Category Archives: Commentary

Renaming Military Bases Is “History Correcting Itself”

By Bill Bray

In the past year or so, there seems to be more than usual public commentary about America’s past, particularly concerning racial and social justice. Some believe the past is being distorted and “canceled” to serve a progressive social agenda. Others believe as a nation we have never honestly reckoned with it. Still others seem to want to ignore or forget it. Move on.

As the Department of Defense Confederate naming commission continues its work and prepares to make its recommendations on what bases, buildings, sites, and perhaps even ships should be renamed, it is instructive to read and reflect on how humans understand and interpret the past. Social scientists and artists, among others, have long wrestled with this phenomenon. Both know that the past is not something we can simply know, as if we were looking at it objectively from a distance. Instead, it is something we never fully know or escape. To a large degree we interpret the past through what we want to believe, and that insistently informs how we think about the present.

However, acknowledging that we cannot fully know the past does not mean trying to know it is a hopeless endeavor. On the contrary, societies must never stop trying to understand their pasts. The quest for a strong, shared understanding of the past is an important component to living harmoniously together. The past can never be forgotten. Claiming otherwise is delusional or disingenuous. Forgetting is impossible. The past matters more than most realize or want to acknowledge. History is more than perspective. There are facts. But contemporary human experience is meaningless without memory—without a past. The past is in the present as oxygen is in water.

Critics who claim renaming U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals is tyrannical, “woke cancel culture” are—probably partially in ignorance—advancing a hypocritical argument deeply offensive to the thousands of Union Army, Navy, and Marine Corps veterans. Following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, these men formed a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (there were GAR chapters across the northern states). While initially created to advocate for better veterans’ benefits, by the end of the nineteenth century the GAR chapters were engaged in a fierce public relations campaign to debunk the Lost Cause mythology narrative. They opposed pensions for Confederate soldiers, statues and memorials to Confederate generals in Washington and other northern states, and the display of the Confederate flag, among other things. While the term was not in use at the time, GAR members knew what many contemporary historians have since aptly demonstrated—the Lost Cause narrative was the greatest “cancel culture” campaign in American history. 

Take, for example, this statement from the Michigan GAR in 1903 in response to the widespread practice of putting Lost Cause literature in Southern textbooks: “There is a sentiment which endeavors more or less to place the disloyalty of the South upon the same plane with the loyalty of the North, which aims to make an act of disloyalty less disgraceful. I have no use for such sentiment. It is only a matter of time when history will correct itself and place them in the true light on its pages as traitors.” In 1914, the department commander for the Indiana GAR wrote, “While I have long forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours . . . you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong . . . a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.” 

The GAR did not oppose forgiveness and reconciliation, only veneration built on a lie. They opposed what Major General Henry Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, in writing to Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, called any effort to paint the “. . . crime of treason . . . with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government. . .” Sadly, just this year, the Confederate flag was brandished in the U.S Capitol during an attempted insurrection. History has still not corrected itself. Would it not be a wonder that the men of the GAR would be shocked that it has taken so long?

As the last of the Civil War veterans passed away in mid-century, the GAR had largely failed to counter the Lost Cause narrative and all that came with it for white and black Americans alike. For generations that came of age after World War II, including mine, in both the North and the South, the past was not understood independent of this narrative. It has infected both popular and academic literature. The long effort to resurrect the Confederacy as a noble cause has become part of the collective experience.

Thinking about the Past through Literature

One Southerner who would not be shocked at all began his writing career as this GAR campaign was in full fury. Perhaps no American writer dealt with the past more deftly and innovatively than William Faulkner. His technique of using inner dialogue across time—where past and present are intertangled and often indistinguishable, narratively—frustrates most first-time readers, but then, if they persevere, awakens them to how the past lives in all of us. Through so many unforgettable characters, Faulkner shows that experience is chaotic, disorienting, and often emotionally violent. Humans quickly order experience retrospectively to make sense of the world, a mechanism made possible only with memory—how they remember the past.

William Faulkner knew the past of his people well, but as an artist he was most interested in how they thought about the past, and how the past always lives in the present and determines the future. Past, present, and future are not neatly distinguished in the human mind, and Faulkner’s greatest achievement—the one that makes him perhaps the greatest writer in American letters—is how he demonstrated this narratively. In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein for The Paris Review, Faulkner remarked that, “The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully . . . proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as ‘was’—only ‘is.’ If ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.”

Most recently, Michael Gorra masterfully tackled how Faulkner dealt with how Southerners thought about the Civil War with his book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. With racial and social justice so prominent in the news today, no book from last year seems more relevant to me. It is an intricate blend of Civil War history, biography, and literary criticism.

As Gorra shows, Faulkner rarely includes Civil War scenes in his oeuvre, yet the war is always there, its traumas swirling just beneath the surface of both scenery and dialogue. Most of his characters know the Civil War only as a fragmented labyrinth of memories and myths passed down to them. They feel the past as their truth, while acknowledging, as Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner’s recurring characters, does in Absalom, Absalom!, that they do not fully understand their own history.

Readers of The Sound and the Fury (1929) know that Quentin kills himself on 2 June 1910, following his freshman year at Harvard. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) begins the year prior, in 1909, with a tortured Quentin discovering who he really is, a terrifying journey of self-awareness. Quentin is the past—an incarnation of the pathos of a region defeated and desperate for the balm of Lost Cause mythology. He bears the burdens of the racial divide that intensified following the failure of Reconstruction, and the rarely-acknowledged secret of Southern plantation heritage that would become the cardinal sin in the Jim Crow South—miscegenation.

