… then don’t be shocked when warriors look elsewhere.

Yesterday over at my homeblog, we went over last week’s issue with the USMC’s problem understanding the proper context of what is clearly Nazi iconography. From flags to tattoos (see the NSFW video linked to in comments at the last link if you really need to see it) – there is an issue there.

Our nation has its own rich martial tradition, so why would warriors feel the need to search outside their own heritage – or for that matter outside an honorable heritage elsewhere – for their unit/personal iconography?

At the reactionary, retail level the answer is leadership – that that is only a symptom of a larger problem. What is wrong with our own heritage?

Is the problem ignorance of our own martial history? Perhaps … but that doesn’t explain why individuals and units have no problem finding “strong martial imagery” in a foreign history. What are we doing wrong inside our own historical lifelines that our own iconography is insufficient – could it be that we don’t give it the support it deserves?

I would offer that part of the problem is that we have allowed others to water down our own “red in tooth and claw” history – purging or softening what is the very real nature of this business – we kill people and break things simply because we are ordered to (insert polite conversation version here). There is little margin for error – and a lack of attention to detail or knowledge will quickly lead to the death of yourself and possibly thousands of your Shipmates – and mission failure. Not a Hollywood ending – but one of charred flesh, scattered chunks, and in some warfare specialties – a grey-pink mist.

Yes, this line of work is at its core a rough business.

The phrase “Initial Success or Total Failure” has long served as the unofficial motto of explosive ordnance disposal technicians in the U.S. military.

Until recently, the slogan hung on a wall at the Naval EOD school at Eglin. It was removed after senior EOD leaders decided the words were insensitive.

“It holds some potential insensitivity and implies that our fallen and wounded EOD warriors have somehow failed,” said Joy Samsel, deputy public affairs officer at Naval Education and Training Command in Pensacola. “We don’t want to do that to families.”

Samsel said the EOD school has never had an official motto and has no plans to adopt one.

Rear Adm. Michael Tillotson, commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, took issue with the slogan and said that “to imply that failure is an option is unacceptable.”

“Throughout history, many EOD techs from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, other U.S. government and civilian agencies, as well as foreign partners, have lost their lives or been wounded in the line of duty,” he said. “To imply that they failed is insensitive and disrespectful.”

Let me join the many in saying; RADM Tillotson, you’re wrong; in this business everyone does not get a trophy.

“The motto is not about the individual, it is about the mission, and when you are dealing with an explosive device you generally get one shot to render it safe,” Will Pratt, a former Army EOD technician, wrote in an email to the Daily News.

“When you start making changes to an explosive device, you are either going to shut it off or set it off, hence initial success or total failure. This does not mean that the technician is a failure by any stretch of the imagination. ”

Pratt said the military has lots of unofficial mottos and that “Initial Success or Total Failure” is included on the Navy’s EOD memorial in Washington, D.C.

He added that he hopes the Navy won’t allow Tillotson to “destroy a tradition that was there long before him and will be there long after he is gone.”

First Sgt. Joseph Smith of Fort Hood, Texas, said the removal of the motto “is beyond most EOD technicians’ comprehension.” He said he has never heard any complaints about the motto from EOD techs or their families.

Actually – direct clear communication of the binary nature of the EOD business, as the motto is, is actually a signal of great sensitivity to your Sailors’ families – making sure from the beginning Sailors understand the unforgiving nature of their work and so will have a greater likelihood of coming home. It shows great respect for their maturity and professionalism by speaking to them without guile.

How is this being carried out? Well, in an almost Orwellian/Soviet manner. From an email inside the EOD lifelines;

Subject: FW: Visual inspection of all NAVSCOLEOD buildings

Please read the e-mail below. I don’t know the history or driving factors behind this so please don’t ask AND refrain from sending me an e-mail telling me how dumb you think this is. Bottom line is it needs to happen and I need you to make it happen.


