The Navy’s former top civilian has rocked the service in a military journal article by accusing officials of sinking the storied naval air branch into a sea of political correctness.
Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, himself a former carrier-based aviator, wrote that the swagger and daring of yesterday’s culture has given way to a focus on integrating women and, this year, gays.
Pilots constantly worry about anonymous complaints about salty language, while squadron commanders are awash in bureaucratic requirements for reports and statistics, he added.
“Those attributes of naval aviators — willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger — that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy,” said Mr. Lehman, who led the Navy in the Reagan administration.
“The political correctness thought police, like Inspector Javert in ‘Les Miserables,’ are out to get them and are relentless.”
Navy pilots have complained privately for years that a post-Tailhook Convention push to clean up conduct by aviators went too far.
The 1991 Las Vegas convention has stood as a black mark for the Navy because some naval aviators engaged in lewd escapades and excessive drinking.
An ensuing Pentagon investigation ballooned into one of the government’s most extensive probes, as scores of officers were targeted and had their careers shortened. Feminists used the scandal to demand a change in Navy culture.
Now, Mr. Lehman, a New York investor who served as a bombardier navigator in A-6 Intruders, has aired in public what active-duty pilots dare not say.
His lengthy article adorns the home page of the magazine Proceedings, a forum for active-duty and retired personnel on naval issues. Proceedings is published by the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent association located at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“Once standards of common sense were ignored in favor of political correctness, there were no limits to the spread of its domination,” Mr. Lehman wrote.
“Not only have alcohol infractions anonymously reported on the hot line become career-enders, but suspicions of sexual harassment, homophobia, telling of risque jokes, and speech likely to offend favored groups all find their way into fitness reports.
“And if actual hot-line investigations are then launched, that is usually the end of a career, regardless of the outcome. There is now zero tolerance for any missteps in these areas.”
The Lehman broadside coincides with the celebrations this year at military bases across the country of the 100th anniversary of naval aviation.
That celebration, too, got caught up this year in charges of political correctness. The foundation in charge of anniversary events posted a history online that emphasized women and minority advancement in naval air.
It virtually ignored the major air battles of World War II and Vietnam, where the role of aircraft-carrier operations gained prominence. A number of retired aviators protested, prompting the foundation to pull the presentation and write a new one.
Then there was the case of Capt. Owen Honors. The Navy fired him as commanding officer of the carrier USS Enterprise, after onboard raunchy videos he produced in 2006 and 2007 as morale boosters became public. Again, the Navy’s critics leveled charges of political correctness.
Also this year, some aviators circulated a rogue uniform patch depicting the naval aviation culture as dead.
The Lehman article has stirred emotions on both sides of the debate.
A spokesman for Naval Air Forces Atlantic in Norfolk, Va., declined to comment, but the Navy is pushing back.
At the Tailhook Association’s annual convention in Reno, Nev., this month, some active-duty admirals expressed their displeasure with Mr. Lehman’s allegations, according to a retired flier who attended.
Some current aviators are defending the Navy’s “officer-and-a-gentleman” push.
Lt. Christopher “Chandler” Moran, who identified himself as an eight-year naval aviator, posted a comment on Proceedings vouching for the current culture.
“Yes, perhaps we have some training that seems like a waste of time, but I’m not sure what exactly is wrong with being respectful of people who weren’t previously allowed into the community,” Lt. Moran wrote.
“Yes, perhaps some people who might have been good leaders are no longer in the community, … but to say that the community is worse off is to marginalize all of the new members of the community.
“And trust me, regardless of who you are or what you believe in, you still need a thick skin in naval aviation,” he added.
“You will get made fun of regardless of who you are. Women know this, homosexuals know this, everyone knows this. That part of the culture will not change.
“To assume that every women gets offended at every joke is not only ridiculous, but is rude to women. Respect is the real issue, and should we naval aviators not be called to a high level of respect.”
Most posts agreed with Mr. Lehman.
A retired officer wrote that Lt. Moran’s post was “filled with feminine hyperbole and the fruits of political correctness.”
Jon Ault, a retired F-14 Tomcat pilot, said Mr. Lehman is publicly airing what a lot of fliers think but can’t say.
“This country needs the ‘hot shots,’ the warriors, the big egos, the guys who are awarded medals of honor for running into, not away from, conflict.” he told The Washington Times.
“As much as people hate us during peacetime, and as much as they love the daring bravado during times of strife, the need for such men will always be there.
“If we continue to suppress the warrior spirit, there will be no one left to defend the Constitution of the United States and we shall perish as a nation.”