Category Archives: Culture

Adapting Naval Cultures for Advantage at Sea

By Scott Humr

Eroding U.S. military advantage coupled with a deluge of advanced technologies flooding the strategic landscape have forced Sea Service leaders to seek the ever diminishing high ground of technological overmatch. Yet, the pursuit of bleeding-edge technologies only provides a fleeting reprieve from having to ascend the next high-tech promontory. While pursuing the latest technologies is necessary, it is not sufficient to keep American military heads above water for very long. 

The U.S. military’s technological advantage has eroded rapidly.1 While technology is always changing, it is changing at an accelerating pace.2 A fourth and fifth offset will likely follow DoD’s third offset strategy in the not-too-distant future.3 These offsets, like those of the past, will increase the range and deadliness of American technologies. Yet, increasingly remote warfare will require equally important changes within Sea Service culture. Naval concepts such as Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and “inside force” will require a naval culture characterized by highly innovative and resilient personnel.4 To chart this future, the Sea Services must disregard conventional habits, determine clear metrics for change, deepen educational opportunities, and develop a collective consciousness which unites disparate warfare areas.

Practices to Jettison

Practices accumulated over the past 25 years within the Sea Services will weigh down proposed warfighting concepts and threaten to capsize efforts for change. From organizational technology to processes, these artifacts can lend clues towards understanding the current culture’s values.5 Conversely, practices and equipment influence the conduct of warfare, which also shape culture.6 Understanding this reinforcing construct provides better insight into correctly diagnosing cultural values. Just as ancient mariners would jettison cargo to stabilize their ship caught in rough seas, the Sea Services must discard practices and behaviors that burden efforts to operate effectively in the future.

Navy and Marine Corps Force Design concepts require embracing warfighting practices that place personnel in spartan locations with minimal contact for extended periods of time.7 Therefore, servicemembers cannot expect the same creature comforts afforded over the last 20 years of operations in Southwest Asia. Frequent connectivity to family or streaming content over camp-wide Wi-Fi would offer opportunities for a technologically advanced adversary to sense and target such locations.8 Standard operating procedures that require regular reporting or unremitting requests for information exchange will require adaptation or elimination to limit exposure. 

American habits for employing increasing amounts of technology over the last quarter century have also created a complexity burden that is difficult to sustain. For this reason, it has become quite normal to expect a bevy of contractors to buttress communication networks and software to support logistics and security.9 However, naval leadership should not count on this type of help in the future. Standard support personnel will have to become multiskilled to keep manpower requirements below an acceptable threshold.10 Parallel to how the Marine Corps is evaluating the consolidation of several infantry MOSs into a single “commando MOS,”11 the Sea Services must look to do the same across support functions to achieve the efficiencies the Naval Services demand. 

Operating in a distributed maritime environment requires a reinvigoration of the ability to thrive in austerity. The previous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have bred mindsets habituated to expect uninterrupted and timely logistics support. Future logistics operations will, however, need to be reconceived when support is contested in remote locations.12 Where feasible, EABOs will need to become networks of lateral support to each other for greater responsiveness. Only by fostering a culture of radical self-sufficiency and diversifying logistics sustainment can the Sea Services realistically maintain distributed operations. Still, habits that continue to emphasize strict hierarchies of command and control with extensive approval chains will also need to evolve to support an agile network of EABOs.

In his book, Command: The Twenty-First-Century General, Anthony King aptly stated, “Existing command models, derived from the twentieth century, have become increasingly obsolete in the face of new global problems.”13 Indeed, command models that prevent maneuver warfare from the sea must be transformed. Operations that once allowed for clear separation of duties between a Commander Amphibious Task Force (CATF) and Commander Landing Force (CLF) will not likely apply well in a future characterized by multi-domain operations (MDO).14 For example, the concept of “green in support of blue” in defense of the amphibious task force and “blue in support of green” once a preponderance of forces are ashore will become amorphous under EABO. Supporting and supported roles will become fluid and complex requiring quick decision making and authorities better suited for a single commander. To guide this change, the Sea Services should experiment with combining both CATF and CLF roles under Composite Warfare Commanders (CWC). 