Absalom, Absalom! appeared the same year Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, for which she would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Mitchell presented a highly romanticized, white-washed Civil War history to a still deeply racist country, and Americans loved it. While William Faulkner’s many flaws and contradictions regarding race are well documented, he, unlike Mitchell, was not popular with Southern segregationists. Complex depictions of the South’s post–Civil War reality were not their cup of tea. Faulkner was the far more courageous writer in never ceasing to search, through his literature, for what the Civil War really means for who we are and where we are going. 

Those charged with deciding whether to rename military bases named for Confederate generals or remove Confederate statues could do worse than to read William Faulkner’s books. As his character Gavin Stevens, the lawyer in Requiem for a Nun (1951), remarks, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Should a member of the GAR be alive today to witness a Confederate statue coming down or a base being renamed, he would never view it as an injustice or affront to Southern heritage. He would view it as history correcting itself—finally.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured image: Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service.

Confused Seas: Searching for Maritime Security in an Insecure World

This article was originally published in the Australian Naval Review, produced by the Australian Naval Institute. Its reproduction here has been authorized by the Council of the Australian Naval Institute. The copyright of the article published remains with the author, and the copyright of the Australian Naval Review remains with the Australian Naval Institute.

By Jimmy Drennan

In 2008, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argued the world was entering an Age of Nonpolarity. He suggested the world had progressed from the bipolar Cold War era, past the unipolarity that followed the United States’ victory, and even the multipolar era of multiple competing nation states that many believed had emerged in the early 21st century. Although Haass underestimated the rise of China, more than a decade later many of his assertions prove remarkably prescient. He identified cross-border flows (e.g., information, disease, people, energy, and lawful and unlawful goods) as primary drivers of power diffusion, and the importance of pragmatic diplomacy to form situational partnerships based on common interests. Haass’ nonpolar world depicted an international system governed by an undefined number of power brokers – none of whom would be able to establish enduring influence or leadership over the system itself. Much like a ship rocked by waves coming from all about, caused by strong, rapid shifts in wind direction, the international system is experiencing turmoil as a lack of global leadership exacerbates a number of destabilizing conditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the maritime sector.

Almost all nations have a shared interest in international maritime security, but absent global leadership, individual actors myopically pursuing their own interests are making the seas less secure. The global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through key waterways and the world’s major ports, yet a few coastal states or even small militias could threaten access to these critical chokepoints. State and non-state actors alike exploit weakly governed waters for illicit gain, wreaking havoc on local economies. Beneath the sea floor, massive stores of natural resources invite confrontation among governments that claim dominion under various laws and precedents. Then, there is the ubiquitous power struggle between the United States and China that permeates all of these issues. The specter of armed conflict at sea affects all maritime nations. 

Leadership is necessary to steady this tumultuous international system, and since it may be impossible for a single nation to consistently influence the system in Haass’ nonpolar world, groups of nations and actors with common interests must form as needed. While it is impossible to achieve unanimity on any issue in international affairs, the idea that the high seas should be free for use by all is worth defending. 

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) exists to foster discussion on securing the seas. Granted, not all of the world’s problems can be solved with dialogue, but without it, solutions often tend to be messy, wasteful, and sometimes tragic. Just as confused seas will eventually yield to a prevailing weather system, today’s turbulent maritime security environment will certainly give way to the most dominant forces. Whether those forces are aligned with the principles most maritime nations share is decidedly less so. CIMSEC aims to facilitate the exchange of international perspectives in order to help establish organizing principles under which groups of like-minded nations and actors can pursue maritime security.

Contributors to Maritime Insecurity

Perhaps the largest contributor to today’s maritime insecurity is the burgeoning competition between the United States and China. The ascendance of China is not necessarily to blame, but rather the fact that neither country seems particularly motivated to assume global maritime leadership, outside of escalatory naval activities and a burgeoning missile arms race. At the 2020 Singapore Summit in September, foreign policy and economic experts discussed how “a leaderless and divided world will be the new normal.” Ngaire Woods, Dean of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, argued the struggle between the United States and China creates “an opportunity for other countries to start playing off those superpowers and push further for the changes they’ve been wanting.” 

This is causing instability in the maritime sector, and leadership will be required to unite these individual interests into actual progress. It remains unclear whether the United States will provide that leadership. Today, no one, inside Washington, D.C. or out, can meaningfully describe America’s maritime strategy. The U.S. Navy struggles to even settle on a future force plan amid the transition of Presidential administrations. The United States uses “preservation of the rules-based international order” as a rallying cry, yet refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea due to dubious fears of sovereignty infringement. In the private sector, as John Konrad, founder of, put it recently, “American shipping interests are an anemic … waste” and “the shipping world is failing” as a result of “a total lack of … leadership.” 

Meanwhile, China appears more concerned with power and wealth accumulation, rather than global leadership, as its Foreign Minister recently stated China has “no intention of becoming another United States.” In fact, China contributes directly to instability through the activities of its commercial fishing fleet worldwide. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is quickly emerging as a major problem for littoral economies, depleting a resource that has long provided for millions. Without effective international governance mechanisms, illegal fishing and other maritime crime (not just by China) could easily escalate regional tensions into conflict. In the Arctic, tensions are exacerbated as actual changes to the physical environment complicate the geopolitical environment. In Europe, entirely different factors pressurize the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, as Turkey competes with its neighbors over claims to abundant subsurface hydrocarbon resources, and threatens to rewrite the rules for international access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits. 

