Below is a guest post from Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, an active duty naval helicopter pilot and naval historian. He is an occasional contributor to The USNI Blog, Proceedings and Naval History.
Recently a string of new policies and programs have washed over the decks of our Navy. We’re told they are designed to address everything from the surge in CO firings, to alcohol abuse, to the identified need to increase “diversity.” Training, trackers, new layers of bureaucratic offices, and new ways of testing/identifying the “bad apples” are all in the works. Some of the initiatives appear more connected to reality than others. The issues, like sexual assault and substance abuse, are serious and are challenges that our Navy should be addressing. In many cases, however, we are attempting to install programmatic and bureaucratic solutions to what are essentially humanistic problems. These are problems of leadership, character, and integrity and must be addressed with wisdom as much as programs and bureaucracy.
In 2009, at the annual TED conference Professor Barry Schwartz gave a talk entitled “Our Loss of Wisdom.” In it he discussed the risks involved with programmatic responses to human problems and warned about the dangers of bureaucratic solutions. He pointed out that most bureaucracies immediately knee jerk to two possible solutions: more rules and “smarter” incentives. But many times these regulations cause people to think about doing things they wouldn’t have considered before, and incentives cause people to ask themselves “what can I get for it” rather than “what is right.” In thinking about many of our new policies, I couldn’t help but make connections between our challenges, our Navy’s responses to those challenges, and the points Dr. Schwartz makes in the following video of the presentation.
The talk is about 20 minutes long. It starts off slow, but starts cooking at about the 5:30 mark. Close all the other windows on your browser, ignore the Facebook alerts from your smartphone, close the issue of Proceedings on the coffee table. Pour yourself a fresh coffee, pop open a beer, or if you’re worried about the breathalyzer on the quarterdeck have a soda. Take the time to give it your attention.
The presentation will require you to think. What does that mean? When he talks about President Obama (it is from FEB 2009!) put your personal political beliefs on either side of the aisle aside and listen to the point he’s making. When he uses illustrations from education, business, and other fields, don’t just say “that’s not how the military works”…listen, you might be surprised how much you identify with.
So how can we “re-moralize” the job of being a Sailor in the United States Navy? Are we all here for a steady pay check and education benefits, or is it something more? Are new regulations and enforcement methods and new incentives (or disincentives/punishments) the right path? What role should teaching our Sailors about their profession, their history, and their duty have? What about providing trust and respect to all levels of the chain of command to do their jobs and use the tools and disciplinary methods already at hand? There must be a balance, but how do we get the balance right?
The pages of Proceedings have addressed some of these questions. LCDR Todd Tavolazzi wrote about the need to teach our Sailors their history in the January 2012 issue. LT Adam Wolfe wrote about “Combating the Managerialist Scourge” in 2009. In 2008 CAPT Jan Van Tol wrote his article “Worse than a Crime, a Mistake” to reflect on similar discussions about liberty policies in the 7th Fleet AOR. But there’s also an opposite side to the coin. As MAJ Peter Munson has pointed out in an essay at his blog, standardization matters and when you’re in a business where the extreme is a failure that means the death of young men and women, maybe mediocrity isn’t the worst case scenario.
Dr. Schwartz recommends that part of the solution is looking to examples from our past, finding models to follow. CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan, often overlooked today, had some thoughts on these matters. In the decades following the Civil War the U.S. Navy was adrift with a fleet that suffered from terrible maintenance problems, shrinking numbers of hulls, and promotion policies that stifled talent and drove good Sailors and Officers toward the brow. ATM had just arrived at Annapolis on orders to take over the Ordnance Department when he joined the small group of Officers that were organizing their new professional association, The United States Naval Institute. He was then a recently promoted Commander and he wrote an entry for the inaugural Proceedings essay contest entitled Naval Education and he touched on some key points.
ATM wrote specifically about the moral training of Sailors. It was, in his opinion, the most important type of training that you could give a Sailor. “It is, however, neither as seamen nor as artillerists that we principally see the need of training for naval seamen. It is their moral tone that most specially calls for education and elevation.” According to ATM teaching a Bluejacket about honor and duty, and the value of his profession, was the key to encouraging the kind of professional behavior that leaders wished for both in the 19th century and the 21st. He warned that “the experience of more than a century has pretty well settled that severity and punishment will not stop desertion nor drunkenness.” ATM believed that teaching Sailors about not only naval history, but the history of the world around them (the shores they visited, the people they interacted with on liberty and in operations) helped them appreciate why their personal behavior mattered.
This isn’t an easy solution. It requires active leadership from good Officers and Chiefs. He wrote that “In giving the various kinds of instruction alluded [sic] to, an officer, whose heart is in his work, will be careful to see that the reasons for this and that are explained.” The Wardroom and the Mess will need to step it up, but today’s professionals are up for the task. They just needed to be inspired by their own leaders. Senior leaders should keep in mind ATM’s warning that when it comes to Sailors you need to ensure there’s “no keeping them as children under special evident care.”
One of the men that ATM admired the most from history was Lord Admiral Nelson. Particularly, he appreciated the way that Nelson focused on the ideal of duty. Nelson’s famous signal from the Battle of Trafalgar, “England expects every man to do his duty,” meant something coming from a man who treasured the dedication and honor of his Sailors. Schwartz suggested in his talk that highlighting moral role models was worthwhile, and ATM agreed completely which was why we wrote a biography of Nelson, and composed an essay and speech entitled “The Strength of Nelson.”
One of the challenges of pursuing today’s issues by following Schwartz and ATM’s advice, besides the fact that it’s hard to develop a stoplight chart that will easily fit on a PPT slide, is that it isn’t an instant solution. ATM wrote “Now I do not hope for a sudden change of sentiment and morale in a large class of men. Doubtless we must wait here for time to do its work in raising the tone of this community as it has that of others; but still the work may be hastened by persistent judicious effort to instill a sense of right and of self respect.” Unfortunately, real leadership takes time. Proper enforcement of current policies, regulations, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice may help create a bridge. However, addressing the root problems with genuine leadership doesn’t fit in a 24 hour news cycle and it’s hard for PAO’s to explain in a minimum number of words for an easy Press Release. For those reasons and others following Mahan’s advice may not work today, but if that is true…it’s a shame.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the US Navy, or any other agency.
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