The CWC under the single battle concept would allow for seamless decision making and deconfliction within a battle space. Analogous to how Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operated under the leadership of General Stanly McCrystal in Iraq, the Sea Services must push authority to CWCs to operate faster than the adversary.15 Multiple CWCs could operate under a single, but agile Commander Amphibious Force (CAF). The CAF would function as the officer in tactical command who organizes CWCs and subordinate warfare commanders.16 The CAF could also deconflict requirements for strategic and low-density assets within the area of operations. 

In short, the Sea Services must forgo the previous separation between the CATF and CLF while adopting a more comprehensive and agile view of CWCs to support EABO, LOCE, and other MDO at sea. Such fundamental changes will require even greater naval integration than previously sought. However, greater integration must go beyond exchanging a few liaison officers and calling it a win. Rather, Sea Service leadership must develop meaningful measurements of naval integration which can radically strengthen our common culture.

Measuring Change: Integration by Subtraction

War is a human phenomenon and how a force fights can be viewed as an extension of its culture.17 Developing closer bonds amongst the Sea Services in the future will become significant towards developing this culture. The Sea Services must therefore cast off from the shores of Service parochialism to embrace even greater integration. To be sure, developing clear metrics for measuring unit integration and capturing feedback from personnel will help shape the naval culture to compete effectively. 

The 2018 National Defense Strategy and derivative Sea Service guidance, such as the Tri-Service strategy, Advantage at Sea, are orienting efforts towards a future that necessitates greater Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard integration. A novel measurement for greater Navy and Marine Corps integration is the total number of commands eliminated—or addition by subtraction.18 For instance, Commander, Marine Forces Pacific could become the Deputy Commander of U.S. 7th Fleet. 7th Fleet could also create a standing Combined Task Force (CTF) composed of Navy and Marine personnel similar to 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade to oversee multiple Marine Littoral Regiments.19 Correspondingly, Commander, Marine Forces CENTCOM (MARCENT) could become the deputy Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet with headquarters in Tampa, FL. While this could reduce several Marine Commands to a two-star level it has the greater benefit of increasing naval integration and reducing staff manpower levels for both services. 

Important feedback for measuring cultural change within the Sea Services will also come from deck-plate leadership. The Services need to implement 360-degree feedback for all leaders. Such multi-source feedback can provide the valuable information needed to improve naval leadership, and by extension—culture. 360-degree assessments accomplish this by helping to identify leadership blind spots and allow meaningful corrections to be made quickly. Waiting for the results of episodic command climate surveys are no longer sufficient. This comprehensive feedback process could help empower junior leaders with the necessary candor to improve command climate almost immediately. More importantly, it will foster greater lateral cooperation amongst peers over current models that incentivize peer competition.20 360-degree feedback will allow the Sea Services to continually take the proper depth soundings of their cultures by identifying the best leaders and to avoid running the Sea Service ship aground on the hidden reefs of toxic leadership. 

Educating for Cultural Change

Any successful cultural transformation requires changes to how forces are educated and trained. While Advantage at Sea properly advocates for “collaborat[ing] with allies and partners to increase exchange opportunities, including education, shore-based tours, and operational billets,” further inspection of how education is delivered is required to increase educational reach across naval institutions.21 The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that significant amounts of work and education can be accomplished remotely across time zones and mediums. For example, uprooting families for a six-to-ten-month long school only to move them again is not only wasteful but in many cases is completely unnecessary. Asynchronous educational opportunities are also an attractive option to provide education to more personnel who otherwise would never benefit from it. These delivery methods have the added benefit of affording military families, such as spouses who have professional careers, greater stability by allowing them to stay in a location longer.22

Equally important, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps should jointly develop a comprehensive composite warfare commander’s course which officers from both services could attend. As mentioned above, EABO and LOCE will blur the lines between the CATF and CLF, necessitating the need to envision operations more holistically. CWCs will undoubtedly need a wide-ranging appreciation of both Marine and Navy capabilities as well as Joint Force assets. Just as all naval aviators wear a breast insignia designating their specialty, CWC school graduates, including Marines, could one day adopt a new warfare insignia designating them as CWCs. Yet, warfare cultures with unique distinctions and histories can create headwinds that buffet our progress towards change. It will therefore be important for all leaders within the Sea Services to provide the comprehensive vision for how each servicemember plays a part in delivering warfighting capabilities at sea. 

