Archive for the 'Naval Institute' Category


A Word about Ratings

October 2016


Man the Rails

Last week, the Navy’s top leadership announced the swift transition from traditional rates to alphanumeric Navy Occupational Specialty (NOS) codes. In the matter of a three minutes and thirty-four second video, over two-hundred years of U.S. Navy Ratings – and traditions – were history. Gone. Finished. Dead. Never-to-be-talked-about-again.

But not so fast, everyone. Just minutes after the release of NAVADMIN 218/16, Facebook and social media seemingly deteriorated into a bomb box of antipathy, false equivalencies, and irreverent commentary. Public manifestos protesting the continued tyranny of Secretary Mabus’s tenure inundated message boards and status updates. Nuclear meme proliferation.

To be fair, the observed reaction among the force has ranged from tranquil ambivalence to outright hostile rejection. In typical hyperbolic fashion, the Navy Times pounced on the announcement and labeled it “the most radical personnel overhaul in a generation.” Not to be outdone, the San Diego Union Tribune called it a “tsunami of a cultural shift.” Duffel Blog headlined their page with a satirical news story entitled, “Ray Mabus Admits he Just Hates the Navy,” which like most articles attacking SECNAV resort to the usual talking points: he likes to give women a fair shot, he names ships after civilian heroes and leaders, and he doesn’t play very well with Marines.

The announcement dissolving Ratings is not an epochal policy change. It’s a tweak in syntax to ensure the personnel structure is securely in place for the future Navy. Bigger, more imperative changes have already been instituted over the last decade. Every specialty is open to women; gays can serve openly; maternity and paternity leave is guaranteed; and men and women can come to work without fear of sexual harassment or assault. These types of policies took generations of political will to develop and bring to the force, then were implemented and executed by all of us in a short period of time, sometimes despite initial and widspread resistance. Evidence clearly suggests that the aforementioned personnel changes have enhanced us as a fighting force.

Notwithstanding our increasingly connected Navy, it almost seems like Sailors are more self-compartmentalized than ever. Exhibit A is our rating system. Purely designed to categorize people based off professional skill sets, the Rating system mysteriously became a means of singular identity. Although each rate is exceptional (because each sailor is exceptional), perhaps the “Subject Matter Expert” exceptionalism spurred beyond its intended tactical structure and self mutated into hyper-compartmentalized hues of Rate camaraderie. Over time, some sailors identified themselves more according to their Rate as opposed to their service.

Therefore, beyond the minutia of personnel policy, a broader question has clearly emerged. How is it that our sailors identify more with their job title than the credos of a Sailor? Or, better yet, why such a languid and tepid response to something so clearly beneficial to enlisted sailors for the sake of the benign and often mischaracterized zeitgeist that comes with terms like “tradition?”

NOS Policy

Change is hard in an organization, especially when our organization has a predisposition to divide forces into ranks and rates and rules and flow charts. So embedded are our social traditions in the military orthodoxy that even the slightest of changes seem to throw earth off its axis. And to be clear, this policy will result in tangible improvements for everybody in nearly every quantifiable category. With promotion rates in particular rates stagnant, good sailors will be get to stay in, learn new skills, and continue a rewarding career. Shore Duty billets previously reserved for specific ratings can open up to more sailors, thereby placing even more emphasis on performance at sea. Sailors who earn new skills stand to be offered incentives in the form of increased monetary compensation or other substantial benefits.

In other words, the playing field will continue to level out and provide hard-working sailors the opportunity they deserve.

The second order effects are also clear.

  1. The system will tap into the brilliance of our sailors, allowing for ideas and best practices studied in a different NOS to be applied in new ways and in new fields.
  2. If properly managed, critical NEC’s can be adequately covered despite an unforeseen personnel loss.
  3. In the age of autonomous airplanes, unmanned underwater submarines, and sophisticated computer networks, the revised system will naturally find new jobs for sailors displaced by technological improvements throughout the force.

As most of us know, an organization glued to tradition is an organization drifting off course and not innovating.

I confess that I have never wore an enlisted uniform, so my nondescript commentary should be rebuffed with enlisted perspectives, but I must admit, I have found it is interesting to watch people fill the void of change with the call of action to go back to a system so unprepared for the future force. Rather than quibble, we should focus our effort by demanding transparency in the Navy’s new policy so we can all adequately craft the future force.

Under Mabus’s leadership, our personnel changes have occurred with admirable swiftness and efficiency. But we should be clear about the dissolvent of the Rating system. This is not a change. It’s merely a data-driven adjustment to ensure our personnel system is aligned to meet the demand of the 21st Century. Our sailors deserve more opportunity, more flexibility, and more options, even if they choose to get out.

As we transition out of a Navy that once relied on sheer manpower with adequate supervision to a Navy that cherishes specific, individual skill sets, our force structure must change. So before we sign on to more petitions and lay waste to social media, perhaps we can let ideas breath and allow everyone to absorb a new innovation and consider its broader implications.


Writing professional articles has a long history in all the U.S. military services. American naval publications date as far back as the 1830s. While military personnel are commonly lauded for their willingness to take physical risks in defense of the nation, sometimes we are less open to taking the intellectual risks involved in the betterment of our profession. In #RTSW 2 we discussed the fear some writers have that they might embarrass themselves through a small mistake or problem in a professional article. Taking an intellectual or academic risk is far different than strapping into an aircraft, rigging to dive the boat, or free-falling out of a perfectly good airplane.

