Category Archives: Culture

Navy Officers, André Malraux, and Chinese Culture

By Bill Bray

The U.S. military spends quite a bit of money and time educating a segment of its personnel on foreign cultures. Too much or not nearly enough, depending on who you ask and at what moment you ask them. Recall the relatively short run of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands Program. As a colleague at the U.S. Naval Academy who is the director of the Center for Experiential Leadership Development program, which arranges for various cultural immersion programs for midshipmen, relayed to me recently, in the era of renewed great power competition the emphasis on “cultural education” is waning in favor of more traditional technical warfighting knowledge.

The Army and the Marine Corps will probably continue to prioritize foreign culture knowledge without much debate, for obvious reasons. The Navy, however, may not. This is a service that tried and failed to establish a several times in the past half century before finally succeeding in the late 2000s. The Navy’s FAO debate was emblematic of the service’s larger struggle with determining what learning to emphasize in addition to technical knowledge, if anything at all. At the start of my career in the mid-1980s, the prevailing consensus regarding Navy officer education, as I recall it, was that understanding foreign cultures is a luxury. Not bad to have, but not terribly important for the vast majority. We may be drifting back to that place, and that would be a mistake.

The right answer is that Navy officers need both technical and cultural knowledge to compete against a sophisticated adversary in both peace and war. China will be the dominant threat concern for new officers during their entire careers. Officers in particular should strive for much more than a superficial understanding of Chinese culture as it pertains to matters of politics and warfare.

Malraux and Eastern Thought

For those that have little or no background on Chinese culture, a book with which to start is one recommended to me long ago when working on a graduate degree in Asian studies—André Malraux’s slender epistolary The Temptation of the West (La Tentation de l’Occident), published in 1926 but remarkably durable in capturing the differences in Western and Chinese thought. Two characters, the young Frenchman A.D. and Chinese student Ling-W.-Y., correspond about art and culture, specifically about a decaying European culture and how it, in turn, has infected Chinese culture. This is a conversation that had been playing out in Malraux’s mind for some time, at least from the point he first came to “the Orient” in 1923 to search for (in actuality probably to pilfer for sale) ancient Khmerian sculptures along the Royal Road in Cambodia (an adventure that landed him a three-year prison sentence by French colonial authorities, subsequently suspended).

Born in 1901 into a seafaring family in Dunkirk, Malraux took an interest in art and archaeology at an early age. He studied at the Lycée Condorcet and later at the Ecole des Langues Orientales. He ventured to Cambodia with his young wife, Clara Goldschmidt. From his humiliating arrest in Cambodia, to his return to Indochina (Vietnam) in 1925 (after briefly having returned to France), and later political activities in China supporting both nationalist and communist movements, the facts of what exactly he did, with whom, and when are shrouded in myth, mystery, and conjecture—an opaqueness he did little to clear up later in life. What we can know for certain is that by the mid-1920s, while running a newspaper in Hanoi, Malraux was writing prolifically. He published his first full-length novel, The Conquerors, in 1928, followed by The Royal Way in 1930, and Man’s Fate in 1933, a story set against the failed 1927 communist uprising in Shanghai (written before Malraux ever set foot in Shanghai) that won the Goncourt prize.

That Malraux was at least a communist sympathizer into his 30s is without question. Yet even in the most fervent years of his left-wing political activities, Malraux was more interested in examining the human condition through art and culture than in political doctrines. In fact, according to early Malraux chronicler and late Harvard professor of French literature W. M. Frohock, Man’s Fate was viewed with some suspicion by orthodox communist hardliners. “Did Malraux have a party card? The legend holds that he did not. And on his trip to the 1934 Writers’ Congress in Moscow . . . he was billed on the program as a ‘Marxist humanist’ and, according to reports, placed his emphasis much more on the human than on Marx.” Malraux was always searching and never comfortable with the doctrinaire. His politics shifted continually over the course of his life. In the Second World War he served in the French Army and later the French Resistance, and after the war as Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Information (1945–46) and France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs (1958–69).

Reading The Temptation of the West today, nearly 100 years after it appeared, reminds us of the hold culture retains on our thinking, even in an age of hyper-globalization. Malraux was deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical critique of Western culture. In his introduction to the 1961 edition, Robert Hollander notes, “In Nietzsche, with his analysis of Western decadence, Malraux found an exalted precursor, more important for showing the way toward developing cultural generalizations than for shaping specific concepts.” Malraux also admired Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel Dangerous Liaisons (1782), widely considered the best epistolary novel ever written in the French language. Nietzsche provided the philosophical foundation and de Laclos the form for Malraux to carry the critique further in the context of the West’s interaction with Chinese culture. The demise of a culture is not something one can truly appreciate from a distance. It is not an abstraction, of interest only to anthropologists and historians. It is personal and we must feel it—and we do through the letters of A.D. and Ling. We feel how they are inextricably caught in this crisis, how the uncertain future is their future.