I need either the Divo or NCOIC to personally inspect all spaces under your cognizance. This includes training areas (e.g. IED huts, BC labs, PT areas, ice house, class plaques, ceiling tiles, etc) and any place that this phrase may possibly reside. If, for example, you find a wall with the phrase, don’t just take a can of spray paint to it. Annotate it and add it to the list of places you found the phrase and we’ll work with facilities to get it painted over to make it look nice.

If/when I find out more about the driving factors I’ll get back to you. If you have legitimate complaints and/or your instructors morale is negatively affected save your concerns until next [redacted] Divo meeting or come and talk with me personally. I need confirmation this has been completed by 1100 Friday 10 Feb.

Of note, this does not apply to personal memorabilia that individuals have on display at their desks or in their PERSONAL work areas.


Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal

So, down the memory hole. Admirals have a lot of power – so it is done.

There are even talking points:

QUOTE: Rear Admiral Michael Tillotson, Commander Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (senior Navy EOD officer)

“As leaders in the EOD community we have a responsibility to support, train and prepare EOD Technicians for an extremely dangerous profession. To imply that failure is an option is unacceptable.”

“Throughout history many EOD techs from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, other U.S. government and civilian agencies, as well as foreign partners have lost their lives or been wounded in the line of duty. To imply that they failed is insensitive and disrespectful. We owe our fallen warriors and their families honor and dignity for their heroic service.”

Initial talking points:

1) “Initial success or total failure” has never been an official motto of Navy EOD.
2) The motto itself holds potential insensitivities and an unintended message insinuating that our fallen and wounded EOD Warriors have somehow failed.
3) It is the Navy EOD’s position to not display this motto within Navy commands.

Give warfighters appropriate and sufficient iconography – or they will find their own.

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  • Robbo

    I thought this post was going to reveal that the blue teddy bear is part of the ship’s crest for USS GABRIELLE GIFFORDS.
    Oh, well

  • This is the world they said they wanted some 19 years ago. Now people are shocked-shocked-that it turned out exactly like the critics said it would.

  • P.S. I think “Disdain” is spelled with a “D”-not a “T”

  • sid

    Traditions … DO … matter.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “The motto itself holds potential insensitivities”

    That is all you needed to know. Skippy is spot-on.

    “Destroy the culture”. Meeting the benchmarks so far.

    The tragedy is that the Mullens and Tillotsons are complicit in that destruction. Shame on them.

    Sid is also right. Traditions DO matter.

  • RickWilmes

    This topic reminds me of Weimar Germany in the 1920’s.

    “In 1925, a special Nazi elite corps was added, the black-shirted Schutz Staffeln or SS.

    Some of the recruits to these squads had strong ideological commitments; many did not.  “We were young guys without any political ideas,” one man recalled.  ‘[W]hy should we bother ourselves with politics?…If Hausenstein [a Free Corps leader] was ready to give his support to this man[Hitler] that was good enough for me.’

    If a German youth firmly endorsed any kind of idea, then, given what he had been taught, the chances are that he was (or soon would be) ready to fight for Hitler.  If he brushed aside ideas and lost himself in a group, he was still following the country’s dominant principles, and he was even more ready.  Either way, through conscious ideology or professed anti-ideology, the result was the same.” (The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff, p. 187)


    The idea being brushed aside is

     “Initial Success or Total Failure”.

    The dominant principle being applied is that lack of success or failure can not or should not be judged.

  • Sean

    “I am a bomb control technician. If you see me running, try to keep up”

  • Every single active duty death is a failure. It is a loss to the family he came from, it is a loss to the unit, it is a loss to the country.

    This does not make it the failure of the individual. It could a failure of intelligence. It could a failure to provide enough supporting arms. It could be a failure in training. It could even be a failure to understand what it is to be a leader.

    Initial success or total failure does not just apply to EOD. Carrier ops comes to mind. As does knife fighting.

  • Skippy … that a Southernism …. but you are exactly correct. Thanks. Mefixie. Net one below for headwork on my part.