The 2015 migration crisis, which fueled such deep division in areas like the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas, threatens to resurface. Asyura Salleh, Special Adviser for maritime security to the Yokosuka Council for Asia-Pacific Studies, writes that Myanmar’s “increased violence is causing mounting civilian fatalities, displacing villagers and pushing migrants out to the Andaman Sea” while neighboring “countries reject migrants for fear of spreading unidentified infections.”

The COVID-19 pandemic of course drives enormous instability in the maritime sector. Opportunistic elements are taking advantage of global preoccupation with the pandemic and a perceived gap in ocean governance to pursue maritime crime and illicit activities. For example, as of August 2020, piracy and sea robbery incidents in Asia rose by 38 percent over 2019. Furthermore, the pandemic’s economic impact is not only damaging the maritime industry, but it is also forcing countries around the world to divert funds away from national defense, creating more space for instability and maritime insecurity. Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the Faculty of Law University of Indonesia writes:

These effects are already being felt in the realm of maritime security. Indonesia has announced nearly $590 million in cuts to its defense budget. This significant budget reallocation from the defense sector will have a direct impact on the budget of the navy, which is at the forefront of Indonesia’s maritime security and maritime domain awareness. And Indonesia is far from alone—many countries in Asia have cut their 2020 defense budgets in response to Covid-19. Thailand, for instance, has cut its defense budget by $555 million. Other key maritime countries in the region such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are also facing the same constraints.

Bucking the trend, Australia actually raised its defense budget by A$1 billion as part of a COVID-19 economic stimulus package, reflecting a strategic recognition of the need to support regional security in the Indo-Pacific.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas

Amidst all of these destabilizing conditions, CIMSEC seeks to foster international discussion as a catalyst for desperately needed leadership in maritime security. In the spring of 2020, CIMSEC initiated Project Trident, a year-long series of topics covering the future of international maritime security. For each topic, CIMSEC partnered with leading maritime organizations to solicit articles from the CIMSEC community, and featured subject matter experts on its Sea Control podcast. Project Trident is ongoing, but the results so far are encouraging. The first three topics have produced 45 articles filled with creative, thought-provoking ideas, which in the aggregate, begin to set the conditions for collaborative leadership and illuminate a path toward improved maritime security.

First, Project Trident set the geopolitical stage with the Chokepoints and Littorals Topic.

Chokepoints and littorals magnify the influence of nearby states, or even non-state actors, who are traditionally viewed as less influential than global powers. Yet in times of conflict or crisis, global powers could very well come to depend on these littoral nations for critical support and access, nations whose political sensitivities can powerfully constrain diplomatic, economic, and military options. For example, Colonel Kim Gilfillan, Commander of the Royal Australian Army’s Landing Force, discussed on Sea Control how the ability to project power into the Indo-Pacific littorals is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity and national security strategy.

The world is also witnessing major changes that are redefining the chokepoint and its value. For example, Turkey’s plans to build the Istanbul Canal to bypass the Bosporus Strait between the Marmara and Black Seas could alter the regional balance of power by giving Turkey greater control over which nations can access the Black Sea. In fact, Paul Pryce, the Principal Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary, suggests “the Istanbul Canal may have been introduced to circumvent the Montreux Convention, the longstanding international agreement that regulates naval access to the Aegean and Black Seas through the Turkish Straits. 

To the north, the Arctic is melting away, revealing a complex mosaic of chokepoints and littorals that will lend themselves toward new lines of communication for global commerce, as well as new zones of competition. Robert C. Rasmussen, a Foreign Affairs Specialist with the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, recommends a three-fold policy for the United States to shape the Arctic: increase funding for scientific research; invest with allies in the economic development of the Northwest Passage to compete with the Russia-dominant Northern Sea Route; and establish NATO military superiority over the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and Aleutian Islands. Rasmussen astutely notes “promoting consensus prevents room for conflict.

Next, Project Trident continued with the Ocean Governance Topic. 

Maritime powers are employing hybrid tactics that seek to exploit the seams of legal frameworks and norms that constitute ocean governance. Non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and others are constantly innovating to advance nefarious activity. On Sea Control, Professor Christian Bueger described the need for a “Blue Crime framework that integrates all of these activities to help states more effectively govern the maritime domain. Indeed, the trends are troubling. Dr Ian Ralby, Michael Jones, and Errington Shurland used a variety of maritime domain awareness techniques to show that maritime crime in the Caribbean Sea has actually increased amid an overall drop in legitimate activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They concluded that “maritime criminality is relatively unimpeded by the restrictions that have curtailed legal activities during the pandemic, and “economic hardship may in fact be a growing driver for illicit activity.

The rules and standards that underpin good order on the high seas must keep pace with those who are keen to exploit them. For example, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is rapidly emerging as a major driver of instability. According to US Naval Academy professor Dr. Claude Berube, 40 percent of the world’s population relies on fish as a protein source, and 20 percent of global fish is caught illegally (worth as much as US$23.5 billion). Though not the only culprit, China’s fishing fleet is the world’s most aggressive and is fishing contested waters throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere. If revised regimes and norms cannot restore the world’s fisheries, dwindling fish stocks may trigger conflict in regions already suffering from tension. U.S. Marine Corps Captain Walker Mills points to the late 20th century Cod Wars between allied Iceland and the United Kingdom as an example that fisheries can be, in the eyes of some, sufficient justification to go to war. 