A Common Culture 

 Major organizational change can often run up against resistance.23 Threats to relevancy in a future fight, budget cuts, or the evolution of roles can trigger a “survival instinct” where subcultures rally against or attempt to slow-roll changes.24 Indeed, loss aversion bias and sunk costs are a well-documented phenomenon regularly used to maintain the status quo.25 To avoid these pitfalls, it is important to fashion disparate warfare cultures into plank owners of a more integrated naval service culture. 

The Sea Services must develop a common culture characterized by a shared consciousness.26 Drawing lessons from Team of Teams, future warfighting concepts must pair the best qualities of each warfare area to elicit the best outcomes.27 For instance, General Stanley McCrystal was able to help create a cohesive environment for JSOC personnel, interagency organizations, military intelligence, and other disparate entities to collaborate effectively.28 This allowed the various groups to not only adapt to changing intelligence faster, but also increased the operational tempo to out-cycle the enemy.29 If the Sea Services are to achieve analogous efficiencies, they will require integrated training and formations that exist on a standing basis. For instance, it is rare for a typical Marine infantry unit to train with U.S. Navy sub-surface units. However, if Sea Service leadership expects units to cooperate on anti-submarine warfare (ASW), developing exercises and shared understanding for how such dissimilar units can create a symbiotic relationship is essential.30 Except, such training comes at a cost. Sea Service leaders must also declare which training is no longer essential—something the services rarely do well. Warfare areas will adapt and work together when they are unfettered from non-essential training and given a credible vision for the future. It is therefore incumbent upon Sea Service leadership to clear paths for innovation at the lowest levels while also making it clear what requirements will be eliminated to create the time and space needed to meet these visions of operating together. 

Hold fast…

Calling for significant changes within a culture while implementing new practices is not without its difficulties. Many may affirm that the current culture is sufficient for this new era and change may be more detrimental to the institution overall.31 Radical change can in fact disturb the standard processes that many have become accustomed to as they provide predictability and stability. Balancing exploitation and exploration are often areas that can come into conflict with each other when resources and time are scarce. Refining and altering processes are often needed to remain competitive. Organizations, however, can often become disillusioned and jaded by change, especially if leadership is constantly chasing and trying to shoehorn the latest technology fad into current practices. Yet, stagnation and comfortability also breed complacency within an organization. Hence, the value of good leadership in determining the right path is crucial in getting the organization to row in the same direction.

The rise of an adversarial China and Russia who violate norms of the international system demand the Sea Services pursue significant change to stem the tide of belligerent activities. Such behaviors in the South China Sea (SCS) by China, for instance, threaten the economic resources of surrounding countries through overfishing and causing catastrophic ecological damage to reefs through their dredging operations.32 Chinese construction of military outposts in the SCS not only violates the sovereignty of other nations, but also threatens freedom of navigation of all nations.33 Additionally, Chinese Maritime Militia, or “little blue men,”34 could become the equivalent of the “little green men” who helped conduct a fait accompli in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.35

Unprofessional behavior by the Russian Navy further exacerbates tensions and places American front line leaders in precarious situations that could escalate into an unnecessary conflict.36 Operating below the threshold of war has become the norm and therefore requires new approaches for where and how forces are postured to create credible deterrence. The Sea Services must pursue significant changes to develop a more integrated culture that is able to create new cost impositions for adversarial nations.37

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the services can respond and change quickly. Additionally, Sea Service leaders such as the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David H. Berger, have demonstrated the ability to rapidly shape the future force without direct permissions from Congress.38Equal boldness is required to sunset bad habits and adopt better metrics to shape the culture of the naval force. Still, the Sea Services must conduct rigorous innovation and experimentation with new force design constructs and command relationships that will support efforts to outpace any enemy.39 These achievements, however, will only be sustained by lashing the sails to the strong masts of the type of education that can meet the demands of a 21st century military. 