The reality is there are a number of things military authors do which are sort of embarrassing from an editor’s perspective. Military personnel hold themselves up as professionals, but occasionally behave like inexperienced freshman undergraduates when it comes time to submit an article for publication. Most of the issues can be addressed by acting like the professional we all claim to be. These are not actually hard things to do, but generally fall into the GI Joe category of knowledge.

Article Length

Follow the contributors guidelines. Seriously. If the journal or publication says they take feature articles with a maximum word count of 3000 words, do not send them 4500 words. Some will give you some latitude, maybe 10% overage, but not always. It is not the editor’s job to turn your over-length piece into something appropriate. You are telling them either you could not be bothered to check the guidelines, you have never read their publication, you just don’t care, or you think you are so brilliant the rules don’t apply to your ideas. None of these interpretations will help you impress anyone.

From my experience as an editor this is an across the board issue. Frankly, most junior personnel tend to follow the rules, but sometimes they don’t understand the difference between “departments” at some journals. Some mid-grade officers, senior officers, and Flags, however, have issues understanding the rules apply to them. One would hope the professors from our PME institutions who encourage officers to use their school papers for articles would help them understand how it works. Yet, I have also seen PME professors who submit articles which are thousands of words over maximum, so sometimes they are part of the problem.

PME/Academic Papers

Papers and assignments written in the professional military education system, or from academic work, are a great source of material for articles. I have used the work I wrote for class in a number of articles I have published. But, a school paper and an article are not the same thing. We’ve already covered the length issue, but this is a common problem with academic papers. There are also differences in style and tone, occasionally in formatting, and in the types of arguments that will fit at certain publications. Do not simply send your PME paper to an editor. Always rewrite and reformat the paper to ensure it fits the publication you are sending it to. The editors will still help you make it better, but it is on the author to make the first effort of getting it right for the publication in question. It should not require mentioning, but the editor is also not interested with the grade you got on the paper. No need to share, the work should stand on its own.

Individualized Submissions

Ensure you are sending the right submission to the right publication. If a certain publication has a name for a “department,” or type of article, don’t use that same name at a different publication. For example, Proceedings has opinion pieces called “Nobody Asked Me But…” An author who sends a commentary submission to War on the Rocks or The Bridge “for your Nobody Asked Me But section” is immediately off on the wrong foot.

Manuscript Format

Simple freelance manuscript format is the best way to approach an editor. Do not try and impress with multiple fonts, complicated formatting, etc. Depending on what software they are working with, your fancy format may get thrown off anyway. You aren’t applying for a job in desktop publishing, the words in the article are what matter and speak for themselves. Name, contact info, word count, title, one font, double spaced, simple paragraph format. Use bold, underline, or italics to set things off, but only sparingly. It is designed for fiction authors, but William Shunn’s website gives a good image of how to set things up. Avoid pdf’s to the best of your ability, because the editor will probably want to digitally mark up the piece.


The concept of authorship is directly tied to the question of personal integrity in the academic world. Almost every university or institution of higher learning has an authorship policy statement (read Yale’s here). Fundamentally “authorship” is the question: who belongs on the byline of an article? Who should get credit? This is a question every senior officer looking to publish an article must ask themselves when they think about the staff process which might have helped them produce the article. Senior officers and civilian leaders sometimes have speechwriters who help them. At what point, and in what venues, should they get mentioned for written work? Is a shared byline proper? Or is a mention in the author bio at the end of the article the right place? “LCDR Jones contributed to the writing of this article.” Perhaps a junior officer on the staff amassed the research and wrote the first draft of sections of the piece. Do they deserve some credit? These questions don’t always apply, but in colleges and universities this is a key ethical question. If we are going to pursue professional integrity in the military services, and consider it intellectually, it makes sense for us to examine authorship as well.

Be Cordial

Professional articles on military subjects are not the place for personal attacks or for antagonism. Even if the spark which got you writing was disagreement with someone else’s idea, take a step back and make sure you are writing about ideas and content and you are not being antagonistic. Sometimes this is unintentional, and requires you to look at your own work closely. Also, some publications do not publish this kind of tit-for-tat writing, so expect rejections if you are writing something focused on being critical. You should be focused on new ideas and solutions. It is ok to be constructively critical of another writer, thinker, or publication, but avoid personal or professional antagonism: try and follow Dennett’s rules. Aim at the ideas, not the people, and give credit where credit is due.

Cite Your Work

Footnotes, endnotes, hyperlinks…they matter. They help prove you have done the research and reading discussed earlier in this series. More importantly, perhaps, they acknowledge the hard work of others who have tackled the same or similar subjects and on whose shoulders your work stands. They offer the editor and the reader a chance to check up on you. None of us form our ideas or opinions in a vacuum. Even senior officers haven’t come to all their knowledge through experience or epiphany. We should acknowledge that through good use of notes and links. This does not mean every article must be peppered with quotes from Clausewitz or Mahan. You do not have to tackle the great masters. Sometimes it makes you look silly. I know from experience.

So What?