Likewise, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing could be an ideal catalyst for multiple nations to pool enough resources and national will to provide a stabilizing influence on maritime security, banding together and pushing back against economically and environmentally destructive behavior. The Pew Research Center’s Gina Fiore and Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted on Sea Control that the world’s exclusive economic zones are far too vast for individual states to patrol and enforce jurisdiction on their own, even with contributions from larger navies. States must employ information sharing agreements like Fish-i Africa, a partnership of eight African countries to fight illegal fishing in the Western Indian Ocean, and commercial remote sensing services such as OceanMind to improve maritime domain awareness and tackle this growing issue.

Most recently, Project Trident ran a Regional Strategies Topic to examine small and medium maritime powers.

The global competition between the United States and China is profoundly affecting smaller powers who, in today’s chaotic maritime security environment, can in turn disproportionately influence geopolitics by seizing the opportunity to advance their own interests. For example, Turkey is leveraging its relative superiority in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to claim ownership of contested hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed. Retired U.S. Naval War College Professor of Maritime Security Andrew Norris and his son, Alexander, explain that “this hegemonic strategy, domestically referred to as ‘Mavi Vatan’ or ‘blue homeland’ … manifested itself in Turkey’s deployment of the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to disputed waters south and west of Cyprus, which led to a collision between Greek and Turkish frigates. 

Turkey appears to be exploiting a vacuum in maritime leadership and although it faces international condemnation, one wonders if it would even attempt to execute Mavi Vatan, particularly against a fellow NATO member, if the United States were not preoccupied elsewhere. Ultimately, all of the nations involved have an interest in avoiding conflict and have expressed desire to negotiate; however, resolution will likely require Turkey to accommodate the Republic of Cyprus (which it does not recognize). This is a prime example of how the leadership of a few like-minded nations could advance international maritime security.

Finally, India’s strategy for securing the Indian Ocean has taken the limelight due to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the June 2020 border skirmish with China in the Galwan valley of the Himalayan mountains. David Scott of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies writes

“Paradoxically, though COVID-19 has weakened India’s economic ability to fund its naval infrastructure and assets program for the Indian Ocean, it has enabled India to strengthen its links with Indian Ocean micro-states through the humanitarian assistance delivered by the navy. Meanwhile, land confrontation with China at Galwan has encouraged India to deepen its military links with other maritime powers operating in the Indian Ocean.”

Even though the pandemic has hindered India’s naval buildup, its apparent willingness to contest Chinese aggression and act as a guarantor of maritime security in the Indian Ocean have attracted international partners. On Sea Control, Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow and the Head of Maritime Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, point to the strategic value of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Already used by the Indian Navy, these two chains of 572 islands in the eastern Indian Ocean could serve as international economic and naval outposts with southeast Asian partners, providing a key opportunity for cooperative maritime security. 

Meanwhile, India’s cooperation with other international partners has accelerated recently, highlighted by separate trilateral talks with Australia, France, Japan, and possibly Indonesia, and a potential invitation for Australia to join Naval Exercise “Malabar with India, the United States, and Japan. The increased cooperation between India and Australia reflects a mutual strategy of extending maritime security throughout their respective areas of influence and, as David Scott points out, “it reduces naval dependence on just cooperation channeled via the United States. This is a prudent approach, especially if one accepts the premise that the world has transitioned from a unipolar, or even multipolar, to a nonpolar era.


Regardless of how many poles comprise the international system today, the turbulence and insecurity in the maritime sector clearly point to a crisis in leadership. The two most capable candidates, the United States and China, seem to have other priorities in mind, and regional powers like India and Turkey adapt to or exploit the leadership void. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and hybrid challenges to longstanding ocean governance regimes, including smuggling, migration, piracy, and illegal fishing, these factors could be a recipe for disaster. And as 21st century great power competition begins to take shape, one can look to the world’s maritime chokepoints and littorals for potential flashpoints. 

Building consensus based on common interests will be critical to advancing maritime security in such a volatile world. Free and open exchange of ideas is the first step, and CIMSEC will always use its platform to foster discussion on securing the seas. To this end, Project Trident is continuing in 2021, addressing topics such as maritime cybersecurity, infrastructure and trade, and emerging technologies. The project will not produce maritime security straight away, but CIMSEC hopes it will expose the ideas and generate the dialogue necessary to align maritime powers to the goal of free, safe, and secure seas.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. Contact him at

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 24, 2008) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) prepares for flight operations under stormy skies. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is participating in Joint Task Force Exercise “Operation Brimstone” off the Atlantic coast on July 24, 2008 . U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Laird (Released)

NAVPLAN 2021: A Delayed Change of Command Speech

By Robert C. Rubel

First, a little personal history. At the ceremony in which I took command of Strike Fighter Squadron 131 in June, 1990, after taking the command from my predecessor I went to the microphone for my remarks. Like most officers in that position I had thought hard about what I would say. I first issued a few thank you’s, to my wife, to the band, to my predecessor, and then I turned to the squadron, assembled in neat ranks, and said “In one year the Wildcats will own the night.” And then I walked off.

I used the remarks as a management tool. The word was that upon return from cruise we would exchange our F/A-18As for night strike F/A-18Cs. The problem was that there was an acute shortage of night vision goggles and navigation infrared pods (NAVFLIR), without which the plane would not actually have a night strike capability. My sister squadron’s CO said that they would just consider the Cs an updated version of the A. I thought about this and decided, no, I was going to go all in on getting to a night strike capability for the squadron. I didn’t know how, but there needed to be absolute clarity among the sailors and officers of the squadron about what I wanted. I decided to use my change of command remarks as a management tool.

By saying that one sentence and walking off, I created some shock value; the message was not buried among calls for excellence, the desire for winning awards, etc., that populated most change of command speeches. I wanted to increase the signal and reduce the noise. We ended up getting it done before I left the command, the JOs and troops doing things I would have never thought of.

