- - Sunday, November 20, 2016


One has to wonder what is going on inside the U.S. Navy. A recent survey of U.S. Navy personnel delivered sobering news to out-going Obama Navy leadership. In arresting phrases, the September 2016 survey found that sailors are “increasingly unhappy with lengthy deployments, high operational tempo, and calls to reduce pay and benefits,” and not interested in being pawns on a political correctness chessboard. That is not what they signed up for.

Specifically, the survey found, “Sailors are most likely to leave uniformed service because of poor work/life balance, low servicewide morale. waning desire to hold senior leadership positions, and a widespread distrust of senior leadership, all of which erodes loyalty to the institution.”

Wow. Now, there is a shot across the bow, if ever there was one. At a time when more is being asked of Navy personnel, as they are made tip of the spear globally, and when Navy morale must be high in order to deter and defeat state and non-state terrorism, adventurism and regional territory grabbing, they are not in a good frame of mind.

Why not, how did we get here, and how do we get out? The “why not” is self-evident. Morale — in any institution — rises and falls with leadership. Poor leadership, no morale. The more leaders understand and care about their people, focusing on what matters to their people, clearing chokepoints for growth, achievement, training and advancement, the better any organization works — private or public. The less they do this, the more morale is eroded. Colin Powell taught us how to do it right; Secretary Mabus apparently skipped class that day.

How did we get here, with an historically proud fighting force, in a time of enormous need, and high stakes for the Navy and nation? The answer is that we lost perspective — that is, leadership appears to have become distracted or dissuaded from traditional ways of inspiring, rewarding, reinforcing and guiding men and women. Instead, leadership became enamored with domestic political ends and social engineering, forgetting to inspire and reward the resolve of men and women in uniform.

From abolishing the suffix “-man” on Navy ratings and abandoning 240 years of history, to prioritizing “transgender” training, sex changes and bathrooms on submarines, leadership has misidentified priorities at best, wholly misunderstood them at worst. Lost has been the critical focus on longstanding principles — with strategic and immediate implications. Missing has been an unblinking focus on capabilities, readiness, alignment of skills and assets with needs and threats, and especially on Navy morale — in a word, on the majority of personnel, on people.

By way of principles, the Navy is built on respect, as well as tradition, honor, courage and commitment. Literally, every sailor I ever worked with respected every other. No kidding, that is how it was and should be. We needed each other, trusted each other, understood that the mission was bigger than all of us — and that our leadership was behind us. The ethos was meritocracy, achievement, mutual support, and mission focus — which produced confidence in each other. And high morale. High morale, in turn, made us better at our jobs.

Ironically, the putative reason for focusing on transgender bathrooms, according to Navy Personnel Command, is that “Service members are expected to maintain standards of conduct and treat each other with dignity and respect.” Somehow, this seems like creation of a problem where there was none, and finding a solution that repeats existing policy, all to the exclusion of pressing needs.

And what are those strategic and immediate needs? Start at the top: a complete and honest (that is, non-political) review of force structure, global readiness, procurement reform, advanced threat analysis, cybersecurity, budget alignment with threats, building ships that work, building enough to match strategy, aircraft carrier completion and deployment, intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance integration, improved expeditionary force preparation, anticipatory U.S. ship basing, and half a dozen other strategic priorities.

So, what is the way out? The next administration needs to focus on the Navy not as a social experiment, not as a way of pulling in fringe votes for fringe candidates, but as a group of professionals, selfless and committed, patriotic and hard-working, mission-focused and mutually respecting. They deserve good leadership, leaders devoted to them and to their success, not to political agendas. Individual careers matter, and so does the mission to which individuals devote their lives, assuring America’s national security.

The sooner we return to that reality, baseline for all else, the sooner the United States Navy will begin returning surveys that show a sense of satisfaction, and even pride, in the life that members — uniformed and civilian — have chosen. This seems a worthy aim, a sound goal for the Trump administration.

Robert Charles, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, was assistant secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration.

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