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.

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Marine Corps, Navy

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  • Very good post!

    Bureaucracy breeds mediocrity, and bureaucracy is a self-sustaining enterprise. Check out all those personnel cuts in defense—I’ve not seen a civil service hit list.

    Bureaucracies are low trust and high rule environments—and more often than not, good people will break the rules.

    Our Navy will continue in decline until we begin to dismantle the bureaucratic institutions that stifle initiative and make just about anything more difficult and too expensive.

    Soft solutions won’t work, training won’t work—the nonsense, indeed the madness that led us to this point won’t get us home—nothing less than a purge of the bureaucratic swamp (and the attendant costs and byzantine processes) is in order.

    ATM is a good nav point, but not enough to cure what ailes the USN—in the services, politics and self-interest has been elevated above rational decision-making.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    Major General Gurganus told reporters later that he had wanted a consistent policy for everyone in the tent, and that “I wanted to have the Marines look just like their Afghan partners,” noting, “You’ve got one of the most important people in the world in the room.”

    Well we sure know what Major General Gurganus would do.

    I watched the video. I have now descended so deep into the turd tank that it will be quite some time before I can make it back to the surface.

    When I do, I expect that not only the Marines, but the entire United States will look like Afghanistan.

    – Kyon

  • You cannot take a profession that is, at its heart, centered on the fundamentally biggest immorality on the planet-the state sanctioned killing of one’s fellow human beings-and cast it in moral terms. It doesn’t work and is always doomed to failure.

    What you can do however, is come up with common sense rules for things that get in the way of the efficient execution of that fundamental mission of the Naval Service-warfighting. Stop framing the question as “what is moral?” and start framing it as “what gets in the way?”

    Coupled with that needs to be a return to a clear dividing line between what is professional and what is personal. The Navy gets to deal with professional-it has no place in the personal. If you want to know where the Navy got off the rails-it started when our flag officers got on the binge of thinking they could legislate personal activities and morality on things that have nothing to do with what happens on the job. There are things that pure and simple are none of the Navy’s business provided the Sailor shows up for work on time. Let someone stand up for that-and decry the unneeded intrusion into Sailors personal lives-and that will be much needed victory.

    Treat Sailors like adults, they behave like adults. Treat them like children and they will dissapoint you every time. The solution to the non-existent “moral crisis” is to stop worrying about it and focus on getting the job done.

  • Byron

    Skippy speak with heap big medicine.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Compelling, well-spoken, expressing popular sentiment. But largely wrong. And based on a false premise.

    The “lemonade” story is a lesson in the intrusiveness of government. The admonition that “incentives” in business consist of replacement of morality does not hold water. To ask not whether it is either “profitable” or “right” is a false choice. The question needs to be “is it good for long-term business development”? The Malden Mills example is such. The decision to keep his employees on the payroll was not only popular, and did well by those employees, but it kept him in business, which was in both the long-term interests of the employees and the business.

    The speaker also mis-identifies the mania in the military to make and follow these “morality” rules mindlessly. It has little to do with lacking the will to think, and much more with the desire for behavior modification (as Skippy alludes to in the obverse) and an absolutely consuming aversion to risk.

    “We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
    But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
    An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
    Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;”

    Or, as Skippy rightly points out, knock off the non-existent “moral crisis” crap and focus on getting the job done.

  • Diogenes of NJ

    Thank you URR –

    Poetry is meant to be read aloud:

    – Kyon

  • What? Poetry? URR spoken word poetry? Hmmmm ….

    Sorry, but this came to mind.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Salamander, I have been known to place foot on barstool, mug of grog in hand, and begin recitation of “Gunga Din”, or “The Young British Soldier”, “Columns”, “Screw-Guns”, or “Charge of the Light Brigade”, or the St Crispin’s speech, to the thunderous applause of my Devil Dog comrades, and (perhaps) the shock and horror of the establishment’s other patrons.

  • John C. Pevec, Sr.

    On the ships, on shore, and in the field there are leaders with men and women following them. These leaders from NCO to Admiral and General, all have one thing in common, a sense of “fairness” that with their other leadership qualities gives them a command presence that inspires the best in people. I am quite sure that these are the leaders who don’t want their sailors or marines in good standing to have equivalence with those who are making problems. Our country can achieve anything, and there is no better military to protect it. I hope those policies which are reactive and not proactive get scuttled. “Breathalyzers” really! Take it from a retired cop, the operators have to be individually trained,periodically recertified and the machines need to be calibrated and recertified often. Who authored this crisis anyways? It had to start on paper somewhere. I had the pleasure of serving onboard a great ship, and after the Navy for 7 different police commanders. The two Navy Captains I served under were outstanding as well as one police commander. That’s right, at my civilian job there was one, good, commander out of seven. God Bless you all.

