Build­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of naval he­roes

A good sailor can avoid ac­ci­dents, but those who can win bat­tles are rare

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Gary An­der­son

Give me a fast ship, for I in­tend to go in harm’s way.” That has been the unof­fi­cial motto of the U.S. Navy since the time of John Paul Jones. The Navy de­mands that those who cap­tain its ships be safe and ex­cel­lent sea­men in peace­time and ag­gres­sive and coura­geous in war, but mak­ing that tran­si­tion can be a chal­lenge. This is par­tic­u­larly true when there are decades be­tween ma­jor naval wars. The re­cent col­li­sion be­tween the USS Fitzger­ald and a cargo ship high­lights that conundrum.

Un­less there are ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, the Fitzger­ald’s cap­tain will likely be re­lieved even though he was ap­par­ently asleep in his sea cabin when the col­li­sion oc­curred. A Navy cap­tain is re­spon­si­ble for set­ting the con­di­tions for the safe han­dling of his ship whether he is on the bridge or not.

Only the best of the best of naval of­fi­cers are given com­mand of our ships. They are the clos­est thing to ab­so­lute rulers that this democ­racy pro­duces. But with great power comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity. In the Dar­winian world of naval op­er­a­tions, there can be no ex­cuse for fail­ure. In peace­time, safe ship han­dling is the stan­dard of ex­cel­lence; in wartime, vic­tory at any cost be­comes the stan­dard. That men­tal tran­si­tion is of­ten hard for some to make.

Only the best of the best of naval of­fi­cers are given com­mand of our ships. They are the clos­est thing to ab­so­lute rulers that this democ­racy pro­duces.

The ship’s Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer took over com­mand when the in­jured cap­tain was med­i­cally evac­u­ated and saved the ship by mak­ing the hard de­ci­sion to seal off the flood­ing berthing cabin where seven sailors were

them with men not afraid of risk tak­ing. Men like Ch­ester Nimitz, Wil­liam Halsey, and Dan Cal­laghan would likely not have been pro­moted past ju­nior of­fi­cer rank in to­day’s com­pet­i­tive naval pro­mo­tion en­vi­ron­ment. Nimitz and Cal­laghan were court-mar­tialed early in their ca­reers. Halsey was a no­to­ri­ous hard drinker and wom­an­izer. Th­ese three each took enor­mous cal­cu­lated risks that lifted the Navy out of the in­famy of Pearl Har­bor and the loss of the Philip­pines.

Halsey’s ships launched the Doolit­tle raid on Ja­pan that raised Amer­i­can spir­its at the dark­est time of the war. Nimitz made the gutsy de­ci­sion to make a stand against a su­pe­rior Ja­panese fleet at Mid­way and won a bat­tle that proved to be the turn­ing point of the Pa­cific War. Cal­laghan died lead­ing his heav­ily out­num­bered fleet in a bat­tle that proved to be key in sav­ing the em­bat­tled marines on Guadal­canal af­ter their less ag­gres­sive old school pre­de­ces­sors had with­drawn from the bat­tle area.

To­day, we are seven decades from the last great naval bat­tles of World War II. That is al­most as long as the pe­riod be­tween the bat­tles of Mo­bile Bay and Mid­way. The Navy’s chal­lenge is to walk the fine line be­tween en­cour­ag­ing com­pe­tent sea­man­ship and iden­ti­fy­ing the kind of of­fi­cers with the ag­gres­sive­ness and abil­ity to take cal­cu­lated risks in pe­ri­ods of high stress.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that the Navy en­cour­age al­co­hol abuse, in­fi­delity, or ran­dom reck­less­ness in ship han­dling; but I am sug­gest­ing that the Navy work to avoid a zero de­fects men­tal­ity. The Navy could make a start at do­ing this by mak­ing com­pet­i­tive war games a graded event at the Naval War Col­lege. Those prospec­tive fu­ture com­man­ders who do well in such high pres­sure graded events could be iden­ti­fied fairly early. If they sur­vive peace­time com­mand at sea, the best among th­ese can tagged for wartime com­mand po­si­tions if con­flict breaks out.

Adm. Nel­son, Great Bri­tain’s great­est naval hero once said, “No cap­tain can­not be very wrong if he places his ship along­side that of the en­emy.” Our Navy needs to iden­tify its next gen­er­a­tion of com­bat com­man­ders early and cul­ti­vate them. Any good sailor can avoid ac­ci­dents. Those who can win bat­tles are rare.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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