Say something in your article. Identifying a problem is certainly a contribution, but often times it is not enough. It only becomes a good article when you also suggest a solution or a path to a solution. You have to argue for something, not just report on a situation. In the first post in this series we talked about John Adams’ call to “dare to read, think, speak, and write.” Professional articles are at their best when they remember that first word. Writers must dare.

Take It or Leave It

This series of three posts has tried to offer a starting point for military professionals and members of the national security community who want to take up the call to contribute to our profession, all call which was recently echoed by the CNO and Lt O’Keefe. The observations offered are intended as a little bit of what naval folks call gouge to get started. Like all gouge, the advice offered is worth exactly what you have paid to read it. These are simple observations from my past several years both writing and editing on military and naval subjects. Individual experience will vary. As we say in the navy, if you live by the gouge you’ll likely die by the gouge. But it least it gives us somewhere to start.


This post is the third in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.


Chief of Naval Operations Richardson has put out a call for more naval professionals to contribute to their profession through writing. Other Flag Officers have followed his lead and there is a rising movement across the joint force. The first post in this series examined how someone can develop an idea into a professional article. The next two posts will look to offer a clearer picture of what a writer should expect once their article is written: from submission to when it is out in print or online.

The advice in this series is based on professional writing for a print or online magazine/journal. People interested in blogging can certainly also learn from these ideas. But blogging has a slightly different place in our digital society, and frequently has different (sometimes looser) standards. As seen from the fact this series is published on a pair of blogs (USNI and the Military Writer’s Guild), I see a lot of value in both approaches.

One of the most intimidating things about publishing a professional contribution is fear the author will get something wrong, or embarrass themselves through small mistakes. The reality is a typo, an improperly used italics formatting, or a misspelled name is not something most editors care about. If the problems are repeated and glaring, that is different, but a couple of small mistakes are not very important.

Personally, this is why I like working with journals and magazines more than unedited blogs, or blogs run from personal websites. My work always benefits from the critical eye of a dedicated editor, whether a paid employee of a publication or sometimes a volunteer. That kind of sanity check has kept me from embarrassing myself when the editor asks “hey, are you sure that is right?” or “what is your citation or link for this fact?” From fixing typos, to helping improve the writing in terms of style or house format, and challenging flawed logic or argument, editors have always made my work better. Once the article or essay has made it through them, or their editorial board, there’s a much smaller chance I am embarrassing myself.

Finding a Publication

With a completed draft on the computer screen, it is time to decide where to submit the article. There are many, many options. For naval writers there are the big time naval professional journals like Proceedings and Naval War College Review, to the magazines published by community organizations like Tailhook and the Naval Helicopter Association. The other services have similar venues like Military Review, The Gazette, or branch publications like Armor. There are also the online publications about defense and national security issues. Authors must realize each and every publication has its own niche and its own style. Your manuscript should aim to fit their unique niche and style.

There are two good rules of thumb for selecting where to send the article. First, make sure you’ve read articles from the publication you want to target and ensure your article is the kind of thing they publish. Second, find the publication’s “contributor guidelines.” They all have them, and the editors actually put hard work into getting them just right. Here is the link to Proceedings, and here is War on the Rocks, to give you an idea of what they include. Frequently, these pages are also a wealth of advice on good writing. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES. (Yes, I just stomped my foot and yelled at you.) Do not let the word “guidelines” fool you, these are the rules for the publication. The quickest way to get rejected by an editor is to send them something clearly violating the rules they have put out in the open. And don’t blast the article out to multiple publications at the same time. Pick one, submit, and be patient. Give the editors a couple days to acknowledge your submission, and even more time before you demand an answer. Some have review processes which take months. Even if the article is rejected, you frequently will get constructive feedback that will help you make it better before sending it to the next publication.

You may decide you are interested in a less formal arrangement, and go with a blog such as USNI Blog or work with junior folks like at CIMSEC. But deciding where to send your article should be a conscious choice based on knowledge of what they publish and how you fit into their corner of national security or professional discussion. You do not need a personal introduction to an editor. Find the email address for submissions, write a brief introductory email (include who you are, title of the article, length, and where you see it fitting into the publication), attach the article (or just make a pitch if that is what the guidelines say), and hit send.

Working with Editors

Editors are here to make our work better. Sometimes, we don’t like to hear their criticism, but it is really crucial we listen and consider it. You can push back against an editor’s changes or suggestions, but you should be able to explain why. Also, you can ask an editor to explain the reasons they have made or suggested a certain change. The writer-editor relationship should have plenty of back and forth, with give and take from both sides.

A professional editor will also never talk about the details of the work they do with you. For example, the Editorial Board at the Naval Institute has very strict privilege rules covering what is discussed in the boardroom. Some new writers fear editors will bad mouth them to other publications or with other writers, but that has never been my experience. In fact, I’ve had many editors try and help me by suggesting other publications which might be a “better fit” if they have rejected my work. Editors have also offered to make introductions to other publications for me. While talking with an editor isn’t quite like talking with a Chaplain, respected outlets are run by respectable people. Publishers always want you to come back with good material, because it is how they keep their journal up and running.