One can forgive a young Malraux for so harshly dismissing a European culture he worked so hard in his later years to preserve. What could Europe but seem in the years immediately following the Great War? Europe was still convulsing, the old order still gasping, while vile political extremism was gaining currency. The center was never more than tenuous, and of course it collapsed like a house of sand by the end of the 1920s. In 1927 Malraux published the essay “D’une Jeunesse Europeenne” (“From a European Youth”) in Les Cahiers Verts in which he “proclaimed a personal alienation from European culture to match the one expressed by the focal character in La Tentation.”

An Enduring Epistolary

Only 18 letters comprise the book, and 12 are from Ling in Europe to A.D. in Asia. In the brief forward we learn A.D. is 25 years old and Ling 23. We never learn how Ling and A.D. know each other or why they correspond in the way they do. We are told at the end of the forward that the letters have been “selected and edited” and are intended to evoke in readers “some arresting thoughts on the seemingly unusual sensuous and spiritual lives of these two men.” Who selected and edited them? We have no idea. With this device Malraux seems to want us to know the bare minimum of background, as too much detail will unduly influence our interpretation and understanding of the subtle and finely wrought conversation.

The opening letter is from A.D., written from the liner Chambord as it carries him to China. We are not sure where Chambord is, only that A.D. has “seen savages suddenly appear and offer seafarers horn-shaped fruits from primitive trays. . .” He goes on to describe a wondrous flow of exotic sensations. Before leaving Europe, he experienced the rest of the world only through books and the gathered cultural treasures and animals one finds in museums and zoos. “Man, capturing living forms one by one and locking them up in books, has prepared the present condition of my mind.” A.D. is embarking on an adventure to a strange world. He is a colonial man—not the incurious or rapacious variant, but also not above indulging in the luxuries on offer. Asia is a place for the taking. The culture must be protected, not for its own sake, but rather because it is interesting to the Western man.

Ling is already in France, and he’s unimpressed. He writes his first letter from Marseilles. From the opening line we see that Ling has ventured to Europe with much suspicion—“Europe calls forth few beautiful ghosts, and I have come to her with hostile curiosity.” He is curious to know how Europe is so strong that it could colonize peoples around the world, including parts of China. China in the 1920s is sick, and Ling believes Europe the source of the disease. The remaining letters from Ling are sent from Paris, although he does make mention of visiting other European cities.

What transpires from the third letter onward is an inquiry into the European and Chinese minds—how each character thinks and sees the world. Religion, art, architecture, myth, literature, philosophy, even dreams—these are the methods of cultural expression Malraux examines. Ling studies and inquires, but also compares and explains. He is on a mission to understand how something he longs to preserve is slipping away. A.D. is less didactic. He is not determined to defend European culture. He is a product of it and all its excesses and tragedies, and that has convinced him that life is ultimately absurd. Searching for meaning is a fool’s errand. The existential concept “the absurd”—the realization that man’s attempt to understand and order the world is a fruitless exercise because no such order exists—is a Malraux motif. It is no wonder he influenced Sartre, Camus, and other French existentialists.

Malraux’s observations of both Chinese and European culture—East and West—rush at us in exquisite blossoms of language. When A.D. surfaces, such as in letters 8 and 12, he seems in implicit agreement with Ling on many points, as we see him explaining Europe rather than defending it. In letter 8, A.D. writes, “The excessive importance we have been led to give to ‘our’ reality is doubtless just one of the means the mind employs to defend itself … The absurd, the beautiful absurd, linked with us like the serpent to the tree of Good and Evil, is never completely hidden …” And in letter 12, “Europeans are weary of themselves, of their crumbling individualism, of their exaltation. What sustains them is less a thought than a delicate framework of negation.”

The denouement occurs in letter 17. Ling responds to A.D.’s description in the previous letter of his long discussion with the ex-politician Wang-Loh, whom he met in Shanghai. Wang-Loh pronounces the traditional culture of China dead. He pours scorn on young Chinese who have been infected with Western ideas. Ling is in sorrowful agreement with Wang-Loh, and the tone of the letter resonates a deep sadness. “He believes China is going to die. I believe it too.” For thousands of years, a propriety where elders are held in high esteem and revered for wisdom was being upended by a Western-educated youth—the “new elite.” But the new elite are not entirely happy to adopt European culture and shed their native culture. They believe they can have both. They are “tortured souls.” This is the tragedy unfolding in China. Ling sees it and is helpless to stop it. His countrymen thought they could absorb Europe like “learning a foreign language,” with no adverse repercussions to their own culture and identity. “How can I express the feelings of a disintegrating soul? All the letters I receive come from young men as desperate as Wang-Loh or myself, barren of their own culture, disgusted with yours…”