  • the big bear in the room that no one wants to look at is what the military has had to absorb over the last few decades…and its on a social level…

    *the integration of women into the military has been more destructive than imagined or acknowledged
    *gays in the military is being implemented but its on a shut up and deal with type thing.
    *an unsolved EEO situation that still rankles
    *unfair promotion practices that ensure the ‘right’ person is promoted when peers are more qualified.

    the list goes on but no one wants to take a serious look at the issues. add to it the upcoming reduction in force and you have a witches brew of trouble coming. it won’t be overt, it’ll be quiet but deadly. increased disciplinary issues. increased family issues. bigger demands on commands to make allowances for welfare at the expense of training or the mission. eventually bringing gay marriage into military housing.

    who would want to learn about your own military’s rich heritage when you look around and see what it is today?

  • Well, let’s see – what’s next?
    * VF-143 (World Famous Pukin’ Doags): “Sans Reproache” – (without reproach), does that somehow carry a sense of superiority? Might make someone feel “dimijnished” or threatened – out it goes. (and chuck the “pukin’ ” part too – been down that road once already).
    * USS Lake Erie (CG 70) “Don’t Give Up The Ship” – officially sanctioned suicide? Nope – that won’t do…break out the whiteout & brushes.
    * USS Reagan (CVN 76): “Peace Through Strength” AGGGHHHH! We’re the Global Force for Good! Stop with the awful references to strength!
    …I’m sure there’s more and if the above seems a little over the top, well, here’s another for the daisy painters:
    Illegitimi non carborundum…baby.
    w/r, SJS

  • SJS,

    Thankfully the Screwtop motto is still safe: “A Screwtop only feels sorry for himself” 😉

  • …and here I was thinking it was “…and ‘buddy’ is only half a word…”
    w/r, SJS

  • Byron

    Soon as I find the “Like” button, SJS, I’m going to like that a lot! 🙂

  • AT1 (AW) Charles H. Berlemann Jr

    As Tevye said, “How did this Tradition get started? I don’t know”

    This goes to add on to the questions on our own hertiage and whether or not we are failing not only our own tradition and our sailors by not teaching them the reasons behind our hertiage. I think some of this was touched on by LCDR Todd D. Tavolazzi, last month in the magazine asking about how we could teach our history and traditions to junior sailors better. Mottos are important because it can create unity and can create a postive morale enviroment. If used effectively by leadership in their writings and speeches to the command, a motto is a good motivator.

  • Byron

    Wonder if they’ll start painting over “IYAOYAS”…

  • Charles –
    Goes back even further — checkout the postings around the time the Navy deicded it needed to a new/codified ethos…

    w/r, SJS

  • Diogenes of NJ

    Well it’s a good thing VF-84 is gone – we wouldn’t want to offend any Somalis. How long until Jesse and Al go after VF-41?

    “We have met the enemy and he is us.” – Pogo

  • But we still have VF-103. The “Jolly Sluggers”.

  • SJS,

    That’s more of an SOP than a motto in Screwtop land.

  • I knew things were going to hell when they outlawed nose art. Belay that. It was when they outlawed pinups.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Too many Flag Officers, too little real work for them. All their fitreps say they are perfect. If they draw the conclusion that this means all their ideas are perfect too, it can’t be poor judgement, because their perfect judgement is documented, for their whole career…who can dispute it? Who dares dispute it?

    NOW is the time for the solid gold shoulder board crowd. They have a few short years to make their mark, to create their legacy. So they will be proactive. What do they know how to do? Mainly,how to keep the boss happy so as to get a perfect fitrep. Job one. Their whole career.

    The one thing that must be perfect is approval by their boss. Thus the instinct to avoid and punish the controversial (not necessarily a bad thing) is a characteristic for GO/FO’s. If you do it your whole career, it’s not habitual, it’s instinctive.

    Then there is the value of risk avoidance to good fitreps.

    So left with time on his/her (risk avoidance, don’t just say his, QED) hands, the instinct will be to purge controversy and avoid risk – with the Boss.

    Now who is The Boss (i.e, the Political Masters) these days, and what do they want?

  • Robert

    Rumor has it, the USMC now has to reevaluate it’s unofficial motto as well. We may soon see:

    “No better friend; no worse discontent stakeholder”???