Incoming Fire

The vast majority of material published today ends up online. Even print journals like Proceedings place their articles on their website. Along with this comes the dreaded “comments section.” Realize there is no obligation for you to read the comments section. Frankly, most of the time I try and ignore it. For each ego stroking reassurance you have offered a brilliant analysis, there’s a troll looking for a fight or a pedantic fact checker ignoring the actual point. Sometimes, a genuine expert in your subject might respond with good insight. When I am tempted to look, and I discover someone like that, I have been known to contact them directly to learn more, but not engage in the furball of likes and unlikes and replies. Most publications want their authors to engage, on more than one occasion staff at USNI have suggested I dive in. However, the key for any author is to realize engaging with commenters is entirely a personal choice. There is no requirement to do it, and there is no requirement you ignore it.

Pen Names

A number of professional naval journals have had a history of allowing the use of pen names. Many excellent digital commentators, like our friend Cdr Salamander, use them with skill and for excellent reasons. The first thing to realize is most publications have a specific policy on the use of pseudonyms. They probably are not going to break their own rules for you, and you better know what they are before you try and submit as “W.T. Door” or “Sailor Timmy.” Many blogs also have a policy on it as well. If you decide you need to use a pen name to protect yourself, you may be limiting how seriously your work will be taken and limiting the kinds of publications you can approach.

Personally, I have also found my writing is far better when I do it under my own name. There is less of a temptation to resort to snark and sarcasm and greater incentive to make sure the research is fully and rigorously sourced. Since we have been talking about writing for professional journals and magazines, it is uncommon for them to resort to pen names. If you are publishing in a respected journal or online publication the odds are you want some credit for your ideas, and for having the guts to get them out there, anyway.

This post is the second in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.



The June issue of Proceedings offered a call from CNO Admiral Richardson, and his speechwriter Lt. Ashley O’Keefe, encouraging naval professionals to engage with their service through the act of professional writing. The CNO has not discovered a new idea, but instead lends his voice to something a number of recent senior officers have called for, from Stavridis to Winnefeld. Even some “not so senior” officers have suggested the same. Others have written indications and warnings about the risks the voyage entails.

There have been a long list of professionals throughout our history who have participated in the development of naval affairs in this way, from Maury to Mahan, Nimitz to Zumwalt. And while the spark for this post came from the CNO and the Navy, the other services have a history here too: from soldiers in the 19th century to leaders like Patton in the 20th century. However, the repeated calls to arms over time, or perhaps calls to pens, have missed something. How do you do it?

Our Navy is a technically oriented service. This is also generally true of the other services to greater or lesser degrees. Our educational policies focus on engineering and technical study, and rarely encourage us to learn how to communicate in writing beyond a bare minimum. In our staff positions we use briefing slides and other communication methods which inspire partial thoughts, quick hits, and incomplete sentences and no concept of paragraph structure or style. For cultures raised on procedural compliance and powerpoint, what is the procedure for writing a professional article? Some simple steps inspired by the words in the Naval Institute’s mission can help set our course.


The mission of USNI is to:

Provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to global security. [emphasis added]

The bold words are borrowed from President John Adams. In his 1765 pamphlet “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” Adams examined monarchy and feudalism and compared them to the growing movement for freedom and liberty in the American colonies. The future president called for Americans who valued liberty to develop their knowledge, and their argument, by daring to read, think, speak, and write on the subject. It was a clarion call, but it also hinted at a certain amount of process. Adams was a careful writer and it is quite possible he put these words in a very specific order. Following his counsel can help professionals chart their process for developing an article which contributes to understanding of our profession.


In order to make a contribution to the field of military, naval, or national security knowledge, you have to know the state of the field. The way to do this is by reading. If you have come up with an interesting analogy for a current debate the only way to know if someone has made the argument before is by reading the field. If you wonder what counter-arguments may be against your position, that also comes with reading the field. Articles in journals like Proceedings, Military Review, or Naval War College Review, online publications like War on the Rocks and The Bridge, blogs like Next War, all contribute to the state of the field. Not only will reading them give you new information, and new ideas, but they also tell you what others have said before. It can save you from the embarrassing retort: “yeah, Lieutenant Commander Jones said it six months ago and had a better argument.” (Not that you have to be entirely original, but knowing the field helps you understand where you fit.)

It is not just articles and online posts we should be reading. Books have long given us the deep knowledge needed to understand where the profession has been and where it may head in the future. There is a common refrain in the modern world that we simply do not have time for books. The watch schedule keeps us too busy. Digital media has affected our attention span. Military service is demanding, and we need time with our families. Yet we find time for physical exercise, while we discount intellectual exercise. According to some studies the average college graduate reads around 300 words a minute. If we read 15 minutes each evening, it totals up to 18-20 books a year. The excuse there is “no time” would never be accepted when we failed the PFT. Accept the challenge to read more widely. Maybe this sounds “high brow” or too “egg headed” but as President Truman, a WWI Army veteran, said: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”


Once a servicemember or natsec professional has an idea of the subject they want to write about, has done some research and reading about it, and has come up with the initial kernel of an argument, they must spend some time thinking about it. This advice probably goes against the grain of what digital media incentivises, or what social media seems to encourage. However, the point of this effort is to make a contribution to the field of military and naval affairs or national security, not to rush into being a “thought leader” in the crashing tide of the blogosphere. Thinking hard about the subject you intend to tackle includes attempting to employ the skills of critical thinking.