In a preface to the 1992 University of Chicago edition, noted China historian Jonathan D. Spence wrote, “It is never safe, and often folly, to call any writing ‘prophetic,’ but the closing two pages of this last letter of Ling’s read now as if they had been designed as an epilogue and benediction to the hopes and fears of China’s long revolution, and to the millions who died for the future…” What to make of The Temptation of the West today, nearly 30 years after Spence wrote those words? Like Malraux himself, the book refuses to be neatly distilled. It is heartbreaking to read about a culture dying, but we do not get the sense that it was ever avoidable. It seems a fate, a destiny, and not the result of a chosen direction that existed aside other paths just as easily taken. Ling comes closer to A.D. in concluding that all human existence lies in the “metallic realms of the absurd.” What awaits them both is only a “naked horizon and the mirror of solitude’s old master, despair.”

Culture Still Matters

When I first read this book in the early 1990s, a debate was raging on what the world was becoming in the post-Cold War era. Francis Fukuyama had recently published the article “The End of History?” in The National Interest. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and before the Soviet Union formally dissolved, Fukuyama resurfaced an argument first coherently offered by the German philosopher George Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel in the early 1800s that history—meaning the trajectory of man as a political and social creature, and not the academic subject—is not haphazard, but rather evolves with purpose and will have an end. The purpose, according to Hegel, is man’s quest for freedom and the end is a political system that fulfills this quest in all its citizens. In the 1930s, the Russian-French philosopher Alexander Kojeve gave a series of lectures incorporating Hegel’s concepts into 20th-century European democratic political theory. Fukuyama essentially reargued Kojeve’s thesis (and openly credited Kojeve) in his subsequent book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992.

Fukuyama has since had a legion of critics, some who I am convinced still misunderstand his argument, but also some very learned and distinguished. In his 1993 book, Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida dismissed Fukuyama’s book as “Western triumphalism and Christian eschatology.” For the American defense establishment, however, the Fukuyama critic more widely and warmly read was Samuel Huntington, whose essay “The Clash of Civilizations” appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1993. For Huntingdon, the end of the Cold War signaled not the affirmation of a political ideology, but the loss of a transcendent ideology’s hold on the more ancient and deeply held drivers of human conflict. At least one lid had come off a boiling pot. Both communism and liberal democracy always struggled to tame the forces of cultural identity in the service of universal principles, and now that at least one of the ideologies proved a failure, vast swaths of humanity will more likely find purchase in their civilizational identity than in the principles of liberal democracy. Huntingdon predicted a new wave of conflict in the 21st century, the fault lines of which will be between ancient civilizations.

It has been more than a quarter century since the ideas of Fukuyama and Huntingdon captivated so many of us, and in that time plenty of evidence has surfaced to support both viewpoints. Fukuyama has since revisited and moderated his position to account for group identity as a more potent political force than he had anticipated. But what is hard, if not impossible, to deny is that culture still matters. Listen carefully, for example, to the speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He regularly appeals to Chinese culture to help justify the party’s legitimacy. The Hong Kong Chinese in the streets defending the city’s democratic structures are traitors not to the communist party, but to China—to being Chinese. At its core, Beijing’s great-power restoration project is much about the primacy of Chinese culture. Xi aims to restore what the fictional Wang-Loh thought was dead.

Given that reality, how much should young Navy officers educate themselves on Chinese culture? Quite a lot, in my view. China, with its highly capable, modernizing navy and its grand ambitions, is the great problem of their careers. The letters of Ling and A.D. add an interesting and different way to help do that.

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

Featured Image: French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping attend a wreath laying ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo)

Military Officers: Read Black Writers

By Bill Bray

I grew up in white neighborhoods and my Catholic high school outside Boston was entirely white. I never knew a black community. If racism still existed, it existed elsewhere. It was an abstraction to me. Then I joined the Navy. In the summer of 1983, while at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island, my roommate was a black man from the South Side of Chicago. He did not last long—a week, maybe ten days—before he quit. I cannot remember his name. But what I can remember, all too clearly, was that while we may have been from the same country and in the same Navy, we might as well have been from different planets.

In looking back on my nearly three-decade Navy career beginning in the late 1980s, I see now even more clearly how racial bias among a mostly white officer corps was far more ingrained and consequential than I believed—or cared to believe. Much work has and is being done about this, but here is one observation, based on my experience as an officer and an editor, that is rarely discussed or written about: white officers generally do not read black writers (and if they read much literature at all, it consists of other genres). They should, and a good place to start is with James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Reading good literature begets many benefits. The best writers are experts on the human condition, and reading them enlarges and enriches self-awareness, humility, and empathy. A growing body of social science research supports this assessment. For example, in 2013 researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd published in the journal Science the results of a study that concluded reading literary fiction, as opposed to serious nonfiction or plot-driven popular fiction, enables people to score better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. In an interview with The New York Times, Castano notes that in literary fiction, such as Dostoyevsky, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice…each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”

James Baldwin is one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. His writing is excellent and his personal journey compelling. Go Tell It on the Mountain is his first novel. It took him ten years to write and he struggled mightily with doubt that he could ever finish it. It is semiautobiographical and centers on his tormented relationship with his stepfather and the deeply religious community to which they belonged.