NAVPLAN 2021 (NP21), despite being issued a year and a half after he took the reins of the Navy, is essentially Admiral Mike Gilday’s change of command speech. Capstone documents such as NP21 have been used routinely by CNOs as management tools. They are supposed to serve as a template for force development, which is the Navy’s primary mission as a service, while actual fighting is the province of the unified combatant commanders (COCOMs). Some, such as CNO Tom Hayward’s The Future of U.S. Seapower actually had some bite to them. Others, such as CNO Vern Clark’s Seapower 21, were of less influence. How NP21 will fare remains to be seen, but from this reviewer’s point of view, like a lengthy and rambling change of command speech, the key ideas and priorities are buried within a lot of pleading, utility arguments, and aspirational pep talk, which might dilute its effects. 

The key pleading element is the assertion that the Navy needs a bigger fleet. NP21 does not go into an extensive argument as to why, like, say the 2015 Cooperative Strategy (CS21R) document did, so apparently the CNO is relying on the actual implementation of some form of the SECDEF-issued Battle Force 2045 plan. But then he seems to hedge on the issue by saying that the most important things are fleet composition and capability. Does that mean that if Congress will not build more regular ships, the Navy will trade in some of its current ships (there is a short paragraph on divestments) for larger numbers of unmanned units? One either needs insider information or at least must read between the lines to discern the CNO’s true intent. 

The document calls for more fulsome cooperation with foreign navies. This is obviously a good and needed goal, but the document does not say much about how that will be achieved beyond coordinating capabilities and combined exercises. For the development of the 2007 Cooperative Strategy (CS21) we concocted a broader strategy for catalyzing greater international naval cooperation on maritime security that involved bringing international officers into the strategy development process, extensive international consultations, and including language in the document calculated to allay foreign fears of U.S. interventionism. There does not seem to be any such underlying strategy associated with NP21, just aspirational language. 

NP21 stresses readiness and all the good professional values the Navy has always held dear, and I suppose that such things need to be said in any such document, but they do add to the noise-to-signal ratio. To ferret out what key direction the CNO has in mind for the Navy, the document has to be read carefully. There are some hints.

First, the CNO is all-in on the Columbia-class SSBN program. NP21 makes this clear, and with no whining about where the funding is coming from. I cannot argue with this. But from there the message gets a bit harder to decipher. At one point NP21 says that the Navy’s highest priority is the development of a new C5ISRT system, the Naval Operational Architecture that kind of ties everything together. I do support this priority, but in other places the document calls for more missiles, more unmanned systems, and more small ships to populate a distributed operational concept. But then it also seems to support a continuation of current fleet architecture, such as the Ford-class aircraft carrier and future large combatants. Unless the Navy gets a large top line budget boost, this is just so much rhetoric. 

Along the same lines, NP21 calls for the Navy to “sensibly manage global force demands” in order to free up resources to focus on improving advantages over China. However, managing global force demands was the province of the joint chain of command, and that chain shows no sign of easing up its demands for Navy forces. So exactly how the Navy will do what NP21 calls for is unclear. Similarly, NP21, following the Tri-Service Maritime Strategy (TSMS), asserts the Navy will adopt a more “assertive posture” against excessive maritime claims. This again seems to cross the line of COCOM and indeed SECDEF and Presidential authorities. In any case, beyond just doing more freedom of navigation operations, which would seem to violate the idea of sensibly managing global force demands, it is not clear what Navy forces would do, such as whether it would intervene in a dispute between Filipino fishermen and Chinese naval militia.

NP21 addresses maintenance, which has been the source of severe readiness problems for the Navy. It says: “Better planning our maintenance availabilities, improving operational level maintenance practices, and providing stable, predictable requirements to industry will accelerate our improvements.” This sounds good, but remains aspirational and the document offers no guidance for how to achieve it. The Optimized Fleet Response Plan has been in force for a number of years and has not been able to dig the Navy out of the mission/resource mismatch. There is no more blood to squeeze out of the turnip, so “better planning” is not likely to be a source of relief. The CNO is right in that only a bigger fleet will ease the Navy’s maintenance and readiness hole within the context of the current U.S. grand strategy of comprehensive defense of the global system and current joint command procedures.

NP21 is supposed to be a companion document to the TSMS. The key feature of that document was the assertion that the three Sea Services would act in an integrated fashion to achieve synergies. NP21 offers only a head nod to that idea via a sentence here and there that basically just says it is a good idea. Otherwise, guidance on how the Navy is to approach it is missing. Such a revolutionary approach would seem to rate more guidance from the CNO so all the commands would understand how it would be achieved. This further reinforces the impression that NP21 is a kind of change of command speech.

There is some good content in NP21, like a call for developing the Naval Operational Architecture, buying more missiles, adopting distributed operations, and conducting fleet experiments to enhance the Navy’s ability to confront China. But the document is so comprehensive and so laden with utility arguments, aspirational statements, and equivocal prioritizing that its impact is diluted.

The overall impression is that the CNO will try to innovate around the margins while generally trying to maintain the status quo. I hope that is not the intent; the Navy needs a more fundamental shift in direction. NP21 does not provide either the stimulus or the roadmap for such a shift. As a normal change of command speech, NP21 is fine, but as a management tool it falls short.

