The worst-case scenario for a sailor amid a crisis is to question his or her commander’s orders because of their political ideology, or for a drowning shipmate to wonder if he or she will be saved because someone has decided their life has less value because of their beliefs. That may sound extreme, but on the nation’s current course, it is not unimaginable. After all, some of those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021 were military veterans who took an oath to protect the nation’s institutions, similar to the one taken by the police officers who were attacked that day.
While the forcewide Department of Defense–mandated standdown to address extremism provided every sailor a better understanding of the threat, it did not necessarily negate it. That will require a sustained effort. The divisive rhetoric that contributes to extremism is still out there on social media and in the airwaves, manipulating and perverting how sailors interpret the Navy core values.
A Tough Information Environment
As military leaders have recently encountered, navigating the current information environment in the United States is complex. On 9 March, U.S. military leaders had to address a surprise attack—not on a ship or installation, but rather against female service members—when a network news commentator called the creation of maternity flight suits a “mockery.” This threatens future readiness by devaluing the diversity at the core of U.S. military might. A few military leaders responded by defending America’s female service members, but in doing so, they raised legitimate questions about whether it is appropriate for a military to wade into a domestic political debate—demonstrating the delicate challenge military leaders face in countering attitudes that can lead to extremism.
On a different front, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday became embattled over a book recommendation on his reading list. The inclusion of the New York Times best-seller How to Be an Antiracist by historian Ibram X. Kendi drew fierce rhetorical fire from political conservatives, who characterized the book as anti-American. Gilday explained in a letter to lawmakers that the book’s inclusion was based on a recommendation from Task Force One Navy, a group created to “identify and remove” racial barriers in the Navy’s ranks. Nonetheless, this did not stop further accusations that the admiral was undermining U.S. security. One senator even introduced legislation to prohibit the military from promoting “such divisive, un-American ideas.”
These kinds of rhetorical skirmishes leave one to wonder how military leaders are supposed to defend the country from foreign adversaries if they are forced to first defend their own personnel and the military’s values from an increasingly toxic domestic political divide. Moreover, will this make things more uncomfortable for a leader such as Admiral Gilday—who must routinely testify on Capitol Hill—to ask lawmakers to support funding for ships, weapon systems, and personnel programs essential to the Navy’s readiness?
Harmful Rhetoric Undermines Readiness
Foremost, all parties—Navy leaders, the media, and politicians—need to understand this political rhetoric, whether it be about service members, disinformation about the election, or racial injustice, risks fracturing the military in a way no foreign adversary can.
Let’s be clear: The United States has the strongest military in the world because of the people who serve in it. It is a strength built on diversity, trust, and cohesion. This has proven true repeatedly in U.S. history—the resiliency and determination of the nation’s service members, working together, is an unbeatable force.
U.S. adversaries likely are salivating at the prospect that the nation may be destroying its “force” through its own words. From my time serving abroad, engaging with allies, partners, and even adversaries, I know firsthand their curiosities usually center on how the U.S. military develops and trains its people and teams. They recognize that people are the secret ingredient for a competitive edge in battle.
An overly sharp barb from a pundit or politician may be great for ratings or to garner support from an extreme political base, but it is bad for national security. It potentially ferments a dangerous distrust within the military’s ranks. Ships and weapons do not operate themselves. They require teams of sailors working in concert, depending on each other, and trusting each other with their lives, regardless of race, gender, or political views. Harmful rhetoric and disinformation can disrupt that unity and be just as lethal as a foreign adversary attacking supply depots.
While it would be optimal for the media and politicians to tone down extreme political rhetoric, they probably are going to keep at it. That kind of discourse has long been a part of the American fabric. Free speech is a sacred right.
A Strategy to Mitigate Extremism
This brings us to the conundrum: How can the Navy protect sailors and readiness from the potentially harmful effects of vile speech, disinformation, or politically charged events? Beyond the examples highlighted above, the nation watched military leaders wrestle with how to best navigate the racial unrest during the summer of 2020, disinformation about the election results, and the attack on the Capitol. The solution is a comprehensive approach that engages the various aspects of the issue.
1. The Navy should teach media literacy in the same way it teaches sailors financial literacy. Both may have implications for readiness. For example, a bad credit score and the resharing of extreme rhetoric online could both affect a sailor’s security clearance. Media literacy lessons could be provided as a Sailor 360 engagement—taught by a Navy public affairs officer or a mass communication specialist.
2. Lessons on the effective use of social media for leaders should be incorporated into curricula at the Senior Enlisted Academy, during chief petty officer initiation, and in each leader development course throughout the Enlisted Leader Development (ELD) continuum. The Naval War College can be instrumental in developing these kinds of lessons.
3. The Navy’s Social Media Handbook provides some terrific guidance on the dos and don’ts of social media use for sailors—in particular, related to political activity. It even includes instructions on how to report online misconduct. Nonetheless, the Navy should develop clear and definitive guidance on what exactly constitutes extreme rhetoric on social media. In addition, well-defined social media values and best practices can be taught at boot camp and reinforced throughout a sailor’s career. While the handbook is a great resource, Many sailors may not know it exists. This may require a concerted effort to introduce sailors to and train them on its contents, which are rich with guidance for a typical sailor’s day-to-day social media usage.
4. Although it is commendable when admirals step into the limelight to champion the Navy’s values, we can only hope those moments will not come at the cost of alienating legislative or public support for the resources the Navy needs to fight a war. When countering harmful rhetoric or disinformation is necessary for the good of the ranks, it may be best to employ a deliberate communication strategy in which the Master Chief Petty Officer Navy, fleet master chiefs, and prominent command master chiefs step to the forefront with well-considered and aligned messaging. This august group is generally more connected to the sentiment on the deckplates, yet a bit more insulated from the political turmoil and potential congressional ire. Messaging through their various mediums, which include social media, access to both trade press and local media, email distros, and all-hands calls, may give the top brass some breathing room to stay focused on warfighting strategy and capabilities.
While service members are often dubbed America’s best, they are a direct reflection of American society. The same political divisions that affect Main Street affect the deckplates. Left to fester, the rhetoric can solidify into extremist attitudes and damage the Navy’s cohesion. Therefore, the Navy must combat this threat with a multipronged approach to ensure it is not only defending America’s best ideals, but also modeling them for the entire nation.