Born in 1924, Baldwin grew up in Harlem. His family was originally from the South and part of the great northward migration of approximately six million African Americans as Jim Crow laws in the South stiffened. While working on the book, Baldwin left the United States to live in Paris. He finished it in 1952 while living in the Swiss village of Loeche-les-Bains. In Europe, where he did not have to be reminded on a daily basis of the deep-seated racism in America, he was finally able to finish a book that was also a painful process of discovering who he was. As the writer Edwidge Danticat explained in a 2016 article in The New Yorker:

“In a 1961 interview with the American broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, Baldwin remembered thinking that he might never finish the novel. . . ‘I was ashamed of the life of the Negro church,’ he told Terkel, ‘ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon: all of those stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues. Well, I was afraid of all that; and I ran from it.’”

Many American writers became expatriates to seek out new ideas and cultures. Not as many left because they were ashamed of how their own are commonly viewed in their native country.

The novel centers around a single day in the life of John Grimes (the autobiographical character) on his 14th birthday. The Negro church in the novel is the Temple of the Fire Baptized Church, a Pentecostal congregation that operates from a Harlem storefront—“It was not the biggest church in Harlem, nor yet the smallest, but John had been brought up to believe it was the holiest and best.”

The day begins when John wakes, convinced his mother has forgotten his birthday. She has not, although she makes no mention of his birthday all morning. Later, after he completes his chores, she gives him money to explore the city. He ventures into Manhattan, where we get a sense of his anger and loneliness at being a black teenager in mid-1930s New York, and ends the day at a church service with his mother, stepfather, the young preacher Elisha, and others, where he undergoes a violent and tumultuous conversion on the “threshing-floor” (Baldwin himself was a preacher from ages 14–17).

Along the way in the book, we are taken back in time through the stories of his Aunt Florence, Florence’s brother, and John’s stepfather Gabriel Grimes, and his mother Elizabeth. Their stories mostly predate the migration north, and we see them as complex, sinful characters, who are both victims of grievous injustices and of their own poor decisions and fallibility. Scene after scene drips with an intense religiosity and pathos of a people struggling to survive their environment and themselves. Gradually, through their stories (each of the three chapters in part two is titled a prayer), we interact with a host of other characters that come in and out of their lives.

John Grimes never knows many of these characters, has never been to the South, and could not possibly know most of the intricate details. But Baldwin wants us to know and to feel that they are all part of who he is (and who Baldwin is). Following the scenes of John Grimes in New York City that day, we then experience a complex labyrinth of stories of his family from years ago—the story of the wider African American experience from Reconstruction onward—until we are brought rushing back to the boy in the all-night church service. It is as if his entire identity is carefully and intricately revealed to us through the lives of the others. Each experience they have and each choice they have made matters to who John Grimes is.

In a 1984 Paris Review interview, Baldwin credited Henry James for how he told and structured the story. “Henry James helped me, with his whole idea about the center of consciousness and using a single intelligence to tell the story. He gave me the idea to make the novel happen on John’s birthday.” Baldwin often spoke about how from the time a black child recognizes that he is not an equal member of the society in which he lives, the sense of inferiority and disenfranchisement does not steadily grow but accelerates in his mind as time passes.

In the novel, the full picture of John Grimes also coheres at an accelerating rate, until we are back with him on the threshing-floor, completely invested in him, our capacity for empathy expanded. The scene of John’s conversion, full of graphic and apocalyptic visions, is a signature achievement. Baldwin said Go Tell It on the Mountain is the book he had to write before he could write anything else. Reading the conversion scene evinces what a cathartic exercise that must have been for him. Danticat calls the novel, “. . . not just a well-thought-out and well-crafted lyrical work but also a protest chant, a hymn, a rebuke, a memorial, a prayer, a testimonial, a confessional, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece. . . [at the end] John is no longer the stranger who’d gone into the city and returned afraid. He is no longer a stranger to the reader. He is our brother. He is our son. He is our friend. He is us.”

Much of Go Tell It on the Mountain was written in the Café de Flore in Paris. Published in 1953, it established Baldwin as a literary force in mid-century America. By the late 1950s, he was back in the United States much of the time and active in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, he gave a series of lectures on race, mostly in the South, and appeared at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1965, Baldwin debated prominent conservative William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom on the question, “Did the American dream come at the expense of the American negro?” Baldwin won the debate overwhelmingly (the students voted in Baldwin’s favor 540–160) and it remains an epochal rhetorical moment in U.S. race relations. The debate was broadcast on the BBC and today should be mandatory viewing in every U.S. military officer commissioning program (Nicholas Buccola’s excellent 2019 book The Fire Is Upon Us probes the backgrounds of Baldwin and Buckley and the context of the times that brought them together that evening).