Robert C. Rubel is a retired Navy captain and professor emeritus of the Naval War College. He served on active duty in the Navy as a light attack/strike fighter aviator. At the Naval War College he served in various positions, including planning and decision-making instructor, joint education adviser, chairman of the Wargaming Department, and dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He retired in 2014, but on occasion continues to serve as a special adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations. He has published over thirty journal articles and several book chapters.

Featured Image: Adm. Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, speaks at the CNIC change of command ceremony onboard the Washington Navy Yard. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Brian Morales)

Herman Melville and the American Maritime Experience

By Bill Bray

I hold the view—perhaps a not very popular one today—that no professional U.S. mariner, civilian or military, can have a complete understanding of and appreciation for the American maritime experience who has not read—carefully read—at least some of Herman Melville’s seagoing work. As I will show, through his work, Melville was up to much more than churning out sea stories. But in producing great literature, no American writer did more to capture the culture and sweeping vistas of the young nation’s commercial and, to a lesser degree, naval ventures on the high seas. Reading Melville in the 1850s, or in the 1950s or today, for that matter, Americans learned for the first time what it meant to be a “Nantucketeer” in 1820.

Not one of my four children was required to read Herman Melville in high school. I had to read Billy Budd, Sailor, which was taught to me again plebe year at the Naval Academy. My father was a Herman Melville scholar, completing his dissertation on Melville’s use of imagery in his third book, Mardi (my father taught plebe English at the Naval Academy from 1968–1970). Published in 1849, Mardi revealed Melville as more than a writer of adventure tales, for which he achieved early success and fame. Mardi begins as another South Pacific adventure story, in similar fashion to his first two books, Typee and Omoo, but evolves into a metaphysical quest—a taste of things to come in Melville’s writing, for sure.

I had the good fortune as a boy, hardly appreciated at the time, to visit Melville’s western Massachusetts home (Arrowhead) with my father, as well as other Melvillian settings, such as New Bedford’s whaling museum. This legacy was my motivation to read Melville extensively in young adulthood. But for others in the Sea Services, the reasons your high school English teacher or college professor implored you to read Herman Melville—his unquestioned place near the top of the American canon, his profound insight into the soul of a troubled nation in mid-nineteenth century, his almost divine mastery of language—are reasons enough to dive into Melville’s world. And for current or aspiring naval leaders, there are additional reasons this great American author should maintain a prominent place on the bookshelf.  

Melville in the Navy

Herman Melville briefly served in the U.S. Navy. He enlisted on 20 August 1843 from the Hawaiian port of Lahaina in Maui, where he had spent the previous three months working odd jobs after an adventurous two years in the South Pacific that included service on board three different whalers (Acushnet from January 1841 to July 1842 before deserting on the island of Nukuheva in the Marquesas; briefly on Lucy Ann in August 1842 where he participated in a mutiny and was subsequently jailed for a short time in British-controlled Tahiti; and on Charles & Henry from November 1842 to April 1843).1 

In the Navy, Melville served as an ordinary seaman on the frigate USS United States from August 1843 until October 1844, where he was discharged in Boston following service in the South Pacific and South Atlantic. Melville’s naval service is the basis of his book White-Jacket (1850) and provided him material for the writing of Billy Budd nearly forty years later. In fact, Melville devoted Billy Budd to Jack Chase, the real-life captain of the maintop on the United States with whom he formed a deep friendship. Chase was an avid reader of the classics, and they had long talks about literature while standing watches in the maintop.2

Melville is not the only accomplished American writer to have served in the Navy, but he is the greatest. He shares company with writers such as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, who established a distinctly American voice in literature. Melville’s naval service is not the sole reason for American maritime professionals to read his major works, let alone his entire oeuvre, but it should at least spark an interest.

Melville Was Quite Progressive for His Day

Melville challenged conventional 19th century views on race, class, and what it meant to be ‘civilized’ (gender is the one subject that does not feature in his work). Typee (1846) is a fictional account of his desertion in the Marquesas during which he spent weeks living among the natives of the Typee Valley. It was a significant commercial success, as readers were fascinated with this story of two young, innocent American sailors discovering a lush carnal paradise that is as dangerous as it is alluring. 

Typee should not be read solely as adventure story, however. It is a subtle commentary too on the sins of antebellum America. Though scholarly research has shown that Melville’s account of the Typee Valley was heavily embellished to present a more romantic ideal of the untainted, “precivilized” world, Typee nevertheless reveals a young writer’s enlightened sensitivity to society’s capacity to corrupt as well as refine. By 1850, Melville would be a “reformed, if not repentant, romantic, who saw the fragility as well as the deformity of culture.”3

The year 1850 was a momentous one for Melville. His discovery of Shakespeare in the late 1840s and newfound friendship with his western Massachusetts neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne were seminal events that accelerated his evolution from popular to more serious writer. By the summer, he had finished a draft of a whaling novel (a manuscript that did not include the character Ahab), but his admiration for Hawthorne’s daring exploration of dark, controversial themes inspired a feverish rewrite of Moby-Dick in the winter and spring of 1850–1851.4

 Early in Moby-Dick, in the chapter titled “The Spouter Inn,” Melville’s narrator Ishmael learns he must share a boarding room in New Bedford with a harpooner. He is initially terrified to learn the harpooner is a “savage” with the strangest customs. Yet in a few short paragraphs after Ishmael and Queequeg meet, Melville has Ishmael shed his prejudice to see Queequeg’s humanity. And this is not a journey, Melville makes clear, that Ishmael would have made from listening only to Christian homilies of that day. He needed direct interaction with the strange foreigner. “I stood looking at him a moment,” says Ishmael after realizing Queequeg is at once kind and harmless. “What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”5

Moby-Dick is much more than social criticism, however. It is a remarkable existential exploration. In Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick was a failed experiment in writing, too modern for the readers of his day. By the time of his death in 1891, only 3,715 copies had sold, compared with 16,320 copies of Typee.6 It would not be recognized more widely as a great novel for nearly seventy years. 

