As a Marine who has spent more than a little time on U.S. warships, I have an abiding respect; a grudging affection for my brothers and sisters in our Navy. I’ve seen first-hand the capability and utility of our sailors in shore establishments, Naval Aviation, surface combatants, submarines and those reviled—especially by Marines—haze-grey hotels of our gator fleet. If you’re missing the drift here, let me say it loud and proud: I’m a big fan of our sailors. As for the U.S. Navy itself these days, particularly the high-level leadership, not so much.
There are a series of things that prompt this reflection and a sneaking suspicion that our Navy is steering into heavy seas without a reliable course and too many politically-correct hands on the rudder. Here’s thing one: In a post-Middle East, serious combat scenario, we are told the big swing in military thinking includes a new—more accurately renewed—emphasis on and concern with events in and around the broad expanses of the Pacific. It’s called the Pacific Pivot and we don’t need Google Earth to understand it’s going to mainly be a sea service show as it was before, during, and immediately after World War II. All of our services will play a role in the new strategy; laser-focused on containing the expanding influence of China and surrogates in the area as well dealing with an increasing incidence of seaborne banditry, piracy, and other threats to vital international commerce. The heavy lifting in the Pacific will be done by our Navy ships at sea and the Marines too few of them carry. If there’s ever been a time when our Navy needs to go quietly and competently to General Quarters and show their vaunted professionalism, this is it.
Now for thing two: How to get it done in face of budget and personnel reductions? Listen to the brass currently crying a very loud poor-ass and you’d think it simply can’t be done. At least not until a stingy Congress cuts loose a big gob of money to keep the fleets from sinking and sailors from starving. I think that’s simplistic and puts too much emphasis on gear and gadgets. Where are the old sea dogs who consistently did so much with so little in the history of our Navy? Where are the fleet commanders who turn to with a will rather than a wish-list and tell their skippers if it floats it fights? Where is the spirit that used to infuse sailors with a perverse pride in getting the repairs and maintenance work done while underway rather than waiting for the civilian sand-crabs to install a new series of black boxes? Is something like that impossible or impractical in today’s high-tech Navy? I’m not buying it.
I’m enough of a realist to understand that we have problems with an aging surface and submarine fleet in need of costly repair. I know that many of our older vessels really need to be replaced by new construction. I get it that the Nasal Radiators want—maybe even need—newer and better aircraft to handle increasing missions, but not a whole lot of that is going to happen while the budget axe remains sharp and spending emphasis shifts to domestic issues. The answer is to take a strain and keep the ships at sea and the aircraft flying with what’s at hand and not what’s wanted or needed. Our sailors have done that for years and they’ll do it again with the appropriate inspiration.
And that brings me to thing three: Our sailors need real big-picture inspiration, reassurance, and affirmative leadership so they can concentrate on doing so much with so little. I’m not talking here about promotions, pay raises, and chest candy. I’m not talking about another ill-conceived uniform change that leaves sailors looking like sea-going grunts and makes our surface ships look like some sort of insidious blue algae has sprouted on their decks. I am talking about the sort of can-do spirit that starts at the top and trickles down through the goat lockers and onto the deckplates of our fleets and other naval commands. It’s time for our sailors to start looking backward into their colorful history as they look forward to more missions and fewer assets.
It’s past time to put a little of the salt and swagger back into our sailors which will give them the fighting spirit to deal with the bad news that seems to permeate their command structure with a series of high-level officer and enlisted firings “for cause” or “lack of confidence.” Smart sailors—and we have a bunch of them—need look no further than their own history, and a good place to start is with seagoing icons like Captain James Lawrence. There are rafts of others that epitomize our Navy’s flank speed and close with the enemy traditions but for me Lawrence occupies a special place in the muster of inspirational American sailors. Captain Lawrence is most famous for what he said during a ball-buster of a fight when his out-gunned USS Chesapeake traded broadsides with the British man-of-war HMS Shannon during the War of 1812. As he was carried below after being wounded in the brutal exchange of fire, Lawrence famously told his crew to “fight her until she sinks.”
His most memorable remark in the most desperate of situations was “Don’t give up the ship!” In these times of continued stress and strain, our sailors would do well to adopt those words as a war cry that resounds through the various commands and out into the American public who expect so much and appreciate so little of what the Navy provides in defense of this nation. It’s hard for me to imagine Captain James Lawrence putting to sea and perceiving both his ship and his crew as a “global force for good.” It’s time to deep-six that politically-correct slogan and imbue sailors with the true American Navy fighting spirit. What’s needed is top-down confidence in the ability of sailors to keep ’em floating and keep ’em flying. It’s time for our Navy to square away, find the spirit of their forefathers, and never give up the ship even if that means less money and more sweat. A new slogan would be a good start and it should fairly ring with martial spirit and pride. Our Navy is—and always should be—a global force for closing with an enemy and knocking the hell out of them or sinking them on the spot