Writing to show the world as it is, Baldwin eschewed any temptation to suggest facile solutions to such a complex issue as race, identity, and the black experience. They do not exist. His characters, both major and minor, are as flawed and multidimensional as any characters in real life. This gives the novel a special depth and lasting power. The writer has coopted us in the experience.

Each generation of military leaders has a responsibility to honor the progress of the past while remaining sensitive to the fact that gains made are neither permanent nor, thus far, sufficient. The military is in the warfighting business where assignments and promotions should rest on merit alone. Aspiring to that ideal is right, but only while acknowledging that much of the “data” that feeds the meritocratic evaluation system actually derives from countless subjective decisions—human decisions. Meritocracies are not built and maintained on empirical data. Studying the problem of race through the many great American works of literature will help leaders better appreciate this fact.

When officers who have never worried about being the target of discrimination sound off quickly in dismissing a policy promoting diversity, while at the same time being poorly read on the black experience in America, I do not hear a well-considered and enlightened position. It shocks me today to hear young, white officers reflexively discussing race in the context of white victimization and grievance. This fixation with reverse racism is at best historically ignorant, at worst callously insensitive.

James Baldwin left the ministry and the church at age 17 and began work on Go Tell It on the Mountain. His personal and literary journey from that point forward was as difficult as it is remarkable. As much as any twentieth-century writer, he deserves much more than our respect. He deserves our enduring attention.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain and the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: EAST CHINA SEA (July 31, 2020) Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Valentina Imokhai, from New York, left, and Chief Personnel Specialist Melissa Colon, from Fajardo, Puerto Rico, right, put a petty officer second class rank insignia on Yeoman 2nd Class Steven Berry, from Cleveland, as he is promoted during an advancement ceremony on board the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown (LSD 42). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor DiMartino)

The Navy’s Perpetual Racism Problem and How to Fix It

By LCDR Reuben Keith Green, USN (ret.)


The Navy has always had the same three problems when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The first is that there is racism in the ranks. This is America, so that is to be expected. The second is a failure of leadership. No less an individual than the current Secretary of the Navy has pointed out to Congress and the press that failure of leadership in the Navy is a problem today. The third is an unwillingness to face head-on the first two problems. To do so would require some deep introspection, radical change, and likely adverse publicity as the dirty laundry gets aired, which every organization hates.

An active duty Black sailor wrote a review of my memoir on July 26, 2020, which said, “As a Black American Sailor, this book confirmed a lot of what I (in 2020) personally have experienced in my career thus far. The names and faces may have changed, but the traditions of old remained. This book brought me to tears. I am better for reading this, but dejected at the realization that much will not change in the Navy.” The recent articles written in USNI Proceedings’ blog and magazine detail the thoughts and experiences of active duty officers who have faced discrimination. These individuals echo the same sentiments that my sailor father shared with me 50 years ago when he forbade me to join the Navy.

I have been worried about the Navy’s race problem since I was ten years old. I listened to my father’s and his friends’ inappropriate sea stories, and read encyclopedias that hid the truth from me while dreaming of being a naval officer. But there weren’t any Black naval officers in the encyclopedias, or the sea stories. I knew that there were stories I shouldn’t be hearing and that the ones I should have been reading were missing. It wasn’t until my parents bought books on the Black experience in the American experiment that the truth began to be revealed to me. Today at the age of 63, I am more worried now than I have been in a long time. So is the Department of Defense. That means you should be worried, too.

So, what to do? I can tell you that the current fad of listening to sailors and officers is not going to be nearly enough. The Navy and the military is at a point where radical change, such as was attempted by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt during his tenure, is clearly necessary, even essential. It will be painful.

Understanding Culture

The Navy doesn’t need another task force, study group, commission, or detailed directive to minimize discrimination and sexual assault/harassment in the ranks. Those are stacked a mile high, unread and unheeded. The last time I checked, the Navy had done more of those than any other service, and for good reason – but to little effect. What the Navy needs to do is to hold commanders and leaders responsible and accountable in the same way it holds them accountable if they are involved in a collision at sea or a vessel grounding. What the Navy needs to do is to target the problem as though it were an operational necessity and matter of national security to fix, because it is.

I think the Navy understands that, but is unclear on how to fix it – or unwilling to do what is required. One thing missing in the Navy’s approach is assigning culpability for discrimination and racism. If no one is culpable, then there is no one that can or will be held responsible.