An American naval officer, or any American embarking on a professional sea-going life, should read it and reread it. It is Melville at the height of his powers, and among its many wonders are some of the richest descriptions of sea-going life during an age when a young maritime nation, the United States, was just feeling out its newfound place in the world. Those that never take up the challenge of reading it are resigned to a certain impoverishment in connecting to their own maritime past and profession.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea and other maritime histories, claims to have read Moby-Dick at least twelve times. In 2011, Philbrick published Why Read Moby-Dick?, a short but persuasive case for reading the classic, a case made far better than I ever could. Philbrick writes that Moby-Dick is “a novel about a whaling voyage in the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and a civil war in 1861.”7

Stung by the failure of his epic, Melville turned to serial publication in the mid-1850s and produced some of the greatest short fiction in American literature. Four years after Moby-Dick, Melville in 1855 published the novella Benito Cereno in three installments in Putnam’s Monthly, which would later be included in the The Piazza Tales (1856).  

In his copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay Prudence, next to the famous line “trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great,” Melville had written in the margin, “God help the poor fellow who squares his life according to this.”8 Melville’s narrator in Benito Cereno, the optimistic and naïve American merchant captain Amasa Delano, is that poor fellow. Melville, in a mere 85 pages, uses the nightmare of the American slavery experience to not only continue his metaphysical inquiry into man’s nature, but to also quite presciently predict the coming reckoning. Set in 1799 and based closely on the real-life Amasa Delano’s journal description of a similar experience in 1805, the story is a masterful study in hubristic self-deception, where a man (or a society) so convinced of his own righteousness and benevolence, is incapable of seeing the world as it actually is, indeed the very horror at the heart of what is considered “civilization.”

While anchored near Santa Maria island off Chile, Delano wakes one morning to discover the Spanish merchant San Dominick limping into the natural harbor. Eager to help a fellow mariner, he embarks San Dominick to offer assistance to its captain, Benito Cereno. San Dominick is an African slaver and in terrible condition. Cereno explains he has already lost many crew and passengers to fierce weather and illness. What Delano eventually discovers, however, is that the story about storm and sickness is a cover. San Dominick is experiencing a slave mutiny, and its captain is a prisoner. What Delano could not initially see is the same thing much of America of 1855 could not see: it was a prisoner to the institutional evil of slavery, and that bondage was hurling it towards a most violent cataclysm that could doom the great democratic experiment.  

Reading Benito Cereno, particularly for the second or third time, one cannot help wondering why Delano did not more rapidly discern the clues before him. Delano is not  unobservant, and throughout the story he senses something is seriously amiss aboard San Dominick. At several points Delano fears Cereno is really a pirate luring him into a well-laid trap to rob his ship (the Bachelor’s Delight). But Delano, ever the optimist, repeatedly dismisses his own suspicions.  “…[E]xerting his good nature to the utmost, insensibly he came to a compromise. ‘Yes, this is a strange craft; a strange history, too and strange folks onboard. But – nothing more.’”9 Like his native America, Delano could not see the very horror before him. 

The problem of race still haunts American society. While one need not completely embrace Melville’s pessimism, anyone in today’s Navy would be well to continually question whether they really see things as they are, or only as they think them to be—or wish them to be. Melville says of Amasa Delano’s optimism about human nature: “Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.”10 The wise would actually not determine it so, according to Melville. And that skepticism may be just enough to save us from the insanity of believing Emerson’s claim.

The Relationship Between Captain and Crew

The scholar Maxwell Geismar astutely observed that Herman Melville was a “pre-Freudian depth psychologist of fantastic proportions.” This is supported in Melville’s writings in many places and many ways, including in his portrayals of the relationship between captain and crew on a ship at sea. Melville has a keen, penetrating eye for the complex psychological forces at work in this relationship. For one aspiring to command a ship or serve in any high leadership post, a close reading of these depictions provides a useful complement to any formal training on the subject of command.

Ahab is, of course, the most famous American fictional ship captain. Long before Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, American literature had its mad commanding officer, a monomaniac sick with an irrational thirst for revenge against an animal. His crew is merely a vehicle to help him achieve it, its safety be damned. But Ahab cannot be understood so simplistically. Melville carefully constructs a more complex character, one that demands some measure of sympathy as well. Ahab is both a victim of a cruel unfeeling world, and its malevolent agent, and we are ceaselessly challenged to sort out one aspect of him from the other. The first mate, Starbuck, suspects Ahab’s obsession foretells danger, but is just as conflicted. After protesting early in the voyage (“but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance”) he cannot press his case any further and openly oppose his captain.11

Ahab’s psychological hold on the crew is nearly hypnotic. He does not appear in Moby-Dick until the 28th chapter, but we have sensed his presence long before that. He is the crew’s “supreme lord and dictator.”12 He understands what motivates them better than they understand themselves. Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck,” has Ahab reveal to the crew the true purpose of the voyage—to kill the white whale and gain for Ahab some measure of justice. The commercial bottom line of a whaling voyage is a distant secondary objective. At this moment in the story, Ahab recognizes that only Starbuck can thwart his design. He takes his case straight to the crew in Starbuck’s presence, understanding better than his first mate that his men are driven by far more than the prospect of financial gain. They are romantic adventurers who yearn for glory and prestige and greatness, easy prey to enlist in his unholy cause.