  • BJ Armstrong

    Skippy and URR…how should the Navy address the issue of sexual assault? What of the harassment, and the behavior (generally personal misconduct) that is resulting in the relief of Commanding Officers? Or do you think that these are invented problems (which is a perfectly valid stance, just needs to be stated) that should be ignored because they are a distraction?

    From Skippy’s post at “Far East Cynic” he appears to be saying that more operational time is what is required (time logging flight hours or time on the bridge), and that everything else is just the way it is. URR, you tell us that it should be based on the question of combat effectiveness. So asking the question of “what is effective” helps us decide “which action is right and which action is wrong”…and therefore it is a moral judgment by definition.

    Is the word “moral” throwing off the conversation here? If I hadn’t repeated the phrase “re-moralize” from Dr. Schwartz’s talk, and had used a different quote from Mahan that didn’t use the word “moral” would you each have read this differently? There is a difference between what is “right” and what is “righteous” even though today’s society seems to want to confuse moral questions with religiousness. As the great scientist and scifi trailblazer Issac Asimov wrote, “never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what is right.” If you read the suggestions of the types of things that ATM thought should be taught, it was reading and writing to help the Bluejacket broaden his frame of reference (remember, this is the 19th century, some of the language and specifics aren’t exact parallels to today), it was history so they understood why they should be proud of their profession, it was local history and culture to help them understand their responsibilities. I don’t understand how these suggestions are at odds with your ideas. Or, as I said, was it simply the use of the word moral that you object to?

    From Skippy’s post at his home blog (I encourage everyone to head over to Far East Cynic and read it at the link in the comment above, he makes some good points), I absolutely believe that the Navy should have room for both of the Naval Aviators who made a difference in his life…neither one sounds unprofessional (or “immoral”) to me. They sound like stand up guys. There’s a good chance that the Aviator paying child support may even end up as a better CO and Senior Officer because, according to William Blake, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.”

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You raise points that are much larger than are conducive to typing into a box.

    Two you hit upon is that of what the Navy should do about sexual assault and misbehavior by commanders.

    Is sexual assault real? Of course. Is it increasing? I don’t know if it is. I don’t know if it is not. But, upon closer examination, will the increasing integration of the sexes in tight quarters for long periods at ages when sexual activity is most prevalent going to play a role in that potential increase? To say otherwise is whistling past the graveyard. To say that the conduct of both genders doesn’t play a role in that is to be downright disingenuous, and calls into question the motives of someone that would assert so. To be clear, I am not making anything other than the age-old observation that biology and the baser instincts of human nature usually trump command guidance.

    A larger issue in that discussion is the blurring of the real extent of the problem. How much of the focus is politically motivated by the ever-increasing desire to appease special interest groups and political masters? When mechanisms are put in place to facilitate reporting for the purpose of assisting victims, one would logically conclude that reporting will increase. Yet, that increase is almost always attributed to increased incidences of sexual assault, rather than the proper functioning of reporting mechanisms. When the lines are blurred by political/special interest motivation, and by agendas of commanders who wish to curry favor from seniors rather than effectively lead their juniors.

    The one thing the Navy should NOT do about sexual assault is to treat each and every male as potential rapists, and hold mandatory training about how they should behave, as if they have no inherent sense of honor or courage. It is despicable and insulting. They wear the same uniforms as do the 06 and Flags (and Colonels and Generals in the USMC), and of the two groups, it is by far more the juniors who have faced enemy fire, pulled wounded comrades to safety, swallowed hard and mumbled a prayer when they left the wire, done the things that a warrior does, than have the senior leadership. Senior officers would do well to remember that, always.

    As to the problem of command misbehavior, there are several factors that play into the ongoing train wreck that is Navy command pin jettison. The selection process, the lack of nurturing judgment and responsibility in junior officers, a less-than-objective category for rating officers (yes, Diversity), all erode the effectiveness of potential leaders and the confidence of those they lead. Ethics and morality workshops, breathalyzers, gender-exclusive all-ranks gab sessions, they make it all worse.

    Leadership is an art. Some very senior people seem to have skipped art class.