A ship damaged at sea or run aground, or with a physically degraded crew, clearly impacts the operational readiness of that ship. A ship or command whose crew is mentally impacted in unit cohesiveness, mistrust, discrimination, mental cruelty, lack of personal security and morale, will experience degradations which are just as dangerous to the functioning of the organization. People who don’t trust or who abuse each other have difficulty working together effectively, which is the very essence of an elite team. The difference in these two problems is the accountability factor, or lack thereof.

The USS Shiloh “Prison Ship” debacle of a few years ago is instructive. The Shiloh skipper exhibited anti-diversity behavior and comments, doled out extremely harsh punishments for minor offenses (three days bread and water), and was obsessed with obtaining his favorite personal beverage, at the expense of more pressing crew and operational concerns. His behavior was deemed racist by some of the crew. The Navy was well aware of the problems aboard the ship, having increased the frequency of the command climate surveys, which steadily deteriorated, and repeatedly “counseled” the captain of the ship. Despite the written pleas of the officers and crew, which grew more desperate, and the well-known waterfront reputation of the ship, the Navy did not act. Instead, the captain transferred ashore with his head held high and a shiny new end of tour medal, while the psychological devastation to some of his crew began to have what is likely lasting effects on many individuals. Once the stories made the news, it was too late to effectively ameliorate the damage done to the individuals. And still, the Navy stood by the skipper, because “the ship performed well operationally.” Not only was the captain not held accountable, he was rewarded. Officially, his judgement was not found lacking until a subsequent inspector general investigation was conducted.

Contrast that with the case of Captain Brett Crozier, formerly captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. By all accounts he was an outstanding skipper, and had a reputation for being a caring commander, which apparently contributed to his downfall. In the midst of a pandemic, which severely impacted both the health of his crew and the operational capability of the ship, he wrote a memo requesting guidance and help that was subsequently leaked to the press. He was relieved for “poor judgement.” Despite a lack of a clear management strategy, little specific guidance, conflict with his embarked commander, and an exponentially increasing casualty list, he was summarily relieved by an individual who infamously displayed far worse judgement himself. Following the uproar, a subsequent investigation was ordered and conducted, and the finding was the same – poor judgement. I take issue with the findings and recommendations of the investigation, as does an expert on naval investigations, Captain Michael Junge, who wrote the bible on the subject, Crimes of Command in the United States Navy. His precise critique of the investigation, as well as his book, should be required reading for all naval officers. His thoughts on accountability, responsibility, and culpability are as relevant to this discussion as they are to the discrimination and sexual harassment/assault issues currently in focus.

Ask yourself, who did more damage to the Navy, Captain Crozier, or the skipper of the Shiloh? Further, ask yourself who was held culpable and who was not. Ask yourself if the treatment of Captain Crozier sent the right message to officers trying to lead under difficult and unprecedented circumstances.

To my knowledge, no formal Navy investigation was conducted into the Shiloh affair, even as the Navy received bad press and piercing questions from around the world until well after the captain was relieved on schedule. An investigation should have been conducted while he was in command, and the skipper should have been held to account. Failure to do so sent a terrible signal throughout the fleet, echoes of which can be heard in the fallout from the Theodore Roosevelt incident. Caring too much about the welfare of your crew can get you fired; driving them to mental instability and psychological exhaustion, while making jokes about it, can get you rewarded. The Navy seemed to be willing to reward a commander who ignored or prevented efforts to honor the diverse heritage and contributions of minority sailors and develop a unity mindset, throwing 50 years of precedent down the drain.

In the 50 years I have been studying this issue, I can only recall one incident where an officer has been held to account for racist language and behavior. This flag officer was relieved for making derogatory comments regarding Black officers, including those superior to him, and making racially offensive comments and gestures while in command. I only know this because another fine carrier skipper took issue with his behavior and reported it to the proper authorities. The facts that the carrier skipper was an unimpeachable witness, and that others witnessed the comments and behavior, are significant. Most people who report such offenses do not have these advantages, and I speak from hard experience. This case was a clear exception to the rule.

For decades the Navy has downplayed or dismissed overwhelmingly formal discrimination complaints submitted by sailors and officers. This has to change. There are federal lawsuits pending right now stemming from racial discrimination in naval aviation, and the case of former Lieutenant Courtland Savage is exhibit A. He recently wrote about his experiences and frustration in Travel World Magazine, and his story was reported in Military Times and elsewhere a few years ago. The Navy acknowledged “ethnic insensitivity” but no discrimination.

I beg to differ. I wrote a letter expressing my concerns, which was passed to the DoD Inspector General handling the case. A white Navy lieutenant, who spoke up and acknowledged the discrimination, is now involved in a federal lawsuit, where he is fighting the retaliatory actions taken against him for speaking out. This type of retaliation is as predictable as the sunrise. Retaliation is the number one concern of individuals who report discrimination in the military, and for very good reason. This case needs transparency.