Critical thinking gets a lot of attention these days and there are numerous competing definitions of what it means. Unfortunately, too many people seem to think “critical thinking” means “thinking about important or critical things.” That’s not the case. Instead we need level criticism at ourselves and our ideas. We need to examine our ideas with depth, and rigor, in order to get to the heart of whatever issue we want to write about. This includes becoming a critic of yourself and your own ideas, as well as the ideas of others. As you develop the concept for your article, be exacting and penetrating with the evidence you have amassed either through research or your own experience.


Having researched, considered experience, and critically examined the subject in your own mind, it is important to get a sanity check from someone else. In the academic world, this is part of the reason there is peer review before journal articles are published. In the professional and popular press, editors and editorial boards will judge your work with a dispassionate eye. The best way to ensure your argument makes sense, and you have developed a sound approach before contacting an editor, is to talk about it with other people.

Speaking about your idea can take a number of forms. It can happen with a pint in your hand at a pub with a mentor or group of respected friends. In the lost days of our Officer Clubs this was actually a common way of helping people develop professional ideas. It could also involve a cup of coffee. Seek out a mentor who you trust, whether a senior officer or a former professor or co-worker, and see what sticks in your conversation with them. Speaking also does not have to be taken literally, even if some of us work better in the give and take of live conversation. It can take the form of an email or social media exchange. The goal is to introduce new criticisms the writer has not considered, or clarifying the way to express the ideas.


Sit down and write the article. Just do it. Don’t allow the blank page on the computer screen to intimidate. One of the benefits of having thought through the idea systematically, and then spoken about it with a trusted friend or mentor, is you have already started to develop the words to express the idea. As many successful authors have told us, from Stephen King and Anne Lamott to Ernest Hemingway: the first draft is going to be bad. It does not matter. Sit at the keyboard and bang away until you have said everything you want to say.

Once the words are on the page, raw and terrible as they might be, the writer has crossed a major hurdle. After that, it is a matter of editing, organizing, and rewriting, which should be easier than putting the idea down the first time. The editing does not need to be rushed, and the mentor or friend you spoke with probably will be excited to take a look at the article and help make suggestions to improve it. You have already made them feel like a part of the process. When the draft is something which reads well, and you’re happy with it, then it is time to start looking for a place to publish it. Good editors, strong editorial boards, and the review process they use will help strengthen the piece even more. Be ready to make more adjustments to help clarify any issues they discover.

The RTSW Loop

The steps of RTSW might be seen as a sort of OODA loop for professional writing. In some ways it is similar to Boyd’s strato-tactical ideal. For example, each element can send you back to a previous spot. Speaking with a mentor may send you to a book or article you had not heard of before which you need to read, or the process of writing may cause you to return to your thinking and reorganize your approach. But there are also differences with Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act sequence, most notably speed. Speed can be your enemy when writing a good professional article. There is no hurry. Please do not try to beat the rush of modern media, this can lead to shallow writing, weak argument, and poorly sourced facts. Doing it right may take time, and multiple rounds of the “RTSW loop,” but that only makes the article stronger and a better contribution.

Writing for publication can be a rewarding challenge. It is also something a legion of Sailors, Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, and security professionals have done throughout history. Many discover the process of writing clarifies their thinking. It also develops our communication skills, our critical faculties through practice, and our leadership ability. All of these make us better military professionals. Writing for publication is not something we should do because we need another FITREP or evaluation bullet, or because we think we can impress our boss. We don’t do it simply because the CNO says so. It is something we do in order to move our profession forward and to improve our service or our nation’s security. So, it is time to dare. Dare to read, think, speak, and write.


The author would like to thank Cdr Mike Flynn and his Naval Academy summer school class on “Professional Writing” for their invitation to join them for a day of class, where the author had a chance to speak about and refine some of these ideas.

This post is the first in a three part series where the author shares lessons learned from a decade of his own professional writing, almost four years on the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute, as a Senior Editor with War on the Rocks, and as series editor of the 21st Century Foundations books from the Naval Institute Press. The advice contained is worth exactly what you have paid to read it and individual experience will vary. The opinions expressed are offered in the author’s personal capacity and do not represent the policy of the US Navy, Department of Defense, or any government agency.


Photo Credit: FVAP

“All qualified electors of this state who shall be in the actual military service of the United States or of this state…shall be entitled to exercise the right of suffrage at any general election…at the several posts, camps, or places where the regiment or battery of artillery may be…”

Wisconsin State Law, Section One

Passed September 25, 1862

Voting while serving in the military was not always as easy as it is today. For a long time, if a soldier or sailor was away from their hometown, they simply didn’t vote. It wasn’t until the Civil War when most states confronted the challenging issue of voting in the military. In the run-up to the 1862 congressional election, there were many questions about how to handle voting for a significant number of military members that were far from home.

The first two states that led the way with passing military suffrage laws were Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Wisconsin, their state constitution was interpreted to allow military members to vote outside of state boundaries, and just before the 1862 election a bill was passed that, “directed officers in the army camps to conduct the vote…and to forward to the governor and the secretary of state for final tabulation the results of the vote.” Just two days later, Minnesota passed a law allowing any soldier who had enlisted at least ten days prior to the election, “to vote wherever he might be. Having done so, he should place his marked ballot in an envelope, then seal said envelope with wax, and mail to the judges of his district.” With those simple pieces of legislation behind them, the first military absentee ballots were cast!

