The British Navy ruled the seas and built an empire with wooden ships and iron men. The United States Navy fought and won World War II with iron ships manned by iron men. Sadly, today’s Navy more resembles iron ships manned by girly men — (and many of them are girls).
In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to read the results of Navy command climate surveys designed to take the temperature of morale among the crews of various ships. I haven’t experienced such whining since the last time I housebroke a puppy. From the nature of the complaints, I’d say that the worst day experienced by the sailors aboard ships surveyed would be a pretty good day in a Marine Corps infantry battalion or aircraft squadron.
The problem with the Navy is that many of its enlisted sailors are millennial snowflakes who still think and act like civilians. Their great-grandfathers worked 12-hour shifts, and sometimes remained at battle stations for days at a time. Discipline was tough and the failure to meet standards was time in the brig on bread and water.
These kids seem to want a participation trophy for just showing up for duty. Something is badly wrong here. I would not be surprised if one of the main findings of the investigations into the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions was that most of the command watch crews were glued to computer consoles instead of actually looking out the windows on the bridge.
It is not the fault of the young men and women who serve. They were brought up in an environment where most were told that they are exceptional by their parents. Reared on computers and smart phones, many will communicate by text or tweet even with people in the same room. Failure is not an option, because most have never been allowed to fail.
All of this garbage should have been beaten out of them in boot camp, but it has not been. The Navy has decided to cater to millennial tastes in recruiting and training; the same snowflake that drifts into boot camp gently floats out. Rather than accommodate the millennials, the Navy should be fundamentally transforming them.
Contrast this with the Marine Corps. A Marine going through boot camp in 1917 would probably not experience much culture shock if he was fast forwarded in time to 2017. The Marine Corps spends the first few weeks of boot camp literally knocking out every vestige of civilian society out of a recruit, and then systematically building him or her back in its own image.
That approach worked as well with Depression-era day laborers and New York street thugs in World War II as it did with spoiled baby boomers during the war in Vietnam. Even in the depths of the Vietnam morass the Marine Corps recruiting themes stressed messages such as “we never promised you a rose garden” and if everyone could be a Marine, it would not be the Marine Corps.”
There is nothing basically wrong with Navy officer leadership, the core of which consists of Navy ROTC and Naval Academy graduates. They have four years of indoctrination, training and education that well prepares them for life at sea. The Navy needs to go back to a strict and challenging boot camp approach that will prepare sailors for the rigors and challenges of sea duty. There is also a role for non-military oriented millennials in national defense as their computer and IT skills are increasingly in demand, but sea duty is far different.
Sailors must be prepared to operate at little or no notice in an intense, high-stress environment where instant obedience to orders may spell the difference between life and death for them and their ship. The Navy must reorganize its basic training to reinstate the “bluejacket” ethic that prevailed until the end of the Vietnam War.
If it is to create the sea change necessary to turn directionless millennials into hardened sea warriors, significant changes need to be made in basic training. Most of the mid-level chiefs who are drill instructors are millennials themselves. The Navy would be well-advised to hire some retired Marine Corps drill instructors until it can create a cadre of its own.
Every generation thinks that the next one is lacking in something. That is human nature, but the American military has generally found a way to take civilians and turn them into competent soldiers and sailors. It is not too late for our Navy to do so.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel and was a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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