The Navy needs to demonstrate the same commitment to eradicating these longstanding and seemingly intractable discrimination and harassment issues as they demonstrated in stamping out the rampant and widespread abuse of illegal drugs during the 70s and 80s. I recall that the day I graduated from the legal clerk course at Naval Justice School in Newport in 1977, some of my senior fellow graduates celebrated graduation by smoking a joint in the barracks while packing up their belongings. I was an E-4, and this didn’t surprise me. As a Legal Yeoman, I processed many drug offenders, counseled many sailors as a substance abuse prevention practitioner, and held people accountable as a division officer aboard ship.

Following some significant incidents aboard ship in which illegal drug use possibly contributed to property damage and injuries, and diminished operability, the Navy cracked down hard and helped turn this around. Officers were held to the highest standard, as it should be. There was a top down, fleet-wide commitment to ending drug abuse, with clear punishments, rehabilitation, and possibilities for redemption.

It worked. It can work for this current crisis as well, with proper commitment and leadership. The “zero tolerance” stance for officers who abused drugs should be adapted for officers who abuse people.

Let’s return to the issue of commissions, study groups, and reports. In the June 1990 issue of All Hands Magazine, there was an eight-page article on the state of race relations in the Navy. Then-Chief of Naval Personnel Admiral Jeremy “Mike” Boorda referred to the Chief of Naval Operations Study Group’s Report on Equal Opportunity, published in 1988. The report had indicated that there was widespread bias and discrimination against Blacks in the Navy. Boorda said that the programs in place had “realized major improvements in recent years.” A few years later, in 1996, he unfortunately took his own life while still serving as the Chief of Naval Operations, and while fighting for change to the culture.

He was fighting for people like me. Five days before his death, I filed a request for redress against a racist and abusive commanding officer who was being protected by a racist and abusive immediate superior in command, for whom I had worked in the 90 days before he fleeted up to his next command. Rather than cause the Navy any further bad press, and because my complaint was illegally withheld in violation of the governing directives, I chose to quietly retire, understanding that no effort would be spared to discredit and destroy me should I push the issue to an appropriate and legal resolution.

I have never seen the report, but I am confident that it addresses many of the same problems that exist today. These problems are not new, they are perpetual. I know because they have existed for my entire lifetime. What has to be new is the approach to solving them.

Admiral Zumwalt got the Navy off to a great start, but the civilian and naval leadership failed him, and the country. His nemesis, Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis, and his superior officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer, a racist, did much to undermine Zumwalt’s efforts. The active duty and retired military leadership never got behind Zumwalt’s efforts. Zumwalt recalled in his memoir that Moorer opposed his selection as Chief of Naval Operations and accused him of “blackening his Navy,” and the post-retirement television debate he had with Zumwalt did not reflect well on Admiral Moorer and his position on race. Zumwalt’s successor, Admiral James Holloway III, said Zumwalt had “went too far.”

The Boogaloo Boys, a white supremacist group, contains many active duty and veteran service members, as do other racist and radical groups. I am looking askance at my beloved Hawaiian shirts as I write. Symbology is important. If the price for removing Confederate flags from military bases is giving up my shirts, I’ll make the sacrifice. While the overt racism is troubling, the more insidious, hidden racism likely does more damage in the long run. The outcry over the recently outed retired naval academy alumnus who accidentally livestreamed racist comments on Facebook ignores the fact that he spent 30 years in the Navy, as his hidden racism was masked (or was it ignored, or worse, accepted?) as he likely negatively impacted the careers of numerous minority officers and sailors. Did he ever sit on a promotion or selection board? Has anyone examined his history of fitness reports and evaluations? Implicit bias does damage daily, and simply changing the rules on photographs for selection boards is like giving someone who has COVID-19 some aspirin and putting them on bedrest – treating the symptoms, not the cause.

I recently tangled with a retired Navy captain who called me a racist on LinkedIn because he didn’t like the title of my book, Black Officer, White Navy, and also inferred that minority officers received “special treatment” at selections boards because of the color of their skin. He subsequently deleted his racist comments, and my responses to them, but I saved the screenshots, as a reminder of just how pervasive these attitudes are.

The officers who have spoken publicly (in writing) about the discrimination they have faced have been met with hostility, racism, denial, derision, and ridicule, judging from the comments on the recent USNI articles written by Lieutenant Commander Desmond Walker and Commander Jada Johnson. Similar comments have been made regarding the banning of divisive symbology from military installations. Of particular dismay is the fact that many of the comments outright deny the existence of institutional racism. One poster goes so far as to say that the current efforts to end racism and discrimination will only make things worse, while flatly denying that institutional racism is even a real thing. This white backlash is as old as the Navy’s efforts to end systemic racism dating to the Zumwalt era, and the arguments are largely the same. Given the public response, it is not difficult to imagine the private conversations.