For aspiring merchant ship masters, commanding officers, and command master chiefs, at the very least chapter 36 should be required reading. It is a brilliant fictional depiction of how a captain’s almost irresistible, if brooding, charisma can bewitch a crew into a dangerously blind obedience. Crew morale is always critically important, but it can also be manipulated to serve corrupt ends.  

Toward the end of the novel before the final, catastrophic chase, in chapter 123 entitled “The Musket,” the Pequod has just ridden out a typhoon south of Japan. Starbuck goes below to Ahab’s cabin to report a fair wind. Ahab is fast asleep, and as Starbuck approaches he eyes Ahab’s loaded muskets in a rack. “Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought . . .”13 In the ensuing Shakespearean soliloquy—and again, one cannot overstate Shakespeare’s influence on Melville—Starbuck struggles with the thought of assassinating Ahab to save the crew and himself (“Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel”).14 Having picked up one of the muskets to see if it was loaded, at the close of this magnificent scene he puts it back in the rack. He cannot take up against his captain. Even when convinced Ahab is leading the crew to catastrophe, Starbuck cannot bring himself to betray a sacred respect for a captain’s authority.

The other most recognizable depiction of the captain-crew relationship is the heart of the novella Billy Budd, Sailor, a story Melville wrote in the late 1880s near the end of his life and based, in part, on the 1842 USS Somers incident (Melville’s last work of prose was not discovered until the 1920s, more than 30 years after his death). British warship Captain Edward Fairfax Vere is an entirely different creation than Ahab, but no less instructive for today’s maritime professional. If Ahab is charismatic and irrational, Vere prides himself as a calm man of reason. We learn that while at sea Vere spends a great deal of time reading, mostly authors who “like Montaigne, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities.”15 In Vere, Melville is satirizing the propensity for many leading 19th century thinkers to believe (or hope, as the case may be) that the rational, scientific approach can fully explain and temper human nature. Like Dostoevsky (perhaps the ultimate 19th century rebel against the pretensions of ‘the rational man’), Melville had seen too much of man’s depravity and cruelty to not find such unquestioning faith in science utterly ridiculous. 

John Claggart, Master-at-Arms of HMS Indomitable, is the obvious villain of Billy Budd, intent on destroying the innocent, Christ-like sailor impressed from merchant service.16 But it is Vere who should really be feared. With Claggart, we get evil as clear as day. With Vere, we get something even more dangerous and consequential. Vere knows Budd is innocent and Claggart is lying, yet he allows Budd to hang. Vere is not a bad man. He is torn between a fatherly love of Billy and what he views as his duty. But ironically the calm man of reason ultimately rejects putting Budd’s case to a more thorough, rational legal investigation ashore. Instead, he quickly succumbs to his panicky fears of mutiny. As it turns out, it is a short journey for Vere to rationalize the execution of an innocent man—it is legal, therefore justifiable. Geismar notes that “Melville hated most those rationalists, noble or criminal, who had repressed their own moving emotions and hence were unaware of them. Those are the true madmen, who give every appearance of decency, respectability, sobriety, ‘calm judgment’, and, in Vere’s case, of the class, property, and position to which Claggart aspired.”17 

Under pressure, leaders can rationalize doing the wrong thing. Leadership positions, particularly something as daunting as command at sea, inevitably place their inhabitants in the crucible. Therefore, when reading Billy Budd, the maritime leader should be wary to not quickly dismiss Vere as weak or corrupt. Be careful, Melville seems to warn, there are Veres everywhere, and one of them could be you. Literature will never give a discrete answer as to how leaders should act in every situation, but it can help them think about their own vulnerabilities.  

An Abiding Prophet

In his lifetime, Herman Melville published prose fiction in a short, 11-year period, from 1846–1857. By the 1860s he was already passing into obscurity. One can only imagine what the ensuing decades were like for him, working at the U.S. Customs House in New York City trying to make ends meet. It would be three decades after his death in 1891 before his writing would begin to be recognized for what it is—a great literature that remains important for all readers today, but especially for those who aspire to careers in a maritime service. While exploring the deepest mysteries of human nature, Melville forged a lasting bond between America’s maritime tradition and our enduring quest for answers to the hardest challenges of Sea Service leadership.

Bill Bray is a retired U.S. Navy captain and the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine. An earlier version of his essay was published in Proceedings in February 2017.


1 Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Random House, 2005), 41–50.

2 Delbanco, 60.

3 Delbanco, 312.

4 Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (New York: Penguin, 2011), 43.

5 Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: Penguin, 2006), 26.

6 Philbrick, 6.

7 Philbrick, 6.

8 Robert Hendrickson, American Literary Anecdotes (New York: Penguin, 1990), 155.

9 Herman Melville, Benito Cereno (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2004), 129.

10 Melville, Benito Cereno, 91–92.

11 Melville, Moby-Dick, 176.

12 Melville, Moby-Dick, 133.

13 Melville, Moby-Dick, 558.

14 Melville, Moby-Dick, 560.

15 Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2004), 23.

16 HMS Indomitable was the name Melville originally gave the British ship in Billy Budd.  In later drafts he changed it to HMS Bellipotent. The Easton edition is based on Elizabeth Treeman’s re-re-edited version. The discovery of the Billy Budd manuscript and its subsequent editing history is a fascinating story in itself. 

17 Maxwell Geismar, Introduction to Billy Budd (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 2004), xiii.

FEATURED IMAGE: An illustration from the 1902 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition of Moby-Dick depicting the final chase of the whale. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.