  • Perry

    When I worked with the Screwtops doing CONOPS in the early ’90’s, I thought their motto was “RTB.”

    I was VIRGINIA’s CDO when we were flagship for CTF-4 and hosted an all CO’s meeting. The CO of the Screwtops had to leave early, and I got a wild hair to bong him off as sounding four bells and announcing “Screwtops, RTB early…AGAIN!!”

    I didn’t have the stones.

  • AT1(AW) Charles H. Berlemann Jr.


    Oh I know that traditions have been screwed with long before now. I remember when a certain fighter squadron reverted to the “World Famous Griffons” because a certain other name was claimed as verbotten. I also remember when a certain patch style of VAW-124 was declared unauthorized on the flightline because it was considered degradging to other service members. I have also seen changes through out the fleet to various other mottos because even the dog latin translated into something which sounded cool way back when but today under modern thought is considered potential offensive.

    The problem is that how to build esprit de corps amongst an organization? You can’t do it by saying everyone is the same and you can’t do it by saying that everyone is a winner. You have to say that your group is going to do it better and come up with a good motivator for doing so. A motto, mascot, or similar symbol is going to be what your going to unite behind to help with that process. Whether that is a iron mail fist slamming into a bear to represent your mission or having a motto that says “Second to none” or even an unoffical motto of “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back” all are ways to help build that esprit and as an effective leader sometimes it is helpful to say your superior to your fellows because of esprit you establish.

    If you throw that away your cultural heritage (this is what we are discussing here at its basic level) then you are throwing away your whole belief systems and your history. Let alone trampling on those who came before you and helped to establish your traditions and your heritage. It is also very helpful to know why, how, and where that heritage was spawn. If your not teaching that to your folks then you’re failing as a leader and you’re epically failing if you don’t understand your own traditions or heritage.

  • Diogenes of NJ


    Most of Diogenes memories are from last century. After grieving the demise of VF-84, I did not notice that VF-103 had hauled off their stuff. No criticism – I’m happy to see that smilin’ face is still flying.

    This brings me around to another ancient memory from last century, which in a small way relates to Grandpa Bluewater’s post (who says it as no one else can). The memory is of a speech once given by Adm. Wayne E. Meyer. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of a discussion with Adm. Meyer will immediately be drawn to remark at his analytical ability.

    I believe that the Admiral was addressing the time it had taken to develop Aegis. I remember this as the “Checkers” speech. Basically what the Admiral was pointing out, in typical Wayne Meyer fashion, is that there are two basic categories of people working on Aegis – the “Doers” and the “Checkers”. If you define a ratio as the number of Doers divided by the number of Checkers, it is directly proportional to the program’s rate of progress. At the time Adm. Meyer made this statement the ratio was diminishing. I fear that today the ratio is approaching unity or may even be below it.

    So this brings us back to the first statement of Grandpa Bluewater’s post. I’m sure that there are many more conclusions that can be drawn here. I just wish Adm. Meyer were still here to help us out. His service is a part of our heritage.

    – Kyon

  • USAF Mike

    “Wonder if they’ll start painting over “IYAOYAS”…”

    That was my first thought. We lost the IYAAYAS battle in the AF a long time ago as far as public gatherings go (can’t say “shit” in front of the families and public, too “unprofessional,”) but at least we still have it in our own buildings and spaces.


    The motto seems to me a motto used by Sailors who are making the point of just how seriously they are taking thier job. You don’t get much more serious than we will disarm, or die. I will reseve my distain for the folks who thought up the idea of removing the motto.

    I know the denizins of Sal’s Front Porch are tired of my mentioning this, but I shall repeat. Can you imagine the furor in today’s Navy of Halsey’s Tulagi harbor billboards? KILL JAPS! KILL JAPS! KILL MORE JAPS! would cause the current CNO to infarct.

    Yet one must consider, what Navy would cause an enemy, or porential enemy to think twice, one whose motto is, ” we are a global force for good “, or one who goes by KILL! KILL! KILL! ?