The Chief of Naval Operations has acknowledged that there is racism in the Navy. He needs to go one natural – but painful – step further and acknowledge that you can’t have racism without racists. You can’t have rape without rapists. You can’t have sexual harassment without harassers. You can’t have discrimination without actions, both individual and institutional, that discriminate. You can’t have failed leadership without failed leaders.

If the Secretary of the Navy is right, and naval leadership is lacking, then this is a good place to start. It will pay dividends for decades to come if Navy leadership, led by Admiral Gilday, takes charge and leads from the front. Given the other challenges that have arisen since his June 2020 initiative, I am concerned that this effort will slip to the backburner, and become yet another in a series of failed efforts to minimize discrimination in the fleet. That would add to the dejection, as stated by the sailor mentioned above, that permeates the Navy. It would be a devastating failure to have raised hopes for change to then see them dashed due to other concerns. At some point, as has been demonstrated in the past, the relief valve will pop.

I was a young division officer with ten years in the Navy when Admiral Gilday graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985. I imagine he thinks he knows how bad it is, but he can’t. He can imagine it, but he will fall woefully short. He has the right idea, but he needs help from those with direct experience and a willingness to speak truth to power, always a risky venture. Unless he finds himself a young Black naval officer, or other minority personnel, assigned to his staff to advise him, he still won’t truly get it. He needs a William S. Norman, Zumwalt’s minority affairs assistant, who methodically educated Admiral Zumwalt to the point of trauma on the experiences of Black sailors and officers in the Navy. He needs to read the comments directed at the officers who have spoken out, and at me. The misrepresentations and reductionist dismissals are stunning. Naval officers Desmond Walker and Jada Johnson, who bravely shared their experiences and recommendations in Proceedings, are the type of officers I have in mind.

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., Chief of Naval Operations (left) is briefed by Lieutenant Commander William S. Norman, in June 1971, in Washington D.C. (Photo via Naval History and Heritage Command)

The old lions, the Black retired naval flag community, are very quiet, when they should be roaring and sharing their stories. While some offer tepid congratulations for the changes in the Coast Guard and Navy to senior officers, they are apparently missing the reality on the deckplate, or sharing their concerns more privately. Retired Master Chief Melvin Williams, the father of Vice Admiral Melvin Williams, should get a personal invitation to share his perspective, having written a book with his son that describes their experiences with discrimination and leadership. According to Melvin G. Williams Sr., in a review of my own book, “His story was so unusual and so disturbing in its recapping of events that even an old Navy veteran such as me had to hold back tears…His story provides many lessons to be learned and guidelines to be followed. Those who run the Navy should consider this book a gift.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General Brown’s electrifying personal testimony struck a chord with me, and many others. He roared, quietly but publicly, and with dignity. Now he’s taking action with resolve and commitment. Despite his best intentions, Admiral Gilday likely doesn’t have a similar understanding of the problem compared to General Brown. He needs a Black man or woman to explain it to him. I’m sure he has General Brown’s number. They should have lunch, and invite William S. Norman and Master Chief Melvin Williams along for good measure. Old lions have the most scars, and the most wisdom. They should have lunch in the wardroom of the USS John C. Stennis. It will be messy and uncomfortable, but informative, to look at the pictures on the wall and the faces of the Sailors serving them in the wardroom. Or better said, the faces of the Sailors they serve.

CNO, pull up a chair and chat with an old Black Sailor. I can tell you that having a former sailor ridicule you in print and refuse to acknowledge even the existence of institutional discrimination is unsettling. Having that same individual delight in “making me insane” by refusing to do so, and treat other minority active duty officers the same way (from anonymity, he thinks) reveals the underlying objective, which is to cause further pain. Having to work alongside that sort of individual is something I am quite familiar with. The scars are lasting. The high disability rating for Black veterans is not an accident, it is a predictable outcome.

Our sailors have suffered enough. CNO, to paraphrase Sean Connery in the movie The Untouchables, “What are you going to do?”

Reuben Keith Green is a retired surface warfare officer who served for 22 years in the Atlantic Fleet (1975-1997). A former mineman, legal yeoman, Equal Opportunity Program Specialist, administrative office leading petty officer, and leadership instructor, he served four consecutive sea tours upon his commissioning via Officer Candidate School in 1984. He qualified as both a steam and gas turbine engineer officer of the watch (EOOW), Tactical Action Officer (TAO) in the Persian Gulf, and served as executive officer in a Navy hydrofoil, USS Gemini (PHM-6). He graduated from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute in 1980.

Featured Image: Senior Chief Electronics Technician Darrick L. Terry, a Recruit Division Commander from Rockinhham, North Carolina assigned to Officer Training Command Newport (OTCN) in Rhode Island, corrects the salutation performed by a student with Officer Development School (ODS) class 2020, Feb. 6. (U.S. Navy photo by Darwin Lam)