Joe” Metcalfe and Henry “Hank” Mustin. Both gave fiery pep talks lionizing Admiral Burke as among the greatest of naval “warriors.”
Admiral Burke—winner of the Navy Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart in the Pacific during World War II and once the longest-serving Chief of Naval Operations—could not have been more dismissive of this introduction. I can vividly recall his short reclama: “Don’t believe a word those fellers just said,” he complained, accentuating “fellers.”
The retired admiral went on to describe how, when he went to war in mid-1943, the Navy had learned its lessons the hard way with thousands of sailors going to the bottom in their ships, submarines, and aircraft throughout 1942 and into early 1943. It was quite a statement and, more important, an eloquent compliment to the heroism of those sailors and marines who died in the Pacific War.
To Burke, “sailors and Marines” said it all in life and death. His gravestone at the Naval Academy is marked with a single word—“Sailor”—and Roberta’s with “Sailor’s Wife.”
Sailors and Marines routinely carry out many demanding tasks other than fighting—from humanitarian rescue to training allied militaries to providing presence in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Many of these duties require as much courage, stamina, and dedication as war.
Underway replenishments at night in high seas; dealing with fires and emergencies; carrier landings almost any time; and navigating in restricted waterways on or below the surface require more than just skill. Indeed, routine operations at sea can be hugely difficult and often perilous. Realistic training likewise has inherent demands, risks, and dangers.
No doubt, some like being called warriors and warfighters. Yet, in deference to Admiral Burke (and General Marshall), perhaps for the Navy, we should return to using “sailor” as the highest form of praise that fully describes what our service men and women do on a regular basis. I cannot be certain, but I think many great past sailors would agree.