    As for the speaker in the posted video, my comments are above. Impassioned, articulate, popular sentiment. But inherently false in premise.

  • BJ,

    You are asking a very broad question that requires, as URR said, a very broad answer. First of all the term sexual assault as used by the Navy is pretty broadly defined. My own take is that the rate of ACTUAL sexual assault is at or below that for a comparable cross section of society. The rate of “buyers remorse” is probably higher-primarily because its much easier to level a a false complaint in the Navy than in the civil sector. And it highlights the problem I was trying to highlight in my blog post-Sailors dating Sailors. But those are two entirely different things lumped under one umbrella. As URR points out-there have been and there will continue to be cases where the rules are used to settle a grudge.

    As for CO firings-I’ll bet if I could read more than the blanket catch all phrases you see in Navy Times I would find some cases that are clear cut, some that were judgement calls and some that were just outright travesties of justice. Of the latter case-we have three documented cases of a senior officer getting screwed at the drive through for things that probably could have been handled more discreetly. The cases of Honors, Gamberg and Jackson-where there is clear cut evidence of professional misconduct by the IG and the officers who ultimately adjudicated the case-makes me wonder how many more there are where the accused just took his ball and went home rather than go through the expense and hassle of fighting off the hordes-even though they may have had grounds for appeal.

    There is a legitimate case to be made for three operational tours in platform prior to command screening-witness looking at the firings that occurred for operational reasons. Plus I base some of that on anecdotal evidence from my contacts who point out the “near misses” that haven’t gotten people fired-yet.

    I’d also point out that a great deal of this was a predictable result of having men and women in close proximity. This is a decision that was made and like it or not some of this is the increased “cost of doing business”. The kind of people you want in this business are sensual, excitement driven folks-its only natural the same traits spill over into other areas. This the world we said we wanted-well welcome to it.

    What should trouble you more than the number of firings is the difference in the time it takes to get fired for a male vs that for a female. It takes much longer and requires a LOT more dotting of the “I”‘s and crossing of the “T”‘s to fire a female CO than a male CO-there is documented proof of that.

    The Navy has itself to blame for much of this in the decisions it made in 1994 when it started down this path. I was there-and a lot of it could have been different. Compromised standards and a thirst for favorable PR are a debilitating disease the Navy has not cured itself of. It can and it would go a long way towards fixing the problems. URR is 100% right when he says the Navy needs to slay the diversity sickness once and for all.

    I’d also point out that its a lot harder for an ISIC to work with a CO who is having difficulties these days-because he knows his neck is also on the line. As a guy who benefited from superiors who had faith in me when I needed it-I find that very troubling.

    John Dalton was a lousy SECNAV because of his “zero defects” mentality. Mabus appears to be following in his footsteps.

    One final point-as for the command screening process, what would you replace it with? The board system works well when the precepts are written right. Maybe using the standard of “best qualified regardless of skin color, gender, or (now) sexual preference” would be a good way to start. Let community leaders brief their records and take away abominations like quotas and minority stamps.

  • I realize I forgot to address the term “moral”-yes I did key on that. War is not a moral endeavor. It may be a necessary evil-and there are just wars. But don’t kind yourself-they are still deviations from what should be. The better term for what the Navy is trying to impart is “prudence” and “discretion”.

    Also, I am not sure Mahan is the example you want to cite here: “Despite his professed success in the Navy, his skills in actual command of a ship were not exemplary, and a number of vessels under his command were involved in collisions, with both moving and stationary objects. He had an affection for old square-rigged vessels, and did not like smoky, noisy steamships of his time; he tried to avoid active sea duty. On the other hand, the books he wrote ashore made him arguably the most influential naval historian of the period.”

    How about asking the better question -namely what would CAG (Insert name of your favorite inspirational leader who influenced your own naval career) have done? Or what would Robin Olds have done? Oh right-in today’s Air Force he would have been fired.

  • BJ Armstrong

    Skippy, is the citation for that Mahan quote from the article? The one without footnotes to tell us why this is true?

    Yes, two ships Mahan commanded did have collisions and mishaps, but I haven’t studied the logbooks to know the details and since CO’s weren’t just tossed overboard on the slightest whim in those days there were few investigations. He was a firm believer in trusting his JO’s, so could he have been in the rack when these happened because he was giving the OOD some leash? That’s different from him being on the bridge. As I said, I don’t know since nobody has gone through the log books and actually completed a historically viable investigation of this idea that Mahan was a terrible sailor. Could this have been a rumor spread by a cut-throat peer group looking for promotion? That never happened in the 19th Century though (insert sarcasm emoticon).