In 1863, several more states followed suit. By 1864, most state governments had provisions enabling their residents serving outside their state to vote in various forms. Some states chose to allow voting by proxy, some followed Wisconsin and Minnesota’s example and allowed absentee voting for the first time, and others even sent election commissioners to their state units to verify voting procedures and tally results. However, several states, purely for political reasons, chose not to enact legislation until 1865, too late for their soldiers’ votes to count in the 1864 presidential election.

Civil War Voting

Photo Credit: Missouri State Historical Society

Union Soldiers voting in the field during the Civil War

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the Civil War and the United States has passed a number of laws protecting a servicemember’s right to vote. The 1955 Federal Voting Assistance Act urged states to pass laws to improve voting procedures for the military, by simplifying the absentee process, creating a uniform ballot, and providing adequate time for ballots to be returned. The 1975 Overseas Citizens Voting Rights Act repealed and updated the 1955 law, guaranteeing absentee registration for citizens outside the United States. The 1986 Uniformed Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Rights Act (UOCAVA) directed states to provide overseas personnel with the ability to vote in all elections, specifically protecting members of the uniformed services and their families. As a result of UOCAVA, states must provide requested absentee ballots at least 45 days prior to an election. Finally, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) required the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) to ensure that military servicemembers assigned to voting assistance positions have the “time and the resources needed to provide voting related services.”

These changes have helped ensure that members of the military have every opportunity to register and to vote in elections. As a direct result, servicemembers have increasingly registered to vote and turned out in higher percentages than their civilian counterparts. Here are some of the military voting turnout rates over the last 40 years:

-1976: <40% (15% less than the civilian turnout rate)

-1984: 55% (military exceeded the civilian turnout for the first time)

-1992: 67% (compared to 55% civilian turnout rate)

-1996: 64% (compared to 49% civilian turnout rate)

-2000: 69% (compared to 54% civilian turnout rate)

-2004: 79% (compared to 60% civilian turnout rate)

In the 2008 presidential election, the overall voter turnout rate for the country was 61.7% – the highest since 1964. In the 2012 presidential election, the military again turned out and voted in higher percentages than the civilian populace.

Most recently in the 2014 congressional election, data from the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) showed that in the 2014 congressional elections 71% of Active Duty Military members registered to vote. Conversely, only 58% of civilians of the same demographics (age, gender, education, region, family status, etc.), registered. However, when it came to actually voting in the 2014 election, active duty members had a voter participation rate of only 23%, compared to 25% of those not in the military.

The 2014 results should not overshadow the fact that as an overall group, the military and veterans have increasingly become more likely to register and to vote in elections. Our job now is to continue to encourage everyone to exercise his or her right to vote. The bottom line is that in today’s day and age, even if you are deployed to a combat zone, underway on a ship halfway across the world, or stationed at a base abroad, there is virtually no excuse for not being able to vote. There are great informational tools out there and most states allow you to handle just about everything online – some even allow you to utilize an online ballot!

A great website to refer to for state by state guidelines on how to register to vote, how to request an absentee ballot, and how to check the status of your ballot is

Alexander Hamilton wrote in April 1784 that, “A share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law. It is that right, by which we exist a free people.” Hamilton went on to note that voting is a citizen’s, “right to a share in the government. That portion of the sovereignty, to which each individual is entitled, can never be too highly prized. It is that for which we have fought and bled.”

This is something we should be talking about in our squadrons, on our ships, and within our units. By not voting, even if you think there are no good choices, you are ceding your voice to someone else. The only way we as a democracy can move forward and truly represent the will of the people is for the people to vote. This is an area where the military has led in the past, and must surely lead in the future.

Today, 27 May 2016, the Class of 2016 will be graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. The Naval Institute shares the words of a commanding officer to his son on the occasion of his son’s graduation from the Naval Academy in June, 1955.

As today’s graduates enter commissioned service, these words of sixty years ago ring true.

To the Class of 2016, the Naval Institute extends heartfelt congratulations.

Read the rest of this entry »

2000px-Emblem_of_the_Военно-Морской_Флот_Российской_Федерации.svgWhat should be on every navalist’s “Top-5” list for 2015 should be the re-awakening of the Russian Navy to the international stage.

It has been building for awhile, but it took Syria to have it break above the ambient noise for many.

Some of the best writing has been of the curious and interested variety with a raised eyebrow or two, but unfortunately, some in the general press has been a bit alarmist. Though I don’t blame him for the title, David Axe’s article at the DailyBeast, U.S. Fears Grow of a ‘Newly Awakened’ Russian Navy, is a more benign example of the type;

A new report from the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch paints a sobering picture of Putin’s increasingly aggressive fleet—and its deadly international shows of force.

For the first time in 24 years, the U.S. Navy’s intelligence branch has published an unclassified report warning against a rapidly rearming and increasingly aggressive Russian fleet.

And while the report—which the Navy intends for public consumption—has been years in the making, recent events have underscored just how serious its findings are. It’s becoming clearer by the day that, with the strong backing of President Vladimir Putin, the Russian navy is making a serious effort to challenge the world’s preeminent maritime power—the United States.