  • There was a hilarious and fascinating series on Danger Room a while back about military patches, which are one of the best remaining outlets of military iconography. Most of them were deeply suspect from a prude’s point of view, less for the gallows humor than for the T&A and disrespect for authority.

    The military use of symbols likely reaches back to the Middle Stone Age in the form of body paint, totems and “eagles”. The art of heraldry is as baroque as it is because at one time it encoded critical political/military information, in much the way that Inca ponchos did. That implies that martial symbolism is deeply embedded in human psychology and that it would be better to work with it than against it.

    We will always have the crusaders with us, whether they write their congressional rep about “stormtrooper looks” or make “Catcher In The Rye” disappear from local libraries. PR can make a difference, by accumulating a store of public perception that such iconography is appropriate for the rough men who walk the walls of civilization. The converse is necessary amongst the military: to enforce the fourth line of the first stanza of the Marine Hymn.

  • LT B

    Interestingly enough, I get a lot of Indian commercials where I am. Today, they had a commercial to join the Indian Navy. The boys in white! There was stuff blowing up, ships turning hard, missiles going off, subs sailing and the message was clear. We are a force to be reckoned with. It was martial in its character and without apology. We, however, show the SEALs waxing pirates, planes taking off to kill people, then we show the softer side, let us call it our under belly. And then the apology comes, “The Global Force for Good.” Professional and martial pride is a good thing. One of the intel analysts with whom I work said, “It seems that the tougher and crappier a job is, the higher esprit de corps it has.” We are destroying our culture, to please those that don’t like us any way. But remember we are sworn to protect those people too, but it doesn’t mean we have to bow to them.

  • Sperrwaffe

    Grandpa Bluewater

    Great Analysis. I like it.

    I think you are going to like this one. Gen. von Hammerstein-Equord once made the following categorization about his officers (and he ment this for real!):
    German Original first:
    „Ich unterscheide vier Arten. Es gibt kluge, fleissige, dumme und faule Offiziere. Meist treffen zwei Eigenschaften zusammen. Die einen sind klug und fleissig, die müssen in den Generalstab. Die naechsten sind dumm und faul; sie machen in jeder Armee 90% aus und sind für Routineaufgaben geeignet. Wer klug ist und gleichzeitig faul, qualifiziert sich für die höchsten Fuehrungsaufgaben, denn er bringt die geistige Klarheit und die Nervenstaerke für schwere Entscheidungen mit. Hueten muss man sich vor dem, der gleichzeitig dumm und fleissig ist; dem darf man keine Verantwortung übertragen, denn er wird immer nur Unheil anrichten.”

    The translation:
    “I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.”
    Please feel free to insert the Flags you mentioned into the right category 😉

    Source and background information and Hammerstein:

    Thanks to Cdr Sal for this post to put a highlight on this. for me this is new. I was not aware of such problems in your sevices.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Thank you for providing the quote from General von Hammerstein-Equord!!! It is an absolute classic, and I couldn’t find the gist of it to get a direct quote.

    And there have been few more truthful assertions!

  • USAF EOD Master Blaster

    Rather than offer another version of why our EOD motto should override the chance misunderstanding of whomever it could offend; I respectfully submit that I strongly support that it remain intact. There are many aspects of EOD that may offend “others” not EOD.
    This is not the motto of others. It belongs to EOD.

    I have held an EOD coin, inscribed with that motto, since August 1979. For more than 30 years, never apart. Through peace and war, good and bad, happy and sorrowful times it reminds me of many things. Please support what will remain in place no matter what “Official” decree may be put forth. I guarantee that the EOD community will rise above this,” Initial Success or Total Failure” will remain forever.

    I guess it could be made into another hazard, another cross to bear. Oh no, not allowed, not approved. That’s pitiful.

    No worries; EOD has broad shoulders and strong conviction. We do many things we should not; that others dare not. That has been and always will be part of being EOD. Hard core EOD will swallow a coin so it cannot be found! Rolley Poley………

    With great pride for those that get it; and understanding for those that may never, I smile in your general direction.

  • Matt H.

    It’s official. The navy’s official motto is slowly becoming “Blue Falcons Fly High.”