    Also, I loved flying the H-46D, I have an affection for old tandem rotor helicopters. They’re all gone. Does that make me bad at my job? The only time in his biography that I can find where Mahan actively tried to avoid sea duty was when the bureau cut his orders short as a plankowner at the Naval War College…and he did launch an active campaign to stay there because he felt the work he was doing was important…which is probably pretty accurate.

    Mahan isn’t just misunderstood, he’s unknown today. All we know if him is what the internet tells us or what the War Colleges want us to think. There are many who believe that we have nothing to learn from our past, because our challenges today are so new and different. I’m obviously not one of them.

  • Its from the Wikipedia entry on him. My own personal opinion is that Mahan was a great stategic thinker on the role of Navies in influencing other nations; he’s not a role model that I would look to in terms of how to run a unit today. I’ve got better folks to look up to-but most of them would have been fired for failing a breathalyzer coming back to the ship in a foreign port.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    I might say instead that, Mahan is not so much misunderstood or unknown as he is ignored.

    The fundamental principles of sea power he chronicled and the theories he professed have ceased to be guideposts of US Naval strategy. He is hardly “transformational” or “outside the box”, but is instead sort of a navalist God of the Copybook Headings.

  • URR,

    I wish there were a “like” button for your last comment.

    Those old books are products of uncluttered minds. Mahan, Wylie, and Palmer (on the Army side)—truly articulate and experts at their craft.

    Truth is, just about everyone seems to ignore the old guys—-the reading lists of many leaders of today look more like a reading list for an MBA program, with too much pop psych that is more a Cliff’s Notes version of real research than a definitive source.

  • RickWilmes

    While at the Naval Academy, Dr. Seager edited the papers of 19th-century American naval strategist Alfred Mahan, an experience that later led him to write Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters. The biography, published in 1977 by the Naval Institute Press, won numerous awards.

  • RickWilmes

    “He was a firm believer in trusting his JO’s, so could he have been in the rack when these happened because he was giving the OOD some leash?”

    The following may be of interest for those wondering about Mahan’s performance at sea.

    “The simple fact of the matter was that when it came to ships and seamanship the sonnet-reading Alfred Thayer Mahan was accident-prone.  Nothing went well for him when he was at sea, and he continued to dislike every moment of the experience.  The “active pursuit of the sea and its new naval monsters” should be left, he felt, to “younger men.”. He thought a modern ship was a “beastly thing…what a fool a man is who frequents one.”  As he later told George Sydenham Clarke: “The impatience and distase for detail, which is at once my strong and my weak point, makes the duty of a modern captain especially onerous to me; and I have especially chafed at a multiplicity of requirements which, I am fully persuaded, tend to reduce the efficiency of modern ships, by preventing officers from concentrating their attention on the really important.”

    Among the “really important” was Mahan’s abiding fear of colliding the Chicago, as he had the Wasp and the Wachusett.”

    (Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters, p. 261, by Robert Seager II)

    Concerning Mahan’s command of the Chicago.

    “The cruise began with Mahan’s usual lack of aplomb at the conn.  While maneuvering the vessel into dry dock at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn on May 27, he managed to collide with the USS Bancroft, the Naval Academy training ship, damaging her slightly.  Fortunately, the Chicago was not injured.  But the incident served to unnerve Mahan, keeping intact as it did his record for having grounded, collided, or otherwise embarrassed every ship (save the Iroquois) he ever commanded.  As one of his shipmates in the Chicago later wrote, “Mahan had one navigational obsession-fear of coision.” (Seager, p. 257)

    Some background on Seager.

    “While at the Naval Academy, Dr. Seager edited the papers of 19th-century American naval strategist Alfred Mahan, an experience that later led him to write Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters. The biography, published in 1977 by the Naval Institute Press, won numerous awards.”

  • Mahanwasright

    This is not the subject of speculation. Mahan had very clear thoughts on these issues. For example, this one:
    “The development of a man’s own spiritual character is somewhat like the corner stone of a building. Contracted in immediate dimension and scope, as compared with the completed sturcture, it nevertheless is the essential basis one which all rests and from which all devleops.”
    A.T. Mahan, one of the last things he wrote, from Vol. III correspondence, p.716

    John T. Kuehn, author, _Agents of Innovation_(NIP, 2008)
    Associate Professor, US Army Command and General Staff College