The tsunami of technologies submerging the battlefields of the 21st century is unrelenting. Military technological advantages will ebb and flow. Regardless of the technology, if the culture is not prepared to use it to its advantage, much will be for naught. A truly integrated naval culture will catalyze decision cycles to attain a network of kill chains.40 Culture is at the helm of this ship and it’s the job of all Sea Service leaders to help steer it.

LtCol Scott Humr, USMC, is a student at the Naval Postgraduate School studying Information Sciences. He holds a Master’s in Military Studies from the Marine Corps University and a Master’s in Information Technology from the Naval Postgraduate School. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent the official views of the DoD or the government departments he is associated with.

Endnotes

[1] Krepinevich, Andrew F., Jr. “Finding Strength in Decline.” Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-12-10/finding-strength-decline

[2] Berman, Alison E. and Jason Dorrier. “Technology Feels Like It’s Accelerating — Because It Actually Is.” last modified March 22, 2016. https://singularityhub.com/2016/03/22/technology-feels-like-its-accelerating-because-it-actually-is/

[3] Kassinger, Theodore W. “Shaping the Fourth Offset.” last modified August 13, 2020, https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/shaping-the-fourth-offset-the-emerging-role-of-export-controls-in-pursuit-of-national-economic-self-reliance

[4] Greer, Tanner. “The Tip of the American Military Spear Is Being Blunted.” last modified July 6, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/06/us-marines-strategy-military-tip-spear-china-congress/

[5] Schein, Edgar H. Organizational culture and leadership. Vol. 2. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

[6] Mahnken, Thomas G. Technology and the American Way of War since 1945. Columbia University Press, 2010.

[7] Berger, Gen David H. “Commandant’s Planning Guidance.” (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps, 2019). 

[8] Kerg, Maj Brian. “To Be Detected Is To Be Killed,” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 146/12/1,414, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/december/be-detected-be-killed

[9] Avant, Deborah D., and Renee De Nevers. “Military contractors & the American way of war.” Daedalus 140, no. 3 (2011): 88-99.

[10] Berger, David H. “A concept for stand-in forces.” USNI Proceedings, Vol 147/11/1,425, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2021/november/concept-stand-forces

[11] Harkins, Gina. “The Marine Corps Is Considering Merging All Infantry Jobs Into Just 1 MOS.” https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/12/03/marine-corps-considering-merging-all-infantry-jobs-just-1-mos.html

[12] Mills, Capt Walker D., and Erik Limpaecher. “Sustainment Will Be Contested.” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 146/11/1,413, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/november/sustainment-will-be-contested.

[13] King, Anthony. Command: The Twenty-First-Century General. Cambridge University Press, 2019, 9.

[14] Nostro, Mark. Command and Control in Littoral Operations. Naval War College Newport, RI, United States, 2016, https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD1021504.

[15] United States Marine Corps, MCDP 1-4 Competing. https://www.marines.mil/News/Publications/MCPEL/Electronic-Library-Display/Article/2449338/mcdp-1-4/.

[16] Department of Defense. Joint Publication 3-02 Amphibious Operations, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/pubs/jp3_02.pdf, xiv.

[17] Coker, Christopher. Waging war without warriors?: The changing culture of military conflict. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

[18] Janssen, Jeff. “7 Times When ‘Addition by Subtraction’ Might Add Up for Your Team.” https://www.championshipcoachesnetwork.com/public/399.cfm#:~:text=%22Addition%20by%20Subtraction%22%20is%20a,with%20or%20inhibiting%20your%20success

[19] Axe, David. “Meet Your New Island-Hopping, Missile-Slinging U.S. Marine Corps.” Forbes. Last modified May 14, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2020/05/14/meet-your-new-island-hopping-missile-slinging-us-marine-corps/?sh=62b672f08dae

[20] Jackson, Kimberly, Katherine L. Kidder, Sean Mann, William H. Waggy II, Natasha Lander, and S. Rebecca Zimmerman, Raising the Flag: Implications of U.S. Military Approaches to General and Flag Officer Development. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4347.html, 104.