David makes some good use of folks from the USNI cadre, Norman Polmar and David Wertheim, and the tone of the article is mostly calm – but the choice of the headline is important.

Though much of us in the national security chattering class have always kept an eye on Russia, a large segment has not. They have been focused on the Long War and not much else besides a glance across the Pacific. For them, a returning Russia to the international stage in force has upset their table and is messing with their preconceived notions of what this century should be about.

No reason, at least from the maritime side of the house, to “fear.” Be curious, be watchful, but really nothing to fear. One thing we should do is to continue to watch, write, and discuss where Russia is going. By doing so, the conversation will keep people informed.

Mostly, people only fear the unknown. That is where we come in – let’s study and write about Russia more. Some of us miss her anyway, and who knows – maybe she can give us some ideas we can use to improve our own navy.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.
Without it, no real success is possible.”
-President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Character is the most fundamental and indispensable quality of leadership. As junior officers, we serve as a critical link between the enlisted sailors and senior officers. Without the vital component of steadfast moral integrity, our ability to accomplish the mission would be severely degraded. Too often we have seen the results of epic failures in an individual’s character. These events erode the public trust in our military, but more importantly, it erodes the trust our enlisted men and women have in their officer corps. In order for the military to refocus it’s leadership balance we must all reevaluate the process in which we lead.

To accomplish this rebalancing, I propose a four-tiered pyramid entitled “The MP3 Model.” I have named these four tiers the Moral, Personal, Practical, and Professional levels. In this turbulent and challenging world, the Moral level must be the base of this leadership paradigm. Morals and ethics must be the guiding light for all leadership decisions. If we as leaders drift away from morality, the results can be catastrophic. A strong moral base is not something that you wake up with one day, it is the cumulative wisdom amassed over your lifetime that informs your decision-making process on a day-to-day basis. It should be a sensation that occurs practically subconsciously; however, there is a conscious component to morality. In his bestselling book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely showed in a variety of experiments that people in general performed to higher moral standards when simply reminded of these morals before taking the test. An example was having people sign a one-sentence statement at the top of the first page of the test that said, “I will not cheat on this test, and the work submitted is my own.” Just this small impetus dropped the amount of people who tried to cheat, (Ariely 2012). What does this mean to us as Naval leaders? It means that morality is largely a subconscious act, but that it is also a “perishable” skill. What I mean by that is it is easy to get caught up in the “daily grind” of work in the military, where you are just trying to accomplish the mission by any means necessary, and the lines between right and wrong become blurred. It is incumbent upon the junior officers of the Fleet to ensure we discuss these issues. There is absolutely no reason to require everyone to sign statements of morality as in the example; but having junior officers who stress the importance of moral righteousness and uphold the Navy’s values can and will make a difference in the future. Morality is the sine qua non of this paradigm and will ensure the integrity of our Navy.

MP3 PoulinOnce a sound Moral base is established, it will be the foundation for the subsequent Personal, Practical, and Professional levels of leadership. The Personal level is centered on the very basics; it is the individual’s presence, appearance, and overall military bearing. Rightfully so, the Navy expects this as a basic prerequisite for any Naval officer. A Naval officer must know the proper uniform regulations and follow them, be physically fit, be professional in his/her conduct with others, be proactive, be able to communicate effectively, and maintain high standards in others; simply the basics.

Next is the Practical level. As the world becomes dramatically more technologically advanced the Navy is likewise becoming increasingly technically driven. This level of leadership is thus focused on the technical expertise related to your job, whether learning the ins and outs of your aircraft fuel system, having an in-depth knowledge of your submarine’s nuclear reactor, or becoming an expert on demolition. This technical expertise is critical to successfully accomplishing the mission. What it means at the most basic level is simply to “know your job.” Admiral Chester Nimitz spoke on several occasions about the “readiness to serve.” As the leader of a division in a technologically advanced military, this technical expertise is an integral part of being able to serve when called upon; when the order comes to launch a torpedo or fire a missile, there must be no doubt up and down the chain of command that this task can be completed. Following this logic, it is unequivocally the responsibility of any leader to seek a level of professional knowledge that surpasses the level needed to accomplish the mission. President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” The active leader understands this legacy and is constantly striving to learn more.

At the top of the pyramid is the Professional level, or more informally, the “change the world” level. This level is focused on an individual’s ability to lead sailors and marines in order to accomplish the mission. At this level, you must be able to concisely communicate your vision and your goals to your subordinates, while also providing feedback to your superiors about what you need to accomplish the stated mission. You must be able to make decisions quickly with little information, to look out for the welfare of your people both professionally and personally, to communicate effectively, to know every facet of the mission and devote your resources to accomplishing it, and you must be able to apply everything from the preceding three levels of leadership. Now, any person of sound mind and unyielding work ethic should be able to maintain the first three levels of the leadership pyramid without a terrible amount of difficulty. But being able to effectively employ your leadership skills across a wide spectrum of personnel and events is an exceptionally distinctive talent. The two best questions any junior officer can ask himself/herself at this level is 1) What can I do to make my division or unit more efficient and 2) What can I do to make my sailors’/marines’ lives better?

