Streetwise Professor

January 4, 2011

Don’t Even Think About Being Different

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 8:14 pm

The Navy has relieved Captain Owen Honors* of command of the nuclear carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65).  He was relieved over some videos he shot while executive officer of Enterprise in 2006-2007.  You can see some of the “XO Movie Night” vids here.  Warning: potential bandwidth issues.

Some would claim that the videos need warning for content too, and indeed, the Hampton Roads Pilot includes all sorts of scary warnings about the offensiveness of the content.  Hell, in the videos even Capt. Honors says some may be offended.

But seriously.  I’ve watched them.  Yeah, they are crude and vulgar. The humor is sophomoric–though at times pretty funny.  (At other times, not so much.)  There are gay jokes.  But anybody–anybody–who doesn’t think that every damn bit of this is, was, and always has been typical military humor is deluding themselves.  There’s a long tradition of Navy skits–in the fleet, and at the Academy–that were no different in content and tone than what’s in those videos; the main difference is that those skits weren’t recorded for posterity, to bite their creators in the butt years later.  And the every day conversation of sailors, soldiers, and Marines is peppered with similar material.

Ya think that just maybe that’s why the XO Movie Nights were apparently very popular?  That the crew of Enterprise understood that Honors understood them, connected with them, could relate to them?

XOs are usually the designated a**hole. They do all the captain’s dirty work.  They are the disciplinary heavies.  A popular XO is almost a contradiction in terms.  And a popular, and by all accounts I’ve read effective, XO seems almost miraculous.

But Honors crossed the gods of political correctness, so Off With His Head!

There is a lot wrong about this.  First, it’s not like this could have been a secret years ago, and was just discovered today.  Hell, these videos were played to an audience of more than 5000 crewmen.   Repeatedly.  If his commanders had a problem with it, they should have dealt with it then.  (The Enterprise had two officers senior to Honors aboard–the CO and an admiral.)  A probably apocryphal saying of John Paul Jones that all Midshipmen are required to memorize is: “Criticize in private: praise in public.”  At the very beginning, if this was a problem, somebody should have taken Honors aside–in private–and told him to knock it off.  That didn’t happen, and so today somebody with an agenda takes a run at Honors, and the Navy does a classic CYA.  That’s hardly a profile in courage.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is emblematic of a conformist Navy that punishes anybody who doesn’t toe the line.

I recall reading that a famous WWII admiral (I think it was Arleigh Burke, but it might have been Nimitz) said he didn’t want officers who didn’t get demerits at the Academy because it indicated that they were conformist, risk averse, unimaginative.  Those kind of officers make good bureaucrats, but bureaucrats don’t win wars.  Fighters and winners take risks.  They innovate.  They push the envelope. Great officers strike a delicate balance between obedience and independence–independence that can at times verge on insubordination.

Zero tolerance has become a plague in the armed services, and the Navy in particular.  That’s a recipe for creating a service dominated by colorless and timid officers who are neither inspiring to their subordinates nor likely to exhibit the daring that is often the difference between winning and losing in war.

There has always been a cycle in militaries.  The traits that are conducive to advancement during peacetime are not the traits you need to win wars.  So when wars break out, the upper ranks are stuffed with excellent bureaucrats who all too often make lousy combat commanders.  Those people end up getting shunted aside so that those who have a flair for command can take over.  Unfortunately, a lot of people get killed while the bureaucrats are in charge.

I mentioned Nimitz earlier.  Early in his career, he grounded a ship he was conning.  He was court martialed, but won over the court by arguing that destroyer commanders had to be devil-may-care types who took risks.  The court was lenient with him, and only reprimanded him.  I can’t see that happening today.

So what bothers me most about this Honors business is what it says about the Navy, and the message it sends to officers and sailors.  Be a good little do-be.  Don’t do anything that anybody might find offensive.  Be a bland, officious, and unimaginative bureaucrat.  That makes for a colorless Navy.  And when it counts, it makes for a far less effective one.

* Very distant personal connection to Capt. Honors: he was 34th company, class of 1983 at Navy.  I was 34th company, class of 1981.  Honors entered Navy in the summer of 1979, which is right when I left (in August), so I was not in 34 when he was.  But my classmates and friends in 34 were upperclassmen (2d classmen) when he was a plebe.  So I blame them for not crushing all originality and fun out of him.  Now, I’m sure that 34th company class of ’79 would have tried, but they were gone by then.  (Let’s just say that I had my issues with the ’79 guys in 34, and they had issues with me.)

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  1. Is this PC gone mad or just an excuse to get rid of someone? BTW, I’ve been told that one of the reasons why the Japanese lost is that unlike Americans, they were shit-scared to risk their equipment. (Which sort of makes sense, considering their resource constraints).

    Comment by So? — January 5, 2011 @ 1:18 am

  2. The military is going to have a serious problem integrating openly serving gays. Much as some ethnic minorities play the victim card and cry with faux outrage at every conceived insult, some (not all) gays in uniform will act similarly (remember when the budget aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C. was forced to resign when he said the city council needed to act “niggardly” when spending the people’s tax money?).

    As this incident could (and probably will) be used to illustrate just how much gay service members are victims of long standing military culture, the military had to overreasct. This incident isn’t about doing what is right for any individual involved, for the military itself or for the safety of the United States. This is the beginning of the military establishing gays as a special protected class that cannot be offended or made uncomfortable in any way.

    The military builds a cohesive force by breaking down individual identies in basic training and traing recruits to think and act as a unit. In changing recruits to quit identifying themselves as individuals and start thinking of themselves as part of something bigger, every recruit is attacked for individualistic characteristics and made uncomfortable. Military training isn’t about respecting individualistic characteristics, its about saving lives in combat. I have no idea how the military is going to bring political correctness into the training of recruits. Once one group is given special protected status, others will certainly demand similar protections.

    I’m not saying allowing openly serving gays into the military is going to change the military for the better or for the worse. I’m saying its going to drastically change the military. As this incident shows, that change has already begun.

    Comment by Charles — January 5, 2011 @ 8:19 am

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