[21] Ryan, Mick. “The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition.” Joint Forces Quarterly, 96 1st Quarter 2020, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/jfq/jfq-96/JFQ-96_6-11_Ryan.pdf?ver=2020-02-07-150501-867

[22] Burke, Jeremy and Amalia Miller. “The Effects of Military Change-of-Station Moves on Spousal Earnings.” RAND Corporation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9920.html

[23] Kotter, John P., and Leonard A. Schlesinger. Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review, 1979.

[24] Holmes, James, “The U.S. Marine Corps Wants A Generation Of Free Thinkers.” Last modified December 20 , 2020. https://www.19fortyfive.com/2020/12/the-u-s-marine-corps-wants-a-generation-of-free-thinkers/

[25] Levy, Jack S. “Loss Aversion, Framing, and Bargaining: The Implications of Prospect Theory for International Conflict.” International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique 17, no. 2 (1996): 179-95. Accessed December 28, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1601302.

[26] McChrystal, Gen Stanley, Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell. Team of Teams: New rules of engagement for a complex world. Penguin, 2015.

[27] McChrystal, et. al,. Team of Teams.

[28] McChrystal, et. al,. Team of Teams, 162.

[29] McChrystal, et. al,. Team of Teams, 218.

[30] Eckstein, Megan. “CMC Berger Outlines How Marines Could Fight Submarines in the Future.” USNI News, September 8, 2020,  https://news.usni.org/2020/12/08/cmc-berger-outlines-how-marines-could-fight-submarines-in-the-future 

[31] Athey, Philip. “Steely Eyed Killers No More: What Will the Corps’ Culture Look like under the New Force Design?.” Marine Corps Times, September 18, 2020, https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2020/09/18/passive-defenders-orsteely-eyed-killers-what-will-the-corps-culture-look-like-under-new-force-design/

[32] Carroll, Clint. “Protecting the South China Sea.” Foreign Affairs.” Last modified June 9, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-06-09/protecting-south-china-sea

[33] Rapp-Hooper, Maria. “Confronting China in the South China Sea.” Foreign Affairs. Last modified February 8, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2016-02-08/confronting-china-south-china-sea

[34] Makocki, Michal, and Nicu Popescu. China and Russia: An Eastern Partnership in the Making? European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), 2016. 9-18. Accessed December 23, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep06942.5

[35] “‘Little Green Men:’ a primer on Modern Russian Unconventional Warfare, Ukraine 2013-2014.” The United States Army Special Operations Command Fort Bragg, North Carolina. https://www.jhuapl.edu/Content/documents/ARIS_LittleGreenMen.pdf.

[36] Schemm, Paul and Paul Sonne. “Near-collision between U.S. and Russian warships in Pacific requires emergency maneuvers.” The Washington Post. Last modified June 7, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/near-collision-between-us-and-russian-warships-in-pacific-require-emergency-maneuvers/2019/06/07/fa4d036e-890e-11e9-a870-b9c411dc4312_story.html

[37] Mahnken, Thomas G. “Cost-Imposing Strategies: A Brief Primer.” Last modified November 18, 2014. https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/cost-imposing-strategies-a-brief-primer

[38] Richmond, Gordon. “The Marines and America’s Special Operators: More Collaboration Required.” Last modified December 29, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/12/the-marines-and-americas-special-operators-more-collaboration-required/

[39] McGee, Captain Will. “Testing Force Design,” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 146/11/1,413, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2020/november/testing-force-design. 

[40] Brose, Christian. The Kill Chain: Defending America in the future of high-tech warfare, Hachette UK, 2020. 

Featured Image: An F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit takes off from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in support of Exercise Cobra Gold 2020. (U.S. Navy photo)

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.)

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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)