The Moral, Personal, Practical, Professional pyramid represents the pathway to sound leadership. The natural question is, is it possible to be an effective leader without one of the other levels? The answer is absolutely, but beware of the results. There are plenty of brilliant professional leaders in the military that may not maintain their personal or practical sides of leadership and are still successful. However, when you ignore one of these levels, it is as if that level on the pyramid is hollowed out, creating a “house of cards” that is trying to support the upper echelons but will likely fail. To ensure the integrity of our system we must all strive to maintain the four levels of leadership.

The importance of morality in leadership is not a new phenomenon. The most recent edition of the Navy Divisions Officer’s Guide notes that, “According to general order 21 (as first issued) leadership is defined as, ‘the art of accomplishing the Navy’s mission through people.’ It is the sum of those qualities of intellect, human understanding, and moral character that enable a person to inspire and manage a group of other people successfully. Effective leadership, therefore, is based on personal example, good management practices, and moral responsibility,” (Stavridis and Girrier 2004, 4). Moral leadership is therefore not a new idea, but does require occasional reflection.

There must be a reason that the Navy has had several high-profile scandals within the past couple of years, many with a principal moral component. Perhaps these incidents can be attributed to individuals who were caught up in the daily routine and not thinking through their actions. Regardless of the reason, these incidences are unacceptable. A Google search of “navy scandal” reveals the following top results: Navy Expels 34 Sailors in Nuclear Cheating Scandal, Navy to Retool Blue Angels after Scandal, Navy’s Bribery and Prostitution Scandal is Worse than Imagined, Three Admirals Censured, and many more. These episodes erode the public trust, which is absolutely essential to our continued operation. The military is rightfully held to a much higher standard than our civilian counterparts in a lot of respects. One of these episodes is too many, and several is an epidemic. What is particularly troubling is that a lot of these issues of questionable morals take place up and down the chain of command, even at the Commanding Officer level and above. It is incidences like the ones delineated above that underline the importance of why we all must rebalance and refocus our leadership. A strong Moral base will enable all leaders to make the best decisions at the Personal, Practical, and Professional levels of leadership.

Ultimately, the MP3 Leadership Model provides a guideline of expectations for successful leadership. All leaders in the Navy should strive to maintain the highest standards of Moral, Personal, Practical, and Professional leadership. Most importantly, we all must maintain our moral foundation. Our Navy’s moral core will invigorate and strengthen our resolve and enable the United States to continue to lead around the world. When he was retired, Admiral Stockdale spoke about the importance of character in leaders. He noted, “Character is probably more important than knowledge…Of course, all things being equal, knowledge is to be honored…But what I’m saying is that whenever I’ve been in trouble spots—in crises (and I’ve been in a lot of trouble and in a lot of crises)—the sine qua non of a leader has lain not in his chess-like grasp of issues and the options they portend, not in his style of management, not in his skill at processing information, but in his having the character, the heart, to deal spontaneously, honorably, and candidly with people, perplexities, and principles,” (Cook 2012, 13). The Naval leaders of today must continue to uphold this legacy as we move forward in a challenging world.


Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY: 2012.

Cook, Martin L. 2012. Reflections on the Stockdale Legacy. Naval War College, June 1, 2012.

Stavridis, James and Robert Girrier. Division Officer’s Guide, Eleventh Edition. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD: 2004.

U.S. Department of Defense. The Armed Forces Officer. National Defense University Press, Washington, D.C.: 2007.

Please join us at 5 pm EST on 15 November 2015 for Midrats Episode 306: Author Claude Berube on his next book: Syren’s Song

This Sunday for the full hour our guest will be author Claude Berube to discuss his second Connor Stark novel, Syren’s Song. From the Amazon page,

Syren’s Song is the second novel featuring Connor Stark, and it promises to be just as engaging as The Aden Effect. This geopolitical thriller begins when the Sri Lankan navy is unexpectedly attacked by a resurgent and separatist Tamil Tiger organization. The government issues a letter of marque to former U.S. Navy officer Connor Stark, now the head of the private security company Highland Maritime Defense. Stark and his eclectic compatriots accept the challenge only to learn that the Sea Tigers who crippled the Sri Lankan navy are no ordinary terrorists.”

We will also discuss the craft of writing, how emerging real world events can influence the writing of fiction, and as we usually do with Claude, perhaps some other interestiing topics that crop up in the course of our conversation.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can also catch the show later on our iTunes page here (though the episode number might be different because …?)

Please join us at 5pm (EDT) on 20 September 2015 for Midrats Episode 298: “Warrior Writers Exhibit at the Naval Academy Museum”:

Last week, the Naval Academy Museum opened a new exhibit “Warrior Writers: The U.S. Naval Institute” that will run through Jan. 31, 2016.

The exhibit features literary work primarily from junior officers during their active duty service since the 1870’s. The majority of the literature focuses on controversies, issues, and trends of the time and is accompanied by over 100 artifacts including writings, weapons and tools from the authors. The artifacts are from the combined collections of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum and the U.S. Naval Institute as well as some on loan from recent authors.

Our guest to discuss the exhibit and what it has to offer will be the LCDR Claude Berube, USNR – author, regular Midrats guest, and more importantly in this context, the director of the museum.

Join us live if you can (or pick up the show later) by clicking here. Or you can also pick the show up (along with all our previous shows